Paris is a city with a vision: The end of the automobile age. Dependence on gas- and diesel-powered vehicles has come at a huge cost to Parisians’ health and the environment in the metropolis of 12 million people. The French capital, regularly covered in a thick blanket of smog, has the worst air quality of any city in western Europe, according to a Greenpeace-commissioned study.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo believes it’s time for radical action. She wants the city to become a fossil fuel-free zone, a place where people get around on foot, bicycles, public transit and ― if necessary ― in electric vehicles.
She has said that diesel cars will be banned by 2024, and last year she announced that all combustion-engine cars must be gone by 2030. A network of Parisian neighborhoods already goes car-free each Sunday, and cars are banned from a stretch of road along the river Seine in the city center. The city government is considering making public transit free to entice drivers to give up vehicle ownership altogether.
Christophe Najdovski, the deputy mayor of Paris responsible for transportation, told HuffPost that the ultimate aspiration is to pedestrianize the heart of Paris. “Parisians need breathing spaces. We also need to create the conditions for the development of alternatives so mobility is experienced in different ways. Less stress, less noise, less pollution.”
Paris isn’t the only European city with a plan to end the dominance of the internal combustion engine. Oslo aims to go car-free in its center beginning in 2019. Madrid will ban non-residents from driving in its city center starting in November, while another Spanish city, Pontevedra, has already banned cars from its downtown area.
National commitments are ramping up, too, with Denmark, Norway, France and the U.K. among those setting a date for phasing out conventional cars over the next two decades or so ― even if none has yet cemented the commitment in law. And members of the European Parliament have just voted for a 40 percent cut in car emissions by 2030.
These moves fit with the sense that Europe may be moving, albeit slowly, toward “peak car”: when private car use and ownership plateau and then drop, and when the internal combustion engine heads toward its grave.
But in the U.S., the cutback on cars is not happening to the same extent. In fact, it may be going backward as the Trump administration seeks to drastically roll back Obama-era legislation designed to make cars more efficient and less polluting. If the proposal goes ahead, it could mean up to 931 million metric tons of additional CO₂ pumped into the atmosphere by 2035. And this at a time when a landmark United Nations report says we are rapidly running out of time to reduce emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change.
America loves cars. Rates of ownership for cars and trucks are at their highest levels since the financial crisis a decade ago. And the ongoing addiction to fossil fuel-powered vehicles continues to have a hugely damaging effect.
Transportation eclipsed power generation to become the biggest single source of CO₂ emissions in the U.S. in 2016. As well as contributing to climate change, cars powered by fossil fuels make a major contribution to air pollution, which globally causes 7 million premature deaths a year.
Research has shown that the pollutants from car exhausts have a harmful effect on almost every organ system in our body. While effects on our lungs are better known, these pollutants also affect our brains. A Yale School of Public Health study has linked air pollution to a “huge” reduction in intelligence levels, while another study found evidence that those living near busy roads have an increased risk of dementia.
Cars have social effects, too. They have made American cities more sprawling and many people driving long distances to and from work find it miserable and isolating. In contrast, psychological well-being is boosted when people walk, cycle or use public transit, according to British research on commuting.
“We’re seeing some cities around the world take really bold and aggressive action,” said Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the Clean Transportation for All campaign at the Sierra Club. “Leaders in the U.S. should be willing to make those forward-looking commitments.”
Some moves have been made to curb cars, most notably in California. Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica are among the cities that have committed to a C40 Cities declaration to cut the number of polluting vehicles on the streets and make cities more walkable. A bill proposed by a California lawmaker would ban gas-powered cars by 2040.
But even these approaches will be under threat if the Trump administration succeeds in gutting fuel efficiency legislation. Trump’s proposal would also challenge California’s ability to regulate car emissions and put an end to the state’s program to encourage people and businesses to buy electric cars.
There are developments that offer hope. The rise of electric vehicles for one, which some hope will continue despite regulatory rollbacks. Electric cars could be cheaper than their gasoline-powered counterparts as soon as 2025, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And cars powered solely by gas or diesel are expected to make up less than 50 percent of all new car sales in the U.S., Europe, China and India by 2031, according to a report from analysts IHS Markit.
An electric revolution could stretch to public transportation, too. “Electric buses are the ideal candidate to electrify ― they will be a no-brainer for cities to invest in,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environment engineering at Rice University in Houston. Currently only 300 of the more than 65,000 buses in the U.S. are electric, although cities such as New York, L.A. and San Francisco have set deadlines to convert their bus fleets to electric over the next few decades.
“If more cities can team together to get bulk-rate deals, they can play a big role in helping jump-start the wider electric vehicle market,” Cohan said.
But, although there are promising signs, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles remains slow. Consumers are put off by the lack of charging infrastructure and the higher cost of hybrids and electric cars compared with equivalent diesel and gasoline-only vehicles. For now, at least, conventional cars seem cheaper and easier to run.
In any case, replacing one type of car with another will not, on its own, usher in a sustainable society. Environmentalists believe a truly sustainable future demands far fewer vehicles and compelling alternatives to private ownership.
For one thing, mining vast quantities of the lithium and cobalt needed for electric vehicle batteries threatens to create a new kind of environmental problem. And some experts say that electric vehicles won’t crack the pollution problem anyway, as the cars will only be as clean as the energy produced by the U.S., which still predominantly comes from burning fossil fuels.
“To reduce the number of cars on the road, we need to provide people with the opportunity to switch from single-occupancy cars to good alternatives, whether it’s public transit, biking, walking or in making use of carpooling and shared rides,” said the Sierra Club’s Coplon-Newfield.
When it comes to public transit, however, for several decades U.S. authorities have failed to invest in any extensive new public transit projects. Systems have been left to languish unloved and underfunded while many put their hope in tech companies to solve mobility problems through electric vehicles, even electric scooters.
Mass transit advocates trying to convince the public of its merits have not been helped by the intervention of corporate interests into the debate.
The Americans for Prosperity group, for example, funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, has been waging well-organized political campaigns against rail and bus schemes in Nashville, Phoenix and Little Rock, Arkansas, and in other growing metropolitan areas across the country.
A proposal for a light-rail system and new bus routes in the Tennessee capital was rejected by voters in May after the group successfully portrayed the plan as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Portland, Oregon-based public transit consultant Jarrett Walker thinks supporters of mass transit must explain the stakes of the debate in much starker terms.
“You have to clearly describe what a no transit project vote means,” Walker explained. “Voters always falsely assume that if they say no, it means everything stays as it is. But in a growing region, that’s false. So a future without the transit project ― more car-dependence, more pollution, congestion, bad health and climate change ― needs to be described clearly in all its horror.”
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