Irish Times Column, August 4th 2022.

Electric vehicles are not a silver bullet for fixing Ireland’s unsustainable transport system. Designing our built environment around the need for most people to get around in their own fossil-fuel powered car has been a grave mistake: rectifying this must be a central plank of the Government’s climate strategy.

Reducing car use would not only save greenhouse gas emissions, it would also save a lot of money. Research from UCC shows that nearly 40 per cent of fuel used in passenger transport is for journeys under eight kilometres, which is also around the average distance between people’s homes and jobs in Irish cities. With petrol and diesel prices at over €2 a litre, this means that people in Ireland spend over €200 million each month on these journeys, many that could be cycled.

Far more people could cycle if road design allowed. 50 per cent of respondents to the National Travel Survey said that safer cycling routes, or more cycling-specific routes, would encourage them to cycle more.

Electric bikes make hills and sweat disappear, making longer distances accessible for people who are less fit and who don’t want to don Lycra. The upfront and continuing running costs are minuscule relative to a conventional car. For example, the electricity required to fuel an electric bike for 100 kilometres costs only 15 cents, compared with around €15 for a regular petrol or diesel car of the same distance. If someone can get by without a car, it would save thousands each year in insurance, vehicle maintenance and depreciation.

Driving children to school and activities creates nearly as much traffic as commuting, and has been the strongest driver of passenger transport emissions growth in the past decade. Now, 60 per cent of children are driven to primary school, up from 24 per cent in 1986, when 70 per cent of pupils either walked, cycled or took a bus to school.

Schoolbus services should be dramatically improved to reverse this: only 10 per cent of primary school students take the bus, a rate that has been continuously declining. This would also reduce traffic around schools (making walking and cycling safer for students living close by) and free parents of the daily school-run grid.

Now, only one quarter of primary school student cycle or walk to school, a rate that has halved since 1986. This is not surprising: the number of cars licensed nearly tripled over the same period, and many schools do not even have the most basic footpath to allow students to get to school safely on their own steam, creating a vicious cycle of car dependence.

A key policy measure to reverse this should be a target of ensuring segregated bike lanes within the vicinity of all schools and sports centres, which could be achieved through a combination of reducing car traffic lanes and parking spaces, and a network of “behind the hedge” cycle lanes.

Aiming for large car-free areas in towns and cities is an important goal, and one that many European cities are achieving. To reduce car dependence, the vast road space they take up in cities, town and villages must be reallocated to bikes, public transport, and the public realm.

The Salthill cycle lane debacle shows the entrenched attachment to cars among influential decision-makers, despite all their downsides. Large-scale active and public transport systems will not be achieved without strong political leadership and bottom-up support.

At the same time, the legacy of rural housing sprawl and poor public transport infrastructure means that many are locked into car use for the foreseeable future.

While it is important to limit further unsustainable housing settlement patterns by making housing in towns and cities affordable and attractive, this aspect of car dependence will never fully be rectified — many people simply live too remotely to make public or active transport viable. Electric vehicles will play a critical role in decarbonising this segment of travel.

Compared with conventional cars, electric vehicles are far less damaging to the climate, cause no air pollution, are cheaper to run, and can be powered by indigenous renewable energy from wind and solar, rather than unreliable imported fossil fuels.

Sales of pure battery electric vehicles are nearly doubling each year, reaching a 13 per cent market share so far this year, despite being hampered by the global chip shortage.

There is every reason to expect that electric models will dominate new car sales within two or three years: The high price of petrol and diesel makes conventional vehicles around five-times more costly to run, and the promise of better public charging, continued cost reductions and more choice in electric models remove many of the barriers to higher electric vehicle sales.

Even though the target of nearly one million electric cars and vans on the roads by 2030 is laudable, it is more important to limit the sale of new fossil fuelled cars in the short term (as well as reduce their overall use): sales are robust and the trend towards large, SUV-style models is continuing, which is negating many of the efficiency savings from technology improvements. Each new fossil fuelled car will consume part of a rapidly diminishing carbon budget well into the 2030s, something the climate can ill afford.

Hannah Daly is a Professor of Sustainable Energy at University College Cork and the SFI MaREI Centre for Climate, Energy and the Marine.