5 Steps to Replace the Private Car With Something Better

CC BY 2.0. Ellen Macarthur Foundation

In a circular economy there's no place to park a gasoline powered SUV.

In a recent post, TreeHugger Ilana asked Is endless growth a problem? The answer to that question is complicated; much of the problem is the kind of growth going on now, which is incredibly wasteful of resources and which makes stuff that doesn’t work very well. An example is in the graphic shown above, found by Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy. It is from a report Growth Within: A Circular Economy Vision for a Competitive Europe, published in 2015 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes a Circular Economy, "that is restorative and regenerative by design."

The private automobile is the poster child for what the report calls Structural Waste- a system that almost consciously and purposefully is designed to consume as much of everything as inefficiently as possible.

The European car is parked 92 percent of the time – often on valuable inner-city land. When the car is used, only 1.5 of its 5 seats are occupied. The deadweight ratio often reaches 12:1. Less than 20 percent of the total petroleum energy is translated into kinetic energy, and only 1/13 of that energy is used to transport people. As much as 50 percent of inner-city land is devoted to mobility (roads and parking spaces). But, even at rush hour, cars cover only 10 percent of the average European road. Yet, congestion cost approaches 2 percent of GDP in cities like Stuttgart and Paris.

Then there is the exhaust that comes from the inefficient burning of fossil fuels, exposing 90 percent of urban residents to dangerous levels of pollution and accounting for almost 25 percent of total European greenhouse gas emissions. There is also the human dimension, the 30,000 lives lost every year to accidents and the 120,000 permanently disabling injuries.

The report suggests five “levers” to eliminate structural waste:

  1. Sharing. In Europe there are a number of systems like Car2go, Quicar and Drivenow, where you have on-demand car rental. They also include Uber, Lyft and the likes in sharing because they help reduce private car ownership.
  2. Electrification. EVs have significantly lower lifetime operating costs which makes them “likely to dominate the high-utilisation world of shared mobility, which would also create significant environmental benefits.”
  3. Autonomous driving. “With sufficient penetration, autonomous vehicles could improve the mobility system. They have optimal acceleration and deceleration and can convoy with other autonomous vehicles, which could reduce congestion more than 50 percent by closing space between cars (1.5 metres versus 3–4 car lengths today) and improve energy efficiency significantly. Autonomous and self-driven vehicles can reduce weight by removing unnecessary human interface equipment like brake pedals and can cut accidents 90 percent – saving lives, and nearly eliminating damage repair costs.”
  4. Materials evolution (light weight and remanufacturing). New materials are making cars lighter and more durable, but they are also more expensive, which gives manufacturers greater incentive to recover and recycle. “Renault’s disassembly and remanufacturing plant at Choisy le Roi is the company’s most profitable industrial site. It reuses 43 percent of carcasses, recycles 48 percent in foundries to produce new parts, and valorises [raises the value of] the remaining 9 percent.”
  5. System-level integration of transport modes. This is perhaps the most important lever, making it easy to match transport needs to the appropriate mode. “The technology and digital revolution could anchor the integration of transportation modes that would let people shift between personal, shared, and public transportation in an optimised mobility system." So you might e-scooter to the supermarket and e-hail a car to take you and your groceries home. “Vienna is developing a prototype for an integrated mobility smartphone platform that integrates diverse mobility offerings into one option based on user needs."
The car of tomorrow

Ellen Macarthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

So how does this reduce structural waste? Cars are not sitting around stored on urban pavement, they are not polluting, they are not scrapped but are designed for disassembly and reuse.

The circular scenario would take advantage of the five levers that stand to transform mobility in Europe in an integrated way. This path would build an automated, multi-modal, on-demand system. The system would have multiple transportation options (like biking, public transit, ride-sharing, and car-sharing) at its core and would incorporate automated individual transport as a flexible, but predominantly last-mile solution. ...Users could pull out their smartphones, specify their destinations, and have the fastest, most inexpensive, and/or most socially enriching options available to them in seconds.

Lloyd Alter/ Vienna/CC BY 2.0

One might suggest that they are trying awfully hard to reinvent the car, when one can try the alternative now: simply go to Vienna, walk on and off buses, streetcars and subways that are close to everyone because there are almost no single family houses, and where the last mile problem (really more of a last 500 yard problem) is solved by walking. Or to Copenhagen, where half the trips are now taken by bike.

But one can’t argue with the fact that the current system of big privately owned cars is an incredible waste of resources. While this mobility scenario might be a bit far-fetched, the idea of a circular economy is not. As the CEO of Philips says in the intro, it is “a transition towards a restorative and regenerative economic cycle that moves us from wasteful resource use to a model that recognises and enables added value contributed by human enterprise and application.“