Switching gears: The future of our personal transportation

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As we work as a nation to reduce our impact on the environment, one area it is crucial we improve upon is in our transportation. In 2016, 16.2% of the global greenhouse gas emissions were from the transport sector, 11.9% of which were due to road transportation. Since the transportation of people on a local and national level is an essential element of our society, green and sustainable modes of transport are necessary to reach the UK’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

One of our primary solutions to our reliance on fossil fuel vehicles is the electric car. Electric cars seem promising as the extensive existing road infrastructure allows a smooth transition to an electric car dominated society and many companies are already producing all-electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf or the Tesla Model 3. Another key strength of electric cars is that they maintain a major advantage of all cars – personal travel convenience. By not having a set route, this allows transportation of people or goods to any area accessible by road at any time. Electric cars also have a much greater carrying capacity than other solutions presented.

However, electric cars face many of the same issues as their petrol and diesel predecessors. Most importantly, cars are extremely inefficient; for the average of 1.5 people travelling in a car, over a tonne of car is needed. This means that, based on the principle of economies of scale, cars waste much more energy per person transported than more efficient transportation such as buses or trains. Cars require a lot of space for parking and cause congestion, especially in busy city centres. Electric cars are also expensive, which means that this option is not currently available to those in poor economic situations.

On the other hand, a solution which seems to solve many of the issues presented by electric cars is an increase in widespread public transportation. Because trains and buses can hold hundreds of people using only one engine, they are very efficient due to the economies of scale. This efficiency also allows public transportation to integrate into urban environments better than cars, as the vehicles take up significantly less space. This also has the effect of reducing congestion. Furthermore, sustainable options are open to public transportation such as electric trains, buses and trams, which have been introduced in eight UK cities.

The main drawback of public transportation is the difficulty of implementing it on a large scale. Some types of public transportation, such as trams or trains, require rail lines and stations to operate. This can be an issue in cities where the city is planned without allowing for public transportation, causing the public transportation there to be slow and inefficient. Overcoming these issues takes significant investment by local councils, which is a key reason why public transportation often does not have the capacity to support the population of its region.

A subset of public transportation which is becoming increasingly more popular is publicly accessible electric bicycles and e-scooters. The benefit of these is that they give the rider the same amount of personal travel convenience as a car, albeit limited to the city or town it is located in. However, the advantage these loan bicycles and e-scooters have over cars it that they are fully electric and take up much less space for congestion and parking. Despite this, a drawback of these vehicles is that they can be unsafe – RoSPA have said that the introduction of e-scooters has caused “rapidly increasing accident rates”. Although they are a promising development in public transportation, significant work still needs to be done to ensure the safety of loan bicycles and e-scooters.

Another option which deserves consideration is non-motorised transportation, such as walking or cycling. These methods of transportation are extremely environmentally friendly as they effectively produce no emissions. By being powered by humans instead of machines, they also provide exercise which has health and wellbeing benefits. Another key advantage is that this sort of transportation is much easier to implement – walking is free, and bicycles are notably cheaper than paying for a car or public transport tickets. Also, since the only infrastructure needed is footpaths and cycle paths, which may already be present even in underdeveloped communities, non-motorised transportation is the most feasible solution to implement quickly and on a large scale.

Despite these benefits, non-motorised transportation has a few significant drawbacks. Firstly, walking and cycling have a very short effective range. Because of their slower speeds and the limited stamina of a human, whilst it is possible to commute across a town or city by foot or bicycle, any greater distances are not possible. This means that walking or cycling can never be the sole solution to our future transportation needs. As well as this, not all people have the mobility to walk or cycle independently. The elderly, along with those affected by serious injury or disability, are reliant on vehicles to travel, and so we must provide alternate means of transportation to cater to these groups of society.

Ultimately, because of the urgency of finding a solution to popular transportation needs, and the relative ease of transitioning to electric cars compared to public transport, electric cars will likely become the most widespread form of transportation. However, this may not be the best solution to the problem; a mixture of walking, cycling and effective public transport gives access across a region without an excess of cars clogging roads and taking up valuable space for parking. Therefore, in my opinion, a system which still uses electric cars but is not reliant on them for transportation is the way we should be organising our cities in the present and the future.