Electric cars won’t break our fossil fuel dependency

The future. Image: Getty.

The gulf between what scientists say is needed to save the planet and what governments actually agree keeps growing. International climate talks held last month in Katowice, Poland, were no exception.

At the summit, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined forces to water down recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, Australia celebrated coal, Brazil pushed to weaken rules on carbon markets. 

It’s no surprise that an increasing number of people think that tackling global warming cannot be left to national governments alone. Some have begun looking to local government and community initiatives. Others resort to direct action against the perceived treachery of political elites.

Knowledge of the past is a powerful weapon for those hoping to shape the planet’s future. Cutting fossil fuel consumption requires an understanding of its relentless expansion since the mid-20th century.

We can start with the technological systems and infrastructures that consume fossil fuels; cars, electricity, heating and buildings. Moving away from fossil fuels will require transforming these infrastructures and the social and economic systems in which we live.

Take cars, for example. Technological change helped catapult them to prominence: together with steam turbines and electricity networks, the internal combustion engine was one of the great innovations of the second industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

But it took social and economic change to make cars the predominant mode of urban transport. In the 1920s, US car manufacturers pioneered automated assembly lines, transforming cars from luxury items to mass consumer products. Manufacturers used political muscle to side-line and sabotage competing forms of transport, including sidecars, buses and railways.

Car use exploded during America’s post-war boom thanks to huge state investment in highways. Suburbia proliferated and spread internationally, as some other rich countries embraced this pattern of urban development.

But by the 1980s, the car boom had become a traffic jam. At home in the US, manufacturers mounted effective resistance to the state’s sporadic attempts at regulating fuel efficiency, and gas-guzzling SUVs arrived.


Today, those working to create carbon-free cities are confronted with the economic and social structures that have normalised car use.

The current fixation with electric and driverless cars is an example of spurious technological fixes obscuring the reality that moving away from fossil fuels requires systemic social and economic change.

Using electric cars probably won’t cut carbon emissions much – or at all – unless electricity is generated entirely from renewables. And while countries like Germany and Spain have taken important steps to raise the proportion of renewable electricity, the hard part is yet to come: creating systems that rely mostly, or entirely, on renewable electricity.

Cities must become places where transport systems don’t depend on cars. While trams, walkways and bicycle-friendly infrastructures can help towards this end, the central function of electric cars is preserving manufacturer’s profits.

As with cars, so with urban electricity, heating systems, and built environments: technological change to reduce fossil fuel use must go hand in hand with broader social and economic change.

Like cars, electricity systems were a great innovation of the late nineteenth century.

Their first phase of development culminated in the post-war boom and depended on large, centralised power stations that were usually coal-fired.

Since the 1980s, a third industrial revolution that produced networked computers and internet enabled devices has made it possible to supersede the centralised networks that relied on fossil fuels. Now we have the potential for integrated, decentralised systems reliant on multiple energy sources – including renewables like solar and heat pumps, and wind turbines.

Yet this “smart grid” technology has scarcely been applied, despite three decades passing since the effects of global warming were first discovered. Why?

One explanation is that networks are operated by companies whose business model relies on selling as much electricity as possible. These companies are scared by the possibility of distributed generation systems, where networks collect electricity from multiple renewable sources. And community-based decentralised electricity ventures are forced to compete with these established corporations on unequal terms.

A briefing paper published last year by researchers at Imperial College, London, argued that moving the UK’s electricity and heat systems away from fossil fuels would require a “whole system approach” coordinated by “one single party”.

This implies that the dogmas of competition, which have favoured corporate providers rather than public sector responses, are obstructing the technologies needed to tackle global warming.

This is not a new problem. In 1976, following the oil price shock, sustainable energy advocate Amory Lovins spoke in the US Congress about “soft energy paths” that would combine a culture of energy efficiency and a transition to renewables.

He pointed to the “roads not taken” by governments, who were more inclined to defend incumbent corporate interests than use energy technologies wisely.

Forty years on, despite the threat of global warming, these issues still loom large. Social change, powerful enough to remove the obstructions to the transition from fossil fuels, is more urgent than ever.

Simon Pirani is author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press, 2018) and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.