21 Jun 2022

EVs may dominate the conversation, but let’s not forget the cleanest way to travel is still via public transport

There is no shortage in discussion around electric vehicles at the moment. Every day, there are new hopes, hazards, problems and plans to grace the news – so you’d be forgiven for thinking that EVs are an established norm, and that the fight for the electrification of our road networks, and therefore a green transport system, has been won.

The British Government certainly thinks so – and on the 15th June, the plug was pulled on the plug-in car grant scheme that helped people purchase new EVs. Instead, money will be spent on improving charging infrastructure, and encouraging vans, bikes, and other road users to go electric. This is certainly no bad thing.

However, all this active conversation does not mean that the electric revolution is here. Globally, we are still dangerously short of EVs if we want to meet our climate commitments; The Economist reports that just one in 70 cars are electric, and we need that figure to be one in six. We need many more cars to go electric.

Furthermore, all the excitement surrounding electric vehicles, charge anxiety, and superfast chargers are slightly distracting from the point: we need an electric revolution, but to be truly green, equitable, and net zero, we need an effective and affordable public transport network. Therefore – we should still be talking about smart public transport networks and better urban planning, as public transport is still the greenest way to get from A to B.

Progress so far

Although much is left to do, the UK has made leaps and bounds; the electric revolution is well on its way. There is now, according to the government, a mature market for ultra-low emission vehicles – and the sales of fully electric cars has gone from less than 1,000 in 2011 to almost 100,000 in the first 5 months of 2022 alone.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the conversation has progressed. Sceptics can no longer rely simply on unfounded and irrational claims, backed up only by their fear of change. Instead – research, studies and new technologies dominate the headlines, most of which are positive and fair. Even those we might cynically expect to oppose, or at least not embrace, the EV revolution, such as the right-wing press, are consistently publishing real information and important conversations on the topic; mostly devoid of regressive and reactionary misinformation and propaganda.

But are EVs really the future we need?

In fact, one might even be able to claim that it has gone too far the opposite way. The current public zeitgeist, at least when it comes to the media, the government and the automotive and transport industries, may be too positive about EVs.

They are absolutely essential for our net zero efforts, and are cleaner and can be just as practical as ‘gas’ cars. However, due to a dirty manufacturing process, EV supply chains produce more carbon than internal combustion engines (ICEs). This does not mean that EVs should not be embraced, but rather, that they are only much cleaner in the long term, and only after a minimum number of miles have been driven. Furthermore, it shows much more must be done to make battery production cleaner.

The future of transport is, therefore, not just electric vehicles – but instead still relies on much older and less exciting technologies: public transport. It produces less carbon than electric vehicles, and of course is more affordable for more people; as without a good public transport system, people who can’t afford EVs will resort to dirty, inefficient old ICE cars.

Don’t get me wrong, there is an essential role for electric cars – as there will always be a need for private transport. Yet, this needs to be viewed alongside a raft of other green and sustainable solutions should we want to reach net zero.

Unfortunately, public transport is just not profitable or exciting enough to capture the hearts or minds of those that dominate the conversations we see. Nowhere else can this self-interest and ego be better exemplified than Elon Musk’s tunnel under Las Vegas – which will ferry individual cars on a monorail system underground and to their destination.

If you think this modern take on a 19th century technology is just an inefficient, impractical, egotist’s take on an underground metro system, you’d be right.