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Unsustainable practices: why electric cars are a failure of ambition

Feb 28, 2014 by | 2 Comments

In this guest post by Nicola Spurling and Dan Welch, of the Sustainable Practices Research Group, they argue that a focus on ‘techno-fix’ solu­tions to cli­mate change like elec­tric cars simply per­petuate cur­rent (unsus­tain­able) prac­tices and rep­resent a failure of ambition.

In January David Cameron announced that his cab­inet might trade in their lim­ousines for elec­tric cars. It was the latest in a stream of ini­ti­at­ives to pro­mote the use of elec­tric vehicles.

Is this a wel­come case of polit­ical leaders ‘set­ting an example’? Or are these sorts of inter­ven­tions more likely to per­petuate cur­rent pat­terns of private car use than chal­lenge them?

The announce­ment is another example of the common ‘techno-fix’ approach to cli­mate change – in which futur­istic tech­no­lo­gies resolve the problem while everyday life car­ries on as normal. Electric cars are espe­cially alluring in this respect. Except that elec­tric cars won’t simply replace fossil fuel driven cars. Firstly, their lim­ited range means they only ful­fill some of the func­tions of the con­ven­tional car. Secondly, as a recent OECD report sug­gests , they will only save carbon emis­sions in the con­text of a massively de-carbonised elec­tri­city supply system re-engineered to cope with increased demand.

Retaining private car use by sub­sti­tuting petrol for elec­tric vehicles just repro­duces the ‘pre­dict and provide’ approaches of trans­port plan­ning developed in the 70s and 80s – in which rising levels of demand are per­petu­ated, nor­m­al­ised and inad­vert­ently encour­aged. But if this is the case, then what altern­ative approaches to policy are there?

The work of the Sustainable Practices Research Group begins to address this chal­lenge. Our starting point is that we largely con­sume resources as part of the prac­tices that make up everyday life – like driving, cooking or doing the laundry. So rather than the obses­sion with per­petu­ating demand for the private car, how about investing more to sub­sti­tute the prac­tice of driving for a more sus­tain­able one, such as cycling?

The recent TfL invest­ment in ‘quiet­ways’, cycle ‘super­high­ways’ and ‘mini Hollands’  is com­mend­able here. The idea of ‘modal shift’ – or chan­ging mode of trans­port – is not a new one: park and ride schemes or the London con­ges­tion char­ging scheme aim to do just that. But a social prac­tice per­spective casts the issue in a new light.

For example, many ini­ti­at­ives funded by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund  have aimed to shift short trips (under five miles) from driving to walking and cyc­ling. Although the objective is one of sub­sti­tu­tion, the inter­ven­tions tend to focus just on ‘growing’ the prac­tice of cyc­ling. Seldom is the poten­tial of ‘shrinking’ driving part of such ini­ti­at­ives. If the aim is modal shift, making one altern­ative easier and more attractive than the other makes sense: seeking to reduce demand for driving rather than catering for (assumed) increased demand.

Taking the debate a step fur­ther, why focus on trip length as the main char­ac­ter­istic of the jour­neys that we make? Rather, we could ask what everyday prac­tices are served by these trips?

Picking up the kids from school, com­muting or going shop­ping present very dif­ferent forms of driving, most obvi­ously, they require dif­ferent amounts of space for pas­sen­gers and goods. As such there is not just one, but rather mul­tiple cyc­ling altern­at­ives. These might require a variety of bike accessories, and more broadly, secure storage, the skills to cycle in dif­ferent kinds of traffic and with a range of loads (chil­dren, shop­ping) and work­place showers.  Identifying the kinds of jour­neys helps us under­stand the suit­able com­pon­ents of cyc­ling that might encourage a shift from driving.  Manchester’s Cycling Hub  takes such an approach to com­muter cyc­ling. Close to the railway sta­tion, it also provides secure storage, showers, a bike shop offering ser­vi­cing, and cycle skills training. Intervening to ensure the avail­ab­ility of mul­tiple cyc­ling altern­at­ives is an oppor­tunity for policy.

The focus on sub­sti­tu­tion chal­lenges the need for the private car in a way that focusing on decar­bon­ising driving does not. However, it still doesn’t ques­tion why and how the need to move around so much and so often has come to be as it is. Taking the example of shop­ping, having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it seems that owning a private car is the pre­requisite of pro­vi­sioning a family home. Actually this ‘need’ is the out­come of a his­tor­ical pro­cess which includes the devel­op­ment of out-of-town super­mar­kets and asso­ci­ated forms of land use, the rise of the car, the decline of high street shops and the gradual shift in shop­ping habits and routines.

Not only is the ‘need’ for the private car some­thing that should be within the realm of policy inter­ven­tion, the ‘need’ for cur­rent pat­terns of mobility per se should be there too. This is not as rad­ical as it first appears. The plan­ners of England’s ‘new towns’ in the 1950s and 1960s designed par­tic­ular ideas of ‘the good life’ into their plans, including cyc­ling infra­struc­tures linking quiet housing areas each with its own facil­ities. This is a more ambi­tious approach to policy than seeking to respond to a spurious notion of ‘demand’, but an ambi­tion more com­men­surate with the scale of the chal­lenge of trans­ition towards sustainability.

That ambi­tion should encom­pass inter­vening in the con­ven­tions of prac­tice and place which shape and govern our lives. Our cat­egor­isa­tions of prac­tice and place appear normal and ‘nat­ural’ to us because of their long his­tories of co-evolution, insti­tu­tion­al­iz­a­tion and stand­ard­isa­tion. But they can be redesigned in new and innov­ative ways, which we argue, have implic­a­tions for mobility.

The example of mobility reflects a more gen­eral tend­ency in sus­tain­ab­ility policy of catering to an ima­gined future which simply extra­pol­ates from the present. Not only does this rep­resent a failure of ambi­tion – to ima­gine a genu­inely dif­ferent future – it mis­un­der­stands social and tech­nical change. Technological and social change mutu­ally con­di­tion one another:  social prac­tices and tech­no­lo­gies co-evolve.

The future is never a simple extra­pol­a­tion of the present. A future in which elec­tric vehicles replace the demand for the con­ven­tional car would be a future in which elec­trical vehicles (with shorter ranges, long char­ging times and a rad­ic­ally new elec­tri­city infra­struc­ture) would them­selves change the prac­tices that underpin that demand. Approaching policy from the per­spective of social prac­tices, we sug­gest, offers novel ways to recon­figure pat­terns of con­sump­tion in more sus­tain­able directions.

Focusing on driving, eating and the home, The Sustainable Practices Research Group Report: Interventions in Practice: Reframing Policy Approaches to Consumer Behaviour can be down­loaded from:—sprg-report.

Nicola Spurling is Senior Research Associate in the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University. Her research is about how social prac­tices change, and the part that indi­vidual lives, insti­tu­tions, pro­fes­sions and policy play in these pro­cesses. She was pre­vi­ously a researcher in the Sustainable Practices Research Group at the University of Manchester.

Dan Welch is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, the University of Manchester. His research explores the use of the­ories of prac­tice for addressing sus­tain­able con­sump­tion and pro­duc­tion. He was pre­vi­ously a researcher in the Sustainable Practices Research Group.

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