What’s dawning on Norway is a warning for Ireland: Electric cars are not the solution for cities

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: “It’s great that people use electric cars. But we are not well served by people get into their cars and drive into busy city areas instead of walking, bicycling or taking public transport,” said Norway’s transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård, according to thelocal.no which quoted from an interview with broadcaster NRK.

Electric cars in urban areas are acting as competition to walking, cycling and public transport and this is the reason Nygård wants to review Norway’s generous electric cars incentives, especially as those relate to urban areas.

The evidence is clear that walking, cycling and public transport are better for society and the environment. But there’s already push back with an electric car owner’s association accusing the Norwegian government of “throwing climate politics under the bus”.

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Electric car will be part of the solution to decarbonise transport, but there needs to be clarity that no type of car should be the main solution being targeted at people living in or traveling into urban areas.

Cars have given us great mobility, that cannot be denied. But while there’s often non-ironic references to the “war on cars”, there’s little acceptance that the car industry and car-advocates won the war on what dominates our roads and streets. But instead of accepting history, we’re left with the prevailing idea that car-centric planning is the only way things can happen, business and society would breakdown without car dominance.

This had led to most people, who just want to seek a balance, feeling that they have to tone down the downsides of a car dominated and dependent society. Least they be labelled “anti-car” or “cycling fascists” for wanting a reversal of some of the damage done by decades of car-focused planning.

Sometimes even the mildest attempt to reduce car dominance in an area will be followed by objectors to change calling for a “better balance” blind to the fact the balance currently is mostly towards cars.

Planning too much around cars — of any type — will still leave us with congestion, car-inducted sprawl, poor land use, inactivity, the massive impact of new motorways, and forced car dependence.

Regarding pollution — At a grid-level, our power sources are still now where near as clean as Norway’s. There’s a long way to go to get to a decarbonised electric grid in Ireland.

At a local level electric cars still harmful emit airborne particulate matter from tire wear, braking, and contact with the road. Electric cars being heavier than their non-electric counterparts makes at least some of these issues worse.

Ireland is generally behind the curve debating air pollution, so it’s no surprise we’re hardly talked about the dust created from car tires… or related issues such as microplastics.

According to a study released in 2020, car tires are a major source of ocean microplastics — researchers also found that the problem is spread to our oceans mainly by wind-borne microplastics and not, as previously thought, being washed into our oceans via rivers.

Despite most European cities at least somewhat breaking the link between car ownership and high use, this is still a mind-bending concept to most car owners. “I have it, I’m paying for it, so, I’m going to use it” is the somewhat understandable mindset. Breaking that mindset is hard generally, with electric cars — which are cheaper to drive and maintain — the task is going to be even harder.

It needs to be made clearer that the alternatives to cars are the main way forward. Otherwise the switch to electric cars will leave us with car owners more resistant to rebalancing our streets, roads, public spaces and planning system.

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