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. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.