How Sustainable is the Electric Car?

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A new book edited by Graham Parkhurst and Billy Clayton tackles the critical question as to whether the rise of the electric car represents an important contribution to sustainable mobility.

The extent to which the transition from internal combustion engine cars to electric cars represents an important contribution to sustainable mobility is the central question addressed by a new book edited by CTS colleagues Graham Parkhurst and Billy Clayton . Given the socioeconomic importance of the car, and its impacts on the environment, ‘Electrifying Mobility: Realising a Sustainable Future for the Car’ takes a multidisciplinary approach, with its authors and perspectives drawn from sociology, social and environmental psychology, business studies, political studies, sociotechnical transition studies and environmental science, as well as transport planning and geography.

Across twelve chapters organised in four parts, the narrative considers how ‘electrification’ alters the inter-relationships between society, the economy and the built environment that have coevolved over the last century, including the practices of organisation and production of the automotive industry itself. Examination of the extent to which electric cars could offer a sufficiently environmentally benign ‘technical fix’ to avoid the need for behaviour change is balanced by exploration of the extent to which the electric car is changing both government policies and citizens’ attitudes, behaviours, and traveller ‘experiences’. Major technical and delivery challenges are acknowledged, notably that battery technology is improving, but remains constrained and expensive, and the need to plan and fund the delivery of a publicly-available charging network as a critical ‘dependency’ for mass uptake. However, technological opportunities are also noted, through integration with trends for higher automation and digital connectivity of vehicles, and the shared mobility that those changes may encourage.

In the final chapter, Parkhurst and Clayton conclude that the once tentative and contested transition to electric cars as now being unstoppable, but with the interrelated factors of vehicle range and total cost of ownership remaining as key moderators of its speed and nature.

Electrification is also seen as being far from the harmonious and smooth representations of its public image; instead recreating long-standing local conflicts over road space for moving and parked vehicles and new forms of global contest for access to material resources.

Also acknowledged is the long timeline of transition, and the problem presented by an established global fleet of some billion internal combustion engine vehicles. Potential enhancements to the environmental sustainability of the transition are mooted, such as a greater role for retrofit battery-electric conversions and new ways of paying for the full costs of road use, but in the final analysis, the answer to the fundamental question must lie in the wider context of mobility practices and policies, in other words, a sustainable future for the car implies not just a new way of powering it, but a different role for the car in both the economy and society.

This blog post was written by Graham Parkhurst who is Professor of Sustainable Mobility and directs the research centre

Electrifying Mobility: Realising a Sustainable Future for the Car was published in hardback and electronically by Emerald in October 2022.



Online shopping and home deliveries: how can we reduce carbon emissions?

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Do you know how much carbon you produce when you buy something? The UK is the third market worldwide for online shopping. Read the post to find out how we can decarbonise last-mile deliveries.

by Daniela Paddeu

Have you ever wondered how much carbon you generate when you buy a product? An increasing number of people look for organic or sustainable products, buy from sustainable companies, try to reduce plastics/packaging. We might feel we are sustainable consumers, but we still want our products to be delivered on the next day, sometimes the same day or even the same hour. Because it is convenient and appealing. However, it is also definitely not sustainable.

The UK is the first market in Europe for e-commerce, and the third in the world, just after China and the U.S.

Buying is easy: you can buy whatever you want, have it delivered whenever you want, and you can also return it if you don’t like it. It’s easy! Consumers buy much more than they need, and 25% of products are returned. This generates an increased volume of van movements (+106% increase in the last 25 years), and numbers are expected to significantly grow in the future.

Therefore, it is urgent to design and undertake actions to reduce the negative impact of last-mile deliveries. This was the main driver of the CoDe ZERO project. The project explored stakeholders’ perspective towards sustainable solutions to decarbonise urban freight, focussing on the North of England. Together with key freight stakeholders based in the North, we co-designed a roadmap with a series of solutions that can be implemented in the next 20 years to reduce carbon emissions from freight movements in urban areas.

The challenge of changing behaviour…

Findings show that stakeholders understand the importance of decarbonising urban freight to achieve the net zero target by 2050 (or even sooner). They also foresee challenges, mainly related to the development of efficient cleaner technological solutions and to behaviour/organisational change. They believe that there will not be a single perfect solution. Instead, urban freight decarbonisation will require the integration of a series of technical solutions and organisational/behavioural change.

Electrification and new fuels seem to be the most promising solution to decarbonise urban freight.

Among the technical solutions, electrification and new fuels (e.g., hydrogen) are seen as the most promising ways to achieve urban freight decarbonisation. However, their full implementation might require time, especially due to technological development, and other solutions would be needed to start reducing carbon emissions in the short term. These include, for example, the use of cleaner fuels (e.g., biogases), urban freight consolidation schemes, and the use of e-cargo bikes together with micro-consolidation. However, there might be some big challenges to implement these solutions, and a lot of uncertainty towards their effectiveness. For example, big logistics operators already consolidate at a very optimal level. So, are we sure this is going to be a commercially/operationally viable option? Also, electric might not be the only net zero solution for an urban environment. Can Compressed Natural Gas or Liquefied Natural Gas have a role given the goal is net zero not absolute zero?

Consolidation schemes, and collaborative schemes in general, were identified as being equally “powerful” compared to more technological solutions. However, bigger companies might be in a stronger position in terms of managing and sharing information and operations. So, what if some players gain a greater advantage than others, and smaller operators are not strong enough to survive?

How do we get there?

In general, the findings of the project indicate that there might be a range of solutions to decarbonise urban freight, but it is not clear how these solutions should be practically adopted, and where responsibilities lie. Considering future policy and research, a strong final question about urban freight decarbonisation remains: how do we get there?

If you want to find more, you can read the final report.

This blog post was written by Dr Daniela Paddeu who is a senior researcher (freight specialist) at CTS.

Welcome to the Centre for Transport and Society blog!

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Welcome to the Centre for Transport and Society blog where we plan to share with you the latest updates from our research centre.

The aim of CTS is furthering understanding and influence on the interactions between mobility, lifestyles, and society in a context of technological change.

We design, plan, and deliver a range of research works on six core themes, with integrated multi-disciplinary knowledge within transport and society.

Theme 1 – Transport infrastructure and design

This theme is about designing infrastructure to meet travel needs by creating systems for movement that are efficient, attractive, comfortable and safe to use. They need to minimise embodied carbon, and they need to assist in promoting travel that itself minimises carbon emissions, and other adverse environmental impacts such as air pollution and noise.

CTS has been engaged in empirical research connected with human scale and vehicle movement in the street environment. This has involved exploring the links between design, behaviour and regulation. Empirical research linked with cycling has been undertaken, for example relating to eye movement of cyclists and passing distances of motor traffic. CTS has been involved in drafting standards and guidance including Design Manual for Roads and Bridges CD195 Designing for cycle traffic, Local Transport Note 1/20, the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans Technical Guidance, and the forthcoming Manual for Streets 3.

Side road crossing behaviour research has investigated both continuous footways and marked priority side road crossings with a view to evidencing and developing further current design guidance. We have also undertaken trials to measure the trust of pedestrians and cyclists in automated vehicles.

Theme 2 – Societal change, technology, and transport futures

This theme is about understanding what the future may be like, and how we should design systems to address current and future needs of an evolving society. There has been a long co-evolution of travel demand with technological development. This co-evolution has resulted in new demand for travel  in response to the invention of new transport systems, recently for instance, such as micro-mobility. It has also worked the other way around with travel aspirations influencing by transport systems, for example in relation to levels of comfort and attractiveness. Innovations in other sectors, such as the invention of the telephone and the diffusion of refrigeration, have also influence connectivity and the desire to travel, and the need to transport goods.

Digitalisation has significantly increased dramatically in the last 20 years, and digital services and products have changed people’s lives and their preferences to both digital and also physical interactions and activities. Technological development has the power to disrupt the ways we live our lives, and the future may offer a range of technologically facilitated opportunities, including for example perhaps automated vehicles, shared mobility, drone deliveries, and even flying taxis. In addition, the development of newer, less or zero carbon intensity and cleaner technologies are emerging to support pathways to reduce impacts on the climate.

Theme 3 – Travel behaviour, lifestyles, and the life course

At the core of our research at CTS is the development of a body of knowledge around travel behaviour. This research draws on empirical research informed by psychology and sociology. We seek to understand the extent to which travel behaviour is pre-meditated for different types of trip, the degree to which novel information or social relationships influence choices, and the extent to which reported attitudes to future travel behaviour can predict behaviour. CTS has developed a strong international academic reputation in this thematic area and has also provided expert advice to national and local policymakers. This theme covers aspects specifically relating to sub-sections of the population, for example, in particular the ageing population, and the emerging behaviours of younger generations, and those who are neuro-diverse or are physically disabled as a result of the transport environment.

Theme 4 – Sustainable transport policies and solutions

Sustainable transport is concerned with creating attractive options which reduce the environmental consequences of travel choices, whilst also promoting greater equality of accessibility. Walking and cycling, as very low environmental impact modes which also encourage a healthier population, are central to this theme. Collective mobility solutions including shared ownership and use of transport assets are also important, as well as cleaner technologies (e.g., electrification, clean fuels). The theme seeks to understand the barriers to a greater role for sustainable mobility options and to develop knowledge to support their development to drive transport decarbonisation and reach the net zero target by 2050.

Theme 5 – Social impacts of transport

The way transport systems are design can have a significant impact on people’s ability to access to key local services and activities (e.g., jobs, goods, healthcare, education, leisure). A lack of accessibility may reinforce the social exclusion of particular demographies, for example, depending on the geography of the area they live in (e.g., urban or rural), coupled with their particular needs (e.g., mobility impairment, household structure and age profile), and economic status (e.g., disposable income). This theme is about understanding how to take into consideration social needs and expectations when designing and planning for people’s travel in such a way as to avoid social injustice and support equity. Our work in this area again leads into policy and planning practice.

Theme 6 – Towards sustainable freight

Freight transport represents a key driver of the economic prosperity of a region or a city. However, it is responsible for one third of UK transport carbon emissions, with road freight (e.g., trucks and vans) being the main contributor. The increasingly significant role that e-commerce and home deliveries have had in the last ten years has created great economic advantages for companies. However, inefficient management of urban freight flows can generate road congestion, poorer air quality, visual intrusion, increased risk of collisions and injuries, and a generally negative impact on urban accessibility for people as well as goods. This theme is about exploring the challenges and opportunities in planning and design of sustainable freight transport systems.

We look forward to sharing CTS’s development and future research, but in the meantime, you can find out more about our latest research activities, seminars and events by visiting our website and following us on Twitter.

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This blog post was written by Dr Daniela Paddeu who is a senior researcher at CTS and is the freight specialist of the research centre.

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