The tipping point is coming: petrol engines are on the way out

Mmm, tasty. Image: Getty.

In a sentence I never thought I would write, Sadiq Khan just reminded me of Will Smith.

The mayor of London’s announcement today of the new T-Charge for older, dirtier car engines entering central London made me think of one scene from the otherwise largely average 2004 sci-fi film I, Robot.

In it, our protagonist, a misanthropic Chicago police officer played by Smith, turns up on a vintage motorbike. His co-star, Bridget Moynahan, reacts with horror at the sight – It is the year 2035 and all vehicles are now solely electric.

Just being in the presence of a petrol-powered means of transport dating from the early 21st-century fills Moynahan’s character with fear: she has become so used to electric propulsion that the idea of sitting astride a tank filled with a highly flammable liquid seems ridiculously dangerous.

This short moment has always stuck with me because it feels like the writers somehow got this spot on. Yes, we all know that, in reality, petrol engines are very safe. But it does feel inevitable that, however ubiquitous and normal they seem to us, future generations will look back with amazement that we spent over a century moving around by strapping ourselves to a tank full of a highly combustible fluid and then basically setting it on fire (readers with a better grasp of the workings of the internal combustion engine, feel free to write in).

Of course, the real reason fossil-fuelled transport will wither away is almost certainly not going to be because it’s dangerous to the user. In reality, it’s probably going to be a mixture of ratcheting up pressure to cut carbon emissions and the ever-decreasing cost of technologies like battery storage and fast-charging.

We’re clearly not there yet. While the number of alternative fuel cars, including electrics, sold in the UK hit has hit an all-time high, they still amount to only 4.2 per cent of all sales.

But at some point in the next 50 years (2035 feels a little ambitious, to be honest) there will be a tipping point. And I can easily believe that one or two generations after the shift to electric has set in, those who have grown-up in the post-petrol world will be so removed from the culture which made the petrol engine ubiquitous that the reasons we ever chose to drive them will feel impossibly remote.


What will truly baffle my grandchildren about our current transport technologies will not be that they could have been be dangerous to the user, but that they were unequivocally dangerous to everyone else. Just as those born in the 20th century and beyond grew up without questioning petrol engines, so we also accepted the emissions they churn out.

When you sit back and think about it, it is strange that we all just get along with the fact that our primary form of transport is only possible by spewing out provably noxious gases into the faces of those who live in our cities and towns. But for a few environmentalist cranks, for decade after decade we have mostly not even noticed the fact that petrol and diesel engines pollute our cities and poison our children.

Imagine a parallel universe where we had perfected the electric engine and battery storage in the early 20th century and fossil-fuel-free cars became the norm.

In this other world another version of Elon Musk announces he will pioneer a new form of propulsion. It will be more efficient than electric cars, allowing vehicles to travel hundreds more miles before they have to refuel. But it will also produce toxic fumes which will lead to thousands of premature deaths every year. Is that a proposition any city on earth would sign up for?

In recent years I have, without really noticing it, been shuffling towards that I, Robot inflection point myself. I grew up in central London and spent my life walking around this city breathing in everyone’s exhaust fumes without ever thinking about it. But today, as I cycle to and from work, I notice when the hatchback in front of me has a particularly wheezy exhaust. I instinctively try to avoid getting stuck behind a van belching out diesel smoke. I am alive to, and increasingly angered by, the way other people’s choice of personal transport poisons my city’s air.

In 1956 we decided we would no longer just accept London’s punishing smogs as a fact of life, as generations of Londoners had done for centuries, and legislated to stop companies and households from polluting the air.

It feels unfair, almost absurd even, that in 2017, sixty-one years later, we still allow drivers to pump out exhaust gases which contribute to 9400 premature deaths each year in the capital alone.

But things are changing. Sadiq Khan has made improving London’s air quality a central plank of his mayoralty, and has just effectively doubled the congestion charge for the most-polluting cars. High pollution levels now make the evening news. It’s common knowledge that London had breached its annual legal limit for toxic air by the 6 January.

Maybe this is wishful thinking, but it no longer feels unrealistic to think that this tipping point is coming. Hopefully, in the near future ordinary people, not tree-huggers or activists, will decide that breathing in filthy air is no longer a price worth paying for the privilege of burning petrol to get from A to B.

Almost everyone now thinks fossil-fuelled vehicles are on their way out. But I would not be surprised if public tolerance of the way they destroy our air quality actually drains away faster than Tesla and others can replace them. 

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.