With better urban transport carbon emissions will drop and our air will be healthier. Here’s how we can head further down the road to the cities — and the climate — of the future.


>> “Climate Solutions” is also available as a podcast and an e-book.


By Neil Valentine, Merijn Martens and Birgitte Keulen

Close your eyes and imagine a city without traffic jams. Cars’ honking and screeching are gone, and vehicles hum along softly. The only real nuisance is the occasional cries of children playing football. You take a deep breath. The burnt smell in the air has been replaced by the sweet scent of fresh earth. Your child’s persistent cough has quieted, and your eyes no longer  sting.

We have a lot to gain in the fight against carbon emissions and other nuisances from transport. Cities have not always been the healthiest places to live, but that is changing. Good sanitation, industry regulation and better vehicle standards have already improved city life remarkably. But more can be done.  

Electric vehicles

Goodbye to tailpipe emissions 

The fight against climate change and the decarbonisation of transport can bring untold benefits to cities.  Among others things, the transition to electric vehicles will put a stop to tailpipe emissions. An electric vehicle isn’t only cleaner than an internal combustion vehicle, it’s also more efficient. In rough terms, electric vehicles consume one-third of the energy of traditional cars.

While the market penetration of electric cars is still low, their numbers are growing exponentially. In 2018, the number of electric vehicles on the road surged to 5.1 million, up 2 million from 2017. Most of those electrical vehicles, 45%, were in China, with the European Union making up 24% and the United States 22%, according to the International Energy Agency. While the growth is impressive, electric vehicles still represent only a small fraction of the more than 1 billion cars on the road.

Some European countries are changing that. Norway is one of the most successful countries in adopting electric vehicles. In 2019, for the first time ever, fully electric vehicles accounted for the the majority of new car sales. In the Netherlands, the market share of electric cars is increasing fast. In June 2019, the Tesla Model 3 became the top selling model in the Netherlands.

Europe has also made progress addressing the other part of the electric puzzle: the charging infrastructure. The number of charging stations in the European Union surged from a mere 3 800 in 2011 to more than 150 000 expected by the end of 2019. The rollout is being fuelled by projects like Enel X Mobility, which plans to install 14 000 charging stations in Italy by 2022. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is supporting the project with a €115 million loan. Other similar projects are also receiving EIB support, like Allego and GreenWay.   

The challenges for electrification

While all this is good news, electric vehicles still face many challenges. For one, the costs of batteries have to come down for electric cars to be as affordable as conventional cars. Progress is encouraging. Data from BNEF, Bloomberg’s research service, shows that the electric car prices have fallen 85% from 2010 to 2018.

Another challenge is transforming vehicle manufacturing and transport infrastructure, both public and private. That transformation will require massive investment. In a white paper, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), analysed the costs, benefits and necessary government funding to transition passenger vehicles to zero emissions. The ICCT reported that through mid-2018, carmakers had already announced more than $300 billion in investments. In the ICCT’s view, those investments will eventually pay for themselves through savings on fuel and maintenance. The benefits start to outweigh the investment costs by 2025 in the United States and by 2028 in Germany.

Zero tailpipe emissions’ does not mean ‘zero greenhouse gas emissions’

Electric cars still produce emissions. They just aren’t at the tailpipe.

The first source is electricity – and here there is a bit of good news. In Europe, emissions from electricity production have fallen steadily, from over 500 grams of carbon per kilowatt hour in 1990 to less than 300 grams of carbon per kilowatt hour in 2016. That decline means that electric cars produce less emissions per kilometre driven than conventional cars, throughout the European Union.

The manufacturing of electric vehicles is also a source of emissions. Making an electric car requires more energy than a conventional combustion engine car. This means more emissions, unless renewable energy is used. To tackle the problem, the EIB has been investing in companies like Sweden’s Northvolt, which makes electric batteries more efficiently. Asian companies had taken the lead on electric battery development, but it is not too late for Europe to catch up.

Zero tailpipe emissions’ does not equal ‘zero road emissions’

Some emissions do not add to our carbon footprint, but they do harm our air quality. Air pollution in Europe is still too high and continues to harm Europeans, especially those living in urban areas. Air pollution also has a considerable economic impact, cutting lives short, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity through work absences caused by illness.

Transport’s most important air pollutants are particles released by vehicles (PM 2.5 for the smallest particles and PM 10 for the slightly larger particles) and nitrogen dioxide. Electric vehicles do not combust fuels and therefore do not emit nitrogen dioxide or particles from the tailpipe, but that’s not the full story. 

Particle emissions also come from the wear on tyres and break pads. When absorbed by the humans, these particles cause damage. Electric vehicles are heavier than conventional vehicles, so there is concern that particle emissions may exceed those of traditional cars. Regenerative breaking, which allows the energy from a slowing car to flow back to the battery, may soon replace conventional breaks, which would cut down on pollution.

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Cars don’t fit well in cities

Even if all cars were electric, we would still have accidents and congestion.

Accidents

While road safety in the European Union has improved greatly in recent decades (EU roads are the safest in the world), the number of deaths and injuries is still far too high.

Technology may help here as well. The rapid progress made in technologies such as machine learning, real-time data transfer and artificial intelligence is transforming the automotive industry. These technological improvements have enabled the development of Connected Automated Vehicles. The deployment of these vehicles may be as revolutionary as the switch from horses to cars.

The prevalence of fully autonomous vehicles in the future is highly uncertain as adoption depends on a variety of factors, such as public acceptance, liability concerns and legislative constraints. The benefits and challenges of the wider deployment of autonomous vehicles has already been the subject of multiple research papers. Safety is one of the benefits often cited in these papers, since more than 90% of all accidents are caused by human error. But there are also drawbacks. With automated cars, the cost of time lost to traffic decreases (you can do something else), meaning some people might actually be willing to spend more time in a car – thus aggravating congestion instead of reducing it.

Stuck in traffic

In 2016, London drivers spent more than 73 peak hours in traffic jams, according to Inrix, which keeps an annual score card of traffic congestion worldwide. In Paris, drivers spent 65 peaks hours in jams, while in Moscow that number was 91. Los Angeles topped the list at 104. The high density of European cities requires transport to move more people in less space. If we all continue to drive our cars into the city, even if they are clean and safe, utopia will remain elusive.

Within dense urban environments, collective and shared transport modes, along with bikes (electric or traditional) and walking, are the most efficient forms of mobility. But people will only use these types of transport if they are easy, fast and affordable. We need to adapt our cities so that walking, cycling or public transport is feasible and cost effective for commuters. Improving the attractiveness of public transport will increase use, and make it easier to finance.

If we design our cities well, using public transport should get even easier. We already have immediate access to public transport data on our phones, through apps that tell us whether a bus, metro or tram is the fastest way to get to our destination. In addition, a plethora of shared transport services like bikes, electric scooters, small motorcycles and cars have appeared on our streets. Who knows what the future will bring. The challenge will be to develop these services so that they are a help and not a hindrance (blocked sidewalks, run-down pedestrians). We need to ensure that these new services do not cannibalize public transport and that they are safe.

Clean urban transport may sound like a fantasy, but cities across Europe and the world are taking steps to make it a reality. The technologies in themselves will not save the climate or make city life better, but if we manage them well, urban living could have a bright future. Transport is changing fast, and there are many ways to accelerate the transition. Most important, though, is creativity. A jet powered hoverboard (flyboard) has already crossed The Channel. What else can we invent?

New transport solutions are only limited by the power of our imagination.

Climate solutions: Mitigating transport emissions if you’re a…

Policymaker: Start to see everything through a carbon-neutral prism. Look at how you can improve your city planning to privilege developments linked to existing public transport or with small extensions. Support innovative companies that are trying to improve transport and work to make your infrastructure run on electric or some sort of renewable energy. If needed, offer subsidies for companies supplying public transport networks to help them convert to electric technology. And, create a safe space for pedestrians, cyclists, and others by building protected (bike) lanes.

Citizen: Think about your daily transport choices, including where you choose to live. Are there ways to get around without taking your car? Figure in the cost of parking and insurance before purchasing a car. Is it really worth it? Can you just use a car-sharing service instead? Walk and cycle. Think about whether you really need to go to that meeting, especially if you need to take a plane.

Financial institutions: Take a risk. Disruption comes in all shapes and forms, be open to ideas that seem improbable or even impossible. Help cities to calculate the true cost and benefits of converting transport systems to electric, so that they can make smart decisions. Support intelligent urban development that privileges self-contained communities that are well-connected to existing transport links. Consider if the investment fits in a decarbonised future.

Neil Valentine is head of Division for Urban Mobility. Merijn Martens is lead engineer in the same division, and Birgitte Keulen is senior engineer for regional transport programmes and coordinator of the Cleaner Transport Facility at the European Investment Bank.


>> “Climate Solutions” is also available as a podcast and an e-book.