Banning Fossil Fueled Cars Isn't Enough; We Have to Rethink Our Transportation System

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Orange sky in London

The UK and France have banned the sale of gas and diesel powered cars by 2040, but it is too little, too late.

Last month the French Government announced a ban on Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) powered cars by 2040. Recently the British government followed suit.

2040 is a long way away, but a UK government spokesperson said “poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK and this government is determined to take strong action in the shortest time possible.” According to the Guardian, it’s estimated that “outdoor pollution, much of it from vehicles, causes 40,000 deaths a year in the UK.” But that number is disputed, even by organizations such as Greenpeace who note:

...while a car crash can be said to be the exclusive cause of an individual’s death, nobody is dying purely as a result of air pollution. It could well have had a significant impact on somebody who died from heart disease, but it’s likely that other factors, such as diet or exercise, played a part too.

This is an important distinction. These French and British moves are encouraging, as is the wildly enthusiastic reception to the launch of the Tesla Model 3. But does a ban on ICE powered cars really make that much of a difference? Does it go far enough, fast enough? Is the pollution from cars their biggest problem?

leading causes of death

© World Bank/ Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

As Greenpeace noted, you can count the people who are injured and killed in car crashes, and it’s big, bigger than the number of deaths and DALYs (Disability-adjusted life years) directly attributed to pollution. Getting rid of ICE powered cars doesn’t change that.

Caroline Lucas

Caroline Lucas/via

Also writing in the Guardian, Green Party co-chair Caroline Lucas notes that the problems with cars go beyond fuel.

Ultimately we need a green transport revolution, not another tinker with a transport system that’s creaking. Let’s aim for towns and cities that are easily navigable by foot and bike, a fully electric and publicly owned train system that covers the country, and local public transport that’s a joy to use – rather than the overpriced, unreliable service that’s currently on offer in so many places.
Lucas concludes:
Building a transport system fit for the future won’t just save lives that are cut short by air pollution, it will change the way we live for the better. Well-designed transport means strong local communities, safer streets for our children to play in and quicker commutes that free up time for us to do the things we love.

Lloyd Alter/ Vienna car-free streets/CC BY 2.0

She's right. If we really want to save lives, we not only have to clean up our air, but we have to get people out of their cars, irrespective of their fuel. Look at the ways a daily walk can change your mind and body. Look at the health benefits linked to public transportation. Look at how a British study finds commuting by bike can cut heart disease and cancer. Any of these modes of transport are healthier and cheaper than any kind of car.

So let’s not just ban gas and diesel; a more ambitious goal for 2040 would be to get people out of their cars by making the alternatives much more attractive. Concentrate on making cities and towns where people don't even think they need or want a car. At the same time, have a fuel or other car tax that actually covers the cost of the vast infrastructure of roads, bridges, enforcement, and medical care attributed to cars. Now that would be meaningful.