Electric Cars Won't Save the City

Why electric cars aren't the answer to our problems

I still remember the first time I saw an electric car.

On holiday in Oslo with my boyfriend, we’d just caught the tram north from the city centre looking to explore Nordmarka, the forest that sits on the city outskirts. We hadn’t really seen many cars on our trip before then, and looking around I noticed something strange.

“Why are all the cars glowing blue?” I asked him.

He excitedly explained that all of the cars with the blue lights were electric. That’s how you could set them apart. For the rest of the trip we’d compete with each other to spot electric cars, the winner being the first to point and shout “there’s one!” at the telltale blue glow.

I remember it feeling kind of like being in the future. I imagined what London might be like, full of these silent, glowing vehicles moving about without poisoning the air. I wanted to be excited, but somewhere in the back of my mind I still had this niggling sense of discomfort. But back in the almost car-free Oslo city centre, the feeling left me and I forgot about it entirely.

Looking back now, with everything I’ve learnt over the past year, it’s really clear to me where that discomfort came from. But to this past version of myself, and to many other folk passionate about ending our reliance on fossil fuels, the idea that electric cars might still be problematic is, well, absurd. Many people I speak to see electric cars as the solution to so many urban problems: by making the switch we will clean up our air, quieten the roar of traffic, and live sustainable and guilt-free lives. Finally city living will look much more like those advertisements for cars that make up 90% of all TV ads — roads free of traffic, not a pedestrian, cyclist or red light in sight, nothing but clean air and empty tarmac as far as the eye can see.

But the thing is: electric cars are only the solution if you think the only problem with cars is what comes out of the exhaust pipe. And as to many of us know: cars cause much bigger problems than that. And electric cars will solve almost none of them. Don’t believe me? Let me prove it to you.

Let’s start with pollution. This is the point that advocates of electric cars are most proud of. And to an extent they are right: electric cars are considerably less polluting than cars that are powered by fossil fuels (commonly referred to as ICE cars, which is an easier and less nerdy way of saying cars with an internal combustion engine). This is because when an ICE burns fuel, it releases carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons into the air — causing everything from asthma to climate change to acid rain. It’s nasty stuff. And as a society we spend so much time talking about it that it’s unsurprising that many folk believe if we get rid of the fuel, we get rid of the problem. But sadly, that’s not the case. Because even though electric cars don’t produce any of those nitrogen oxides — they still produce a hell of a lot of pollution. But instead of coming from the exhaust pipe, it comes from their brakes and tyres.

Everytime we drive a car, we put strain on its wheels and its brakes. They strain causes teeny tiny pieces of the brake pads and tyres to break off and float up into the atmosphere, along with a bunch of dust from the road that has been collecting there for decades. These tiny bits of dust form what is called “small particle” pollution and while it might sound cute and harmless, you shouldn’t let the name fool you. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that 29,000 people a year die earlier than they should have done because of particle pollution. Replacing every car in the UK with electric vehicles won’t make that problem go away. Of course, ICE cars produce small particle pollution too, electric cars aren’t the sole bearer of this problem. But to believe they will solve the air pollution crisis in this country is naive.

And besides, air pollution isn’t the only way cars are killing us. Every year, 1800 people die in road collisions in the UK and tens of thousands more are seriously injured. To someone used to being bombarded with death tolls from COVID and natural disasters and distant wars this might not sound like much, but it really, really is. To put it another way, road collisions are almost the biggest killer of healthy Brits each year, second only to suicide. But if you’re aged between 5 and 25 years old, there’s nothing that’s more likely to kill you in this country. And so far, all the evidence suggests that a fully electrified fleet of cars in the UK will just lead to more crashes. Research shows electric cars are about 40% more likely to hit a pedestrian than an ICE car - because the things are so damned quiet. What’s good for birdsong is bad for staying alive. This isn’t helped by the fact that on average, electric cars tend to be 10-20% heavier than their ICE counterparts. And the heavier a car is, the more likely it is to kill you when a driver hits you with it. My guess is the lack of exhaust fumes will be little consolation to the future victims of electric car crashes.

And there’s one more major problem in our cities that electric cars won’t solve: congestion. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam that’s transformed a journey that could have been a 10 minute walk into a 40 minute interactive theatre performance of what being in hell must be like — it will make no difference to you whether the cars around you are electric or not. It is plainly clear to anyone who has driven in a city recently that there are too many cars for our roads to handle: and that won’t change regardless of how they’re powered. We can’t drive our way out of our traffic problems. Instead, we need to help as many as people as possible trade in their cars and walk, cycle or use public transport instead. But with every new car, electric or otherwise, on our roads, we’re making it harder and harder for people to make that choice. No one wants to sit on a crowded bus for an hour. No one wants to feel like they’re taking their life into their hands when they ride a bike. No one wants to worry if a car will come speeding around the corner and wipe them out as they walk across an intersection. We can’t entice people into sustainable forms of travel if we fill our roads with cars — even if they are electric.

So yes, electric cars aren’t as problematic as ICE cars — in the same way that burning down your kitchen isn’t as annoying as burning down your entire house — but given the choice you might prefer to avoid the fire situation altogether. Luckily for us, we do have that choice. We don’t have to make the mistake of filling our roads with electric cars and then wondering how we went so wrong. We can avoid that step on the path to sustainability altogether. All we need to do is invest in the things we know help people give up their cars: like protected cycling infrastructure, enjoyable walking routes, and efficient and reliable public transportation. That’s what our future should hold.