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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What would an extended Glasgow Subway look like?

West Street station. Image: Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many notable things about Glasgow’s historic Subway.

It is the third oldest in the world. It is the only one in the UK that runs entirely underground. It runs on a rare 4ft gauge. For reasons passing human understanding, it shuts at teatime on a Sunday.

But more significantly, it’s the only metro system never to have been expanded since its original development. A couple of stations have come and gone in the 122 years since the Subway opened (and promptly shut again following a serious accident before the first day was out). But Glasgow’s Subway has remained a frustratingly closed loop. Indeed, while a Scottish newspaper recently estimated there have been more than 50 proposed new stations for Glasgow's iconic Subway since it first opened, all we’ve had are a couple of replacements for closed stops. 

The original route map. Image: SPT.

It’s not for a lack of trying, or at the least discussion. Glasgow’s SNP-led council pledged a major expansion of the Subway as part of their election pledge last year, for example, vowing to find the funding to take the network beyond the existing route.

All this sounds very familiar, of course. A decade ago, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in mind, operators SPT began looking into a near-£3bn expansion of the Subway into the East End of the city, primarily to serve the new Velodrome complex and Celtic Park.

In the end, the plans — like so many discussed for expanding the Subway – failed to materialised, despite then SPT chairman Alistair Watson claiming at the time: “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

As detailed previously on CityMetric, that extension would have seen seven new stations being opened along a second, eastern-centric loop, crossing over with the original Subway at two city centre sites. Had that gone ahead, we would by now have had a new route looking something like this:

The 2007 proposals for an eastern circle. Image: Iain Hepburn.

St Mungo’s would have been close to Glasgow Cathedral. Onslow, presumably located on or near Onslow Drive, would have principally served Dennistoun, as would have a link-up with the existing Duke St overground station.

Gorbals, benefiting from the ongoing redevelopment and residential expansion that’s all but erased it’s No Mean City reputation, would have gained a station, while Newhall would have been next to Glasgow Green. Dalmarnock station would, like Duke Street, become an interchange with Scotrail’s services, while crucially Celtic Park would have gained the final stop, serving both the football stadium, the nearby Emirates Arena and velodrome, and the Forge shopping centre.


Those plans, though, were drawn up more than a decade ago. And if the SNP administration is serious about looking again at the expansion of the Subway, then there’s more than a few changes needing made to those plans.

For starters, one stop at the far end of the loop serving Celtic, the new sports arenas and the Forge feels a bit like underselling the area, particularly with so much new residential development nearby.

Two feels more realistic: one serving the Forge and the rest of Dennistoun, and the other sited on London Road to serve the mass volumes of football and sports traffic. And if Ibrox can have a stop, then it seems churlish not to give the other of the Old Firm clubs their own named halt.

That’s another thing. The naming of the proposed stations is… arbitrary, to say the least. You’d struggle to find many Glaswegians who’d immediately identify where Newhall or Onslow were, off the top of their head. 

The former, especially, seems like there’s a more natural alternative name, Glasgow Green; while the latter, with a second Forge stop also serving Dennistoun, would perhaps benefit from named for the nearby Alexandra Place and park.

(Actually, if we’re renaming stations from their unlikely original choices, let’s say goodbye Hillhead and a big hiya to Byres Road on the original Subway while we’re at it…)

So, what would a realistic, 2017-developed version of that original 2007 proposal give us? Probably something like this:

Better. Image: Iain Hepburn.

One glaring issue with the original 2007 study was the crossover with the… let’s call it the Western Subway. The original proposal had St Enoch and Buchanan St as the crossover points, meaning that, if you wanted to go out east from, say, the Shields Road park and ride, you had to go into town and double back. 

Using Bridge Street as a third interchange feels a more realistic, and sensible, approach to alleviating city centre crowding and making the journey convenient for folk travelling directly from west to east.

There’s a good case to be made for another south east of the river station, depending on where the Gorbals stop is sited. But these are austere times and with the cost of the expansion now likely more than £5bn at current rates, an expanded Bridge Street would do much of that legwork.

Putting all that together, you’d end up with something looking like this:

 

Ooooh. Image: Iain Hepburn.

Ahead of last year’s election, SNP councillor Kenny McLean vowed the party “[would] look at possible extension of the Subway and consider innovative funding methods, such as City Bonds, to fund this work. The subway is over 120 years old. It is high time that we look to connect communities in the north and east of Glasgow.”

Whether Glasgow could raise the £5bn it would probably need to make the 2007 proposal, or an updated variation of it remains, to be seen. And this still doesn’t solve how many places are left off the system. While a line all the way out to Glasgow Airport is unrealistic – after all, an overground rail service to the airport from Paisley has failed to materialise after 30 years of discussion and planning – there’s plenty of places in the city not well served by the Subway, from Maryhill in the north to Hampden in the south, or the riverside developments that have seen flats replace factories and new media hubs, museums and hotels line the Clyde.


Image: Iain Hepburn.

Key city landmarks like the Barrowlands, the Riverside Museum – with its own, fake, vintage subway stop, or the Merchant City are woefully underserved by the subway. But their incorporation – or connection with a Glasgow Crossrail – seems a very expensive pipe dream.

Instead, two adjoining loops, one to Ibrox and one to Celtic Park, seems the most plausible future for an extended Subway. At least colour coding the lines would be easy…

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