The EV (Electric Vehicle) bubble

NREL,-owned electric vehicles (EVs) below solar canopy at the Vehicle Testing & integration Facility (VTIF), where vehicles are charged with photovoltaic (PV) - generated electricity and can provide backup energy to the grid when PV generation is low. Original public domain image from Flickr

Fit to burst

Lots of people seem to be pinning a lot of hopes on EVs (Electric Vehicles). At C=CC let us burst that bubble. Let’s compare and contrast the environmental, health, economic and societal credentials of EVs versus the humble bicycle.

Car vs bike

For a mass transport mode to be sensible, practical, fair, green and sustainable, and help deliver wellbeing to future Cardiff citizens, it needs to tick a lot of boxes. Let’s revisit the transport challenges Cardiff has:

Global warming: In use, bicycles have a miniscule carbon footprint. Granted, EVs aren’t running on fossil fuels like the engines of their petrol and diesel equivalents. However, for years or perhaps decades to come, they’re still burning fossil fuels indirectly through battery charging; in recent years Wales has generated no more than around half of its electricity from renewable sources. Welsh Government are working towards a target of 70% renewables generation by 2030 1. Until all our electricity is generated without greenhouse gas emissions, EVs use is still contributing to climate change. Also, before they even get into the hands of their first owners, both EVs and bicycles have a carbon footprint due to their raw materials, manufacture and distribution. Analysis suggests that the production of a mid-sized EV generates more than 8.1 million grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) before it reaches the first customer 6. Unsurprisingly, the early-life footprint of a (say) 10 kg bicycle is a tiny fraction of that of a (say) 1500 kg electric car. So, in global warming terms, it’s a clear win for the bicycle.

Traffic congestion: Capacity for movement of people is key to avoiding congestion. How do EVs and bicycles stack up? Plenty of research has been done in this area. Here, pictured, is just one example 2. Dedicating significant portions of city road infrastructure to light rail (e.g. trams) and buses delivers huge potential for moving people; probably not coincidentally what TfW are looking to do in Cardiff with their Metro. Walking, and wheeling for those in wheelchairs and the like, also provides good throughput. Cycling, via dedicated, modern, well designed cycle lanes is not far behind in terms of throughput. But languishing at the bottom, capacity-wise, and a sure fire way of clogging city streets, is the private motor vehicle. So, in traffic congestion terms, it’s another win for the bicycle.

Air quality: Even wholly electric non-hybrid EVs aren’t immune from emitting air pollution. Whilst free of exhaust emissions, they’re still responsible for particulate pollution from tyre and brake wear, just like their petrol and diesel equivalents. Bicycle tyres and brakes wear too but, unsurprisingly, emissions from a (say) 10 kg bicycle are a tiny fraction of that of a (say) 1500 kg EV. So, in air quality terms, it’s another win for the bicycle.

Mental health: Those of us who cycle regularly are well aware of its positive impact on our health, wellbeing and energy levels. As a mode of city transport, unsurprisingly, the bicycle outperforms the car (EV or otherwise) in this respect 3. So, in mental health terms, it’s another win for the bicycle.

Sedentary lifestyles: Nobody ever got fit sitting in a car. Regular cycling on the other hand reduces overall mortality risk, decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, decreases Type 2 Diabetes risk and reduces the risk of cancer-related mortality 5. So, in sedentary lifestyle terms, it’s another win for the bicycle.

Transport inequality: Wales-wide, 19% of Welsh households do not own a car 4. Of those households that do, some are overstretching their finances in order to keep on top of the costs of motoring. For many, the purchase and running costs of an EV are wholly unachievable. By comparison, bicycles are cheap to buy and cheap to run. So, in transport inequality terms, it’s another win for the bicycle.

Noise: We’re all now familiar with the whisper-quiet propulsive sounds of EVs at a walking pace. But does this mean city streets dominated by EVs will be quiet? Sadly not. As EV speeds pick up the quiet whirr of their electric motors is quickly matched and then dominated by tyre noise on the road surface; the problem probably exacerbated by battery-packed EVs routinely being significantly heavier than their petrol and diesel equivalents. All are no match for the humble, quiet, bicycle, so in noise pollution terms it’s another win for the bicycle.

Road casualties: Road casualties fluctuate year-on-year in Cardiff and the wider Wales. One constant remains however: More than 99% of deaths involve a motorised vehicle. It’s not bicycles killing other road users week-in week-out in Wales, it’s cars, vans, lorries etcetera. At 30mph a 1500kg EV (or diesel or petrol vehicle) has nearly 135kJ of kinetic energy. At 15mph a 10kg bicycle with a 70kg rider has less than 1.8kJ of kinetic energy. When things go wrong, the likelihood of a conventional car or EV killing someone is far greater than a bicycle involved in a collision. So, in road casualty terms, it’s yet another win for the bicycle.

Global warmingx
Traffic congestionx
Air qualityx
Mental healthx
Sedentary lifestylesx
Transport inequalityx
Road casualtiesx

So, where does this leave us? Against every single one of our tests the bicycle outperforms the EV. If we want the streets of Cardiff to be cleaner, quieter, safer, less congested, more humanised, readily available to more people and supporting healthier and happier lives there’s only one of these two transport modes we should let flourish.

Sources: 1 Welsh Government Energy Generation in Wales (2020), 2 Designing to Move People, National Association of City Transportation Officials, 3 Cycling is the healthiest way to get around cities, Imperial College London, 4 Office for National Statistics Census 2021, 5 Cycling and walking can help reduce physical inactivity and air pollution, save lives and mitigate climate change, World Health Organization, 6 

Reuters (from a model developed by the Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago).

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