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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.