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‘Sustainable transport’? It isn’t electric vehicles

Cycling and walking

Electric cars are defined as 'sustainable transport' in the new NPPF. But are they really sustainable? wonders Rachel White.

Nestled within the sustainable transport chapter of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is the need to enable charging of plug-in and ultra-low emission vehicles. It’s clear that electric cars have a role to play in the future of mobility. But are they really sustainable?

‘Sustainable’ is a word designed to be just ambiguous enough to meet everybody’s needs. Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and development, states: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

But sustainable development in the NPPF has often been interpreted as literally sustaining building in as many places as possible, regardless of possible negative impacts. This is why I’m sceptical of the use of the word ‘sustainable’ in the NPPF and in any context.

Equally, the problem with the inclusion of electric vehicles as a “sustainable mode of transport” is that by its very nature it encourages car use; yet a sustainable future needs to have fewer, not just cleaner, vehicles.

“A sustainable transport future is one that improves health and lengthens life, not the opposite”

We shouldn’t be moving people from one metal box to another, especially as a child born today in America has a life expectancy five years less than their parents because of physical inactivity. In the UK, physical inactivity alone costs the NHS over £20 billion a year.

Glasgow University recently found that regular cycling could cut your risk of cancer by 45 per cent and heart disease by 46 per cent. The need to cut emissions from motorised transport provides local authorities with an opportunity to think differently about how to plan our urban centres. They need to promote active lifestyles by rethinking how people move around.

A sustainable transport future is one that improves health and lengthens life, not the opposite.

Besides, electric vehicles only partly address the UK’s air quality crisis, which prematurely kills thousands a year. In London, 45 per cent of all particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) – of which there are no safe levels – comes from tyre and brake wear. Even if we switch all our motorised vehicles to electric, we will still have a damaging amount of fine dust in the air.

Finally, there are serious supply chain issues with lithium and cobalt, essential components for batteries needed for electric vehicles. We cannot and should not rely on this technological fix. Cars have a role to play – but let’s not make that a central role, and let’s not pretend that cars in any form are sustainable.

We need to interpret the NPPF in a way that shapes cities and towns so that the natural choice for mobility is an active choice.

Rachel White is senior policy and political adviser at Sustrans

Photo | iStock

See also

Is sustainable transport a myth? The case for electric vehicles



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