Illegal and toxic air pollution is hurting people’s health, damaging their quality of life, and cutting lives short, and as a result it’s rocketing up the political agenda. As a medieval city with 21st century transport problems, Oxford has a problem with traffic-related air pollution that’s leading my council to take radical steps. Our determination to protect the health of our neighbourhoods can never succeed unless we truly clean up transport. Together with other councils, Oxford is campaigning for new money and powers from Government but also refusing to wait indefinitely for national change. Oxford’s ambition is simple—to introduce the world’s first Zero Emission Zone into our city centre.
Proposing restrictions on dirty vehicles will never be enough. Councils need to create a larger vision of how our cities will be lived in, worked in, and travelled in, and at the heart of these visions must be the determination to achieve one of the most fundamental human needs—the need for greater mobility. Councillors can meet that need by engineering safe spaces for cyclists and pedestrians and making our public bus and rail networks affordable, properly connected, and accessible. But our hands will continue to be tied behind our backs by the familiar problems of underfunding and disempowerment by central government, even as we campaign for more money and powers.
Most urban areas aspire to car-free city centres and sustainable forms of getting around, but we have to accept that a great many people drive and that they do so because the car offers the largest freedom of travel. The invention of the automobile created spatial and time independence, so that drivers can go wherever they want, and return at any time they want. To many, the car is an extension of the home, with all the privacy and opportunities for personalisation that it affords. As policy-makers committed to emptying our streets of cars for health and environmental reasons, we have to face a politically painful decision-point inside our town halls—what should we do about the automobile?
We have to organise our concerns about the automobile. Our first-order priority must be getting older, more polluting vehicles off our roads to instantly slash the emissions that hurt the health of our citizens, in particular the vulnerable who are disproportionately affected by polluted air. In Oxford, we’re heavily investigating a range of transport options such as extensive use of controlled parking zones, a workplace parking levy, and charging schemes to reduce the number of vehicles in our centre while seeking funding to induce drivers to switch to healthy, active, sustainable alternatives to driving. Our Zero Emission Zone seeks to ensure that whatever vehicles remain within our centre are as clean as they can possibly be.
It’s not enough to announce a world’s first Zero Emission Zone. Oxford is making it a practical reality by installing the world’s first pop-up charging points on streets with on-road, off pavement parking and significant numbers of charging points for taxis and Oxford’s residents. We’re investing in electric delivery vehicles for our world-famous market of independent traders and introducing fully electric double decker buses by the end of the year (and retrofitting 78 buses to be significantly less polluting). The scale of this investment (currently worth £3.25m) combined with our innovation of approaches is attracting attention. The eyes of the electric vehicle and charging infrastructure industry are on Oxford, and we’re using our experience and credibility to set the electric car free. In July we co-hosted a two-day Electric Vehicle Summit of the biggest players and will be hosting the second summit next year. We want to use Oxford’s position to help the electric vehicle market to take off and that means being honest about its limits.
The biggest problem with EVs is fundamental because it gets to the heart of the question of whether they provide the same freedom of travel as the internal combustion engine. Something automobility made possible is seen as a riskier endeavour. Electromobility is seen to inhibit independence. The charging cable is seen as a leash, limiting range and freedom. When people want to go on a long trip, they have to meticulously plan, not merely identifying public charging stations but also backups in case their first-choice bays are occupied or the plug isn’t the right one. This perception of electromobility as inhibiting has become a chicken-and-egg problem—without enough public chargers, people won’t buy electric cars, but until enough fossil fuel vehicle drivers switch to electric, we won’t get enough public chargers.
However, range anxiety is overblown and the importance of public charging has been overstated. Fossil fuel drivers don’t take 300 mile journeys with 20 miles left in the tank. Nor do they need full tanks for 90% of their journeys. It’s exactly the same for electric vehicle drivers. Moreover, electric car drivers won’t follow the same refuelling habits as petrol and diesel vehicle drivers—they will charge their cars once or twice a week outside their homes while asleep.
Councils can play a crucial role in promoting home charging. Public charging is already becoming a resource for local drivers in desperate need of quick top-ups or long-distance commuters (who we should be encouraging to travel on the railways in any case). Oxford’s draft Local Plan seeks to promote home charging by proposing that, where additional parking must be provided, planning permission will be granted for new residential developments if provision is made for electric charging points for each unit with an allocated parking space and non-allocated parking spaces are provided with at least 25% having electric charging points installed.
Councils can also play a crucial role in shaping the EV market to better meet our clean air needs. Some brands offer a narrow range of electric options in contrast to the variety of polluting models, spend a tiny proportion of their overall advertising spend on electric models, and seem intent on constraining supply in the market while blaming the lack of infrastructure and consumer interest. By introducing clean air and zero emission zones that restrict polluting vehicles from entering our city centres, councils can stir automakers to ramp up production and advertising of electric models.
Electrification isn’t the final stop on the journey towards greater mobility. No sooner will cars be electrified than they may become autonomous, connected, and shared, either through vehicle sharing (many different people driving the same vehicle over a day) or ride sharing (many passengers driving the same vehicle at the same time). What does the rise of automated, electrified, connected, and shared vehicles mean for councils and the visions we set for our cities? The automobile is set to go through a revolution on the same scale as its displacement of the horse and carriage at the turn of the last century. That begs the question: can we really say our councils are set up to further society’s most fundamental human need—the need for greater mobility?