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Natural Environment

What if… all vehicle emissions were banned in cities?

Phasing out the internal combustion engine could set in motion a mass transportation revolution.

Adam Branson, Journalist
27 July 2018

Phasing out the internal combustion engine could set in motion a mass transportation revolution.

From a political point of view, banning vehicle emissions overnight is a non-starter – whoever enacted such a policy would be voted out of office at the first opportunity. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Indeed, if climate change is to be tackled, it has to happen – intelligently, and in a phased manner over several years.

If the politics are difficult, so too are the practicalities. Industry isn’t prepared for rapid change. Apart from anything else, the base materials needed to make the batteries for electric vehicles are mostly found in volatile parts of the world. The issue is slowly resolving itself, but it will take time. However, the market for electric cars has been transformed in the last two to three years, with major car manufacturers investing in a big way. Any policies announcing the phased decommissioning of the internal combustion engine would supercharge the market.

The question then is one of deployment. It seems logical to combine electric cars with the rapidly developing autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. There’s a lot of synergy, but the key argument is that electric autonomous vehicles will greatly increase the capacity of road networks. 

Initially, that is likely to be rolled out on motorways and for freight, perhaps in a single lane. This is already being looked at on a stretch of highway between Seattle and Vancouver, and the expectation is that it will halve travel time and double capacity. The other obvious step is to combine AV technology with ride sharing to introduce a new form of mass transportation, especially in cities with poor bus networks. Once proven in one municipality, it would spread like wildfire around the world.

This would probably mean privatisation of public transport, as public bodies don’t have the necessary money to invest. Every city will approach the issue differently, of course, but I can’t see many being able to match the investment available to big manufacturers and technology firms. My practice has spent a great deal of time and energy on our Cartube proposal, which would see AV technology combined with underground infrastructure for a new form of mass transit. It would require significant expenditure, but the benefits from reduced congestion and emissions would be huge.

It may be a step too far for now. But if governments set out a road map towards eradicating vehicle emissions, both municipalities and private industry would be able to deliver revolutionary change.

Lars Hesselgren is director of research at PLP Architecture in London

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.