Welcome to the future: What does the post-combustion engine era mean for our cities?

A car free day on the Champs-Elysee, Paris, May 2016. Image: Getty.

In 1879 Karl Benz was granted a patent for his internal combustion engine – and so began the era of the fossil fuel powered motor vehicle. Less than 150 years later, the end of that era is now in sight. We will all, quite literally, be able to breathe easier as a result.

But while a series of announcements in recent weeks by car manufacturers and politicians has signaled that the end of petrol and diesel cars is inevitable, the intended pace of change is still far too slow.

Air pollution, much of it the by-product of emissions from vehicles, causes more than 4.2m premature deaths each year. The same emissions that poison our air are also causing climate change. C40’s research has shown that the world’s largest cities need to peak emissions by 2020, with a big focus on their transport sectors, if there is any hope of delivering on the Paris Agreement and preventing catastrophic climate change.

There has been some progress in recent months in recognising the need for action on air pollution. Perhaps the most significant is that the UK and France have both pledged to ban the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and China is now set to follow suit.

The European Union has set a 2050 target of reducing emissions from the transport sector by 95 per cent. To deliver on this ambition means that every car, van, bus and lorry on the streets of European cities need to be zero emissions by 2050. As the average age of vehicles is 15 years, no diesel or petrol vehicle should be sold after 2035. A number of European cities are leading this drive, with Oslo aiming to provide 100 per cent renewable-energy powered public transport by 2020, and Amsterdam by 2025.

It is, today, Asian nations that are leading the revolution in low and zero carbon vehicles at scale: 98 per cent of global electric bus sales have been in China and Shenzhen, will achieve a fully electric bus fleet of 17,000 vehicles by the end of this year.  Overall, there are more electric vehicles on Chinese roads than any other country. India has also set a truly ambitious target to electrify all new vehicles by 2030, thereby setting a benchmark for other countries.

Cities are at the forefront of global efforts to address air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transport. London for example has brought forward its plans for an Ultra-Low Emission Zone to come into effect in 2019, charging the most polluting vehicles to enter the city. Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently announced that new taxis must be zero emissions capable in 2020 and that all buses will be zero emissions by 2037. London and 14 other C40 cities have gathered in Wuhan, China this week to learn from each other’s ideas and strategies for moving towards a cleaner mobility future.

These commitments from national and local governments need to be matched by those from industry. Several car manufacturers have made major announcements which reflect their realisation that the future of cars is electric. Volvo has pledged that from 2019 all new cars it launches will be electric or hybrid. Volkswagen, the world’s biggest car maker, is investing €20bn to offer an electric version of all its 300 models by 2030.


This is laudable, but still a long way from where we need to get to. As Volkswagen shifts away from diesel to hybrids in their smaller cars, it's important to recognise that a hybrid may have lower NOx (a major pollutant that is particularly dangerous to human health) but it often has the same CO2 emissions as the equivalent diesel car. Whilst this shift may improve air quality, it doesn’t address the climate impacts of that vehicle.

A zero-emission car is an even better choice – yet there will be a significant carbon footprint involved in the manufacture of that vehicle. The car makers need to take meaningful steps to decarbonise their production and supply chains.

Whilst car manufacturers are making significant commitments, it is evident that they are reacting to the leadership of mayors and other political leaders determined to address air quality and climate change.  When Erik Jonnaert, Secretary General of the European car industry association (ACEA) warns that, “We seem to go back to the Middle Ages where the cities were defining how things needed to be done,and instead called for an EU-wide approach to air quality, I seriously doubt it was because he hopes a Europe-wide policy would be stricter than the policies of Paris and London.

Ultimately, private cars will never be the best climate and clean air solution. Research shows that the dust and micro-particles released from tyres and brakes account for as much as 50 per cent of particulate matter pollution in our cities. While electrifying our vehicles is an important step in tackling air pollution and climate change, citizens will ultimately need to move beyond private cars and shift to mass transit – buses, trains, car share – and good old fashioned walking and cycling. Not only will this make our streets safer, quieter and more pleasant places to be, it will transform how our cities function for their citizens. Fewer cars mean more space for cyclists, pedestrians and the public to enjoy.

It is hard to believe that less than 150 years ago, no city on earth had ever seen a motor vehicle on its streets. Our cityscapes have become so dominated by the infrastructure and presence of cars. The shift to low and zero emission vehicles is now irreversible and will reshape our urban centres, maybe starting with the cities of Asia this time around.

Yet the reality of the climate crisis facing our planet means we need to imagine a transformation of our city streets that may be even more radical than the shift since Karl Benz first patented his internal combustion engine. A new era is truly just beginning.  

Mark Watts is executive director C40 Cities.

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To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.


But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.