Chas Booth: Transport revolution is about more than electric cars

Electric cars should not detract from the need to tackle congestion. Picture: Michael Gillen
Electric cars should not detract from the need to tackle congestion. Picture: Michael Gillen
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The recent announcements by the Scottish and UK Governments that they will end the sale of fossil fuelled cars by 2032 and 2040 respectively has seen electric vehicles move rapidly up the political agenda.

There’s no doubt that electric vehicles, with zero tailpipe emissions, have a significant role to play in delivering cleaner air and cutting our greenhouse gas emissions. For an old and compact city like Edinburgh, with real congestion and pollution problems, that is doubly true. So I’m delighted that Edinburgh council is preparing an electric vehicle strategy, which should be signed off by transport committee next month.

Of course how clean electric vehicles are depends on how the electricity is produced to power them. Renewables are supplying an increasing proportion of Scotland’s electricity, but we need to move quicker to 100 per cent renewable power. And with the “decarbonisation” of our electricity grid, transport is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland, which underlines the importance of a transformation in how we travel. The popularity of electric vehicles has risen fast: in 2011 there were only nine electric vehicles registered in Edinburgh. As of June this year, the number had jumped to nearly 500. And our charging infrastructure has also grown, from eight charging points in 2013 to nearly 100 today. But I am regularly contacted by constituents asking for more EV charge points to be added, so the city has plenty of work still to do.

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Some argue that electric vehicles aren’t practical, that their limited range means they can’t replace fossil vehicles. In reality, however, more than half of car journeys are less than five miles, and another one third are under 25 miles, so these shorter journeys are ideal for electric vehicles, or indeed for cycling and walking instead. Modern electric vehicles usually have a range in excess of 100 miles – some closer to 200 miles – on a single charge, so EVs are certainly up to the job. And the technology is evolving fast.

But while electric vehicles have many benefits, we cannot simply switch all the fossil-fuelled vehicles on our roads for electric vehicles and consider it “job done”. For a start, the cost would be massive. And of course, unless we also reduce the number of vehicles on our roads, we will do nothing to tackle congestion, or the need to secure the health benefits of walking and cycling.

That is why groups like Spokes are calling for an e-mobility strategy, not simply an e-vehicles strategy. This should start with an emphasis on getting people out of their cars by building much better infrastructure to allow people to walk and cycle; introducing a radical programme of pedestrianising large parts of our city centre; and making it much easier and more affordable to use public transport. Once we’ve prioritised these, we should look to the remaining vehicles being electric.

To be a truly e-mobility strategy, it must also encompass e-bikes and e-cargo bikes, so people and companies can shift from fossil fuel vehicles. We should do this alongside a serious look at freight distribution hubs, with the aim of taking many of the trucks and lorries off our city streets. Edinburgh is arguably already behind other UK cities in embracing the electric transport revolution. Now it’s time to power ahead.

Chas Booth is Edinburgh Greens’ transport spokesperson