Unsustainable practices: Why electric cars are a failure of ambition

By Nicola Spurling, Lancaster University and Dan Welch, University of Manchester

Originally published on Talking Climate 

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 fulfil 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 [PDF].

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’ [PDF]  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 focussing 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 pre-requisite 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.

Focussing 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:  http://www.sprg.ac.uk/projects-fellowships/theoretical-development-and-integration/interventions-in-practice—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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4 Responses to Unsustainable practices: Why electric cars are a failure of ambition

  1. Ben Anderson says:

    It’s worth remembering that EVs are also seen as a potential way to store electricity which can then be fed back into the house (for example) to help smooth out demand on the grid. This is especially relevant for generation sources that match poorly to peaks in demand (such as solar PV or night-time wind) but which match well to periods of immobility. Essentially this would provide a distributed national storage system which just happens to be on wheels.

  2. Mike says:

    The main problem with electric cars is the charging, its charging takes too much time.

  3. Alison Kidd says:

    I agree that electric vehicles (EV) won’t help if they simply replace fossil fuel cars (in their masses) with electric ones given the current grid mix for electricity. However, at the risk of a severe attack of cognitive dissonance (I drive an electric Twizy and share an electric community van!), EV’s are having some useful side effects:-

    Because the energy consumption of EV’s is SO much more critical, they (along with the government emissions policies) are stimulating the design and production of cars of all kinds which are MUCH more energy efficient because (for the first time) there are incentives for doing that. Similarly, driving any EV makes you MUCH more aware of energy consumption and soon you find you are driving slower, avoiding braking and acceleration whether you are driving an EV or a fossil fuel car.

    Living and working in rural (hilly) Wales, we are exploring ultra lightweight electric vehicles (something between bicycles and cars) which will carry people the few miles to the nearest shop, bus stop or community car club. We have run trials here with electric bicycles but found a real reluctance from a lot of people to ride a bike at all. The irony is that our lanes are filled every w/e by hundreds of lycra clad cyclists (who arrive by car!) and see cycling as a leisure pursuit and not a functional means of travel.

  4. John Hardy says:

    The idea that EVs don’t save much carbon is oil industry propaganda. I drive a Vauxhall Ampera and in electric mode I can drive it 14 km on the energy used merely to extract, refine and distribute enough petrol to drive 17 km in petrol mode. EVs have a long tail pipe, but ICE cars have both a long tailpipe and a short tailpipe. Leave the oil in the ground and send me the electricity.

    I also have solar panels on the roof of my house so drive much of the time on sunlight. An ICE car does not give me that option and I probably wouldn’t have bothered with solar if I drove one

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