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Electric cars are not the future of transport

In cities at least, e-bikes make more cultural and consumer sense

Think of a city you know, and try to picture it five years from now. Will its streets be full of electric cars, some of them self-driving? If so, then the current travails of electric vehicles (EVs) will have been a mere speed bump.

US sales have slowed well below the government’s target, EVs’ share of the British market has stopped growing and only 1.2 per cent of European passenger cars in 2022 were battery-powered.

We know that some vehicle is going to replace the combustion-engine car. The European Union, UK, California and several other US states will ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035, with the phasing out starting much earlier.

So what will most drivers shift to? Will they take up electric cars – in effect, just a cleaner version of what they already had – or switch modes of transport altogether? My bet is that, in cities at least, the e-car won’t be the vehicle of the future. I suspect it will keep falling further behind e-bikes, e-mopeds and e-scooters.


Electric cars’ biggest downside is the upfront price – currently 30 or 40 per cent higher than for combustion vehicles. EVs may simply be too expensive to expose to the daily vicissitudes of city streets. (The car rental agency Hertz is selling a third of its electric fleet partly because of high damage costs.)

EVs also emit more carbon over their life cycle than any form of urban transport except petrol cars. They are still worthwhile for people in sprawling suburbs, who drive long distances every day and who will earn back the emissions and the financial outlay by never buying petrol or diesel again. Heavily used communal vehicles, such as buses and taxis, should go electric, too.

Even in the US, about half of car journeys in the busiest cities are less than three miles. Many urbanites now probably drive a car because they have a car

But an electric car doesn’t make sense for individual urbanites. Few of them drive enough. European car mileage has been falling since 2000. In Britain, 57 per cent of cars are driven less than 100 miles a week, calculates the consultancy Field Dynamics.

Even in the US, about half of car journeys in the busiest cities are less than three miles. Many urbanites now probably drive a car because they have a car. But if they can find a way not to pay $50,000 for an EV (or in some places, to buy just one rather than two) they will slash their cost of living.

EVs face many other obstacles. Cities are reclaiming space from cars. Paris, where I live, is holding a referendum on February 4th on a special parking tax for heavier SUVs.

In a few years, mayors might start tackling self-driving cars. These are so convenient that if they ever became affordable for the mass market, almost everyone would buy one, and they would clog up cities.

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Then there’s the problem of charging EVs. Suburbanites with home garages can install chargers, but the lack of public chargers on city streets hasn’t become a major issue yet only because so few people own EVs. (The same goes for the shortage of lithium for batteries.) Even if you find an urban charger that works, charging can take hours.

Crucially, too, most of the world’s EVs are made in China, so there won’t be an aggressive western lobby easing their way. On the contrary, governments may well raise tariffs to block them rather than let China devastate yet another western industry.

About 5.5 million e-bikes were sold in the EU in 2022, against just two million electric cars

For a city-dweller ditching a petrol car, the calculation then becomes: instead of an EV, can I buy a much cheaper, health-giving e-bike that I can charge in my flat, and supplement with the odd taxi ride? That is the trend.

European and US car sales peaked in 2019. About 5.5 million e-bikes were sold in the EU in 2022, against just two million electric cars.

Many car-owners now use bikes for short trips. E-bikes are even making the self-preserving leap to status symbol, with Lamborghini and Maserati producing fancy models, and Porsche developing bike motors, batteries and software.

Bikes are also becoming a cultural urban norm. I see this in Paris, where only one in three households now owns a car, and cycle paths are full even in January, something that I used to be told would never happen. Bikes move faster in Paris than cars, city hall’s statistics show.

Then there are all the other electrical options. Worldwide, according to Bloomberg, there are 280 million electric mopeds, scooters, motorcycles and three-wheelers compared with just 20 million passenger EVs. Looking back in five years, we may conclude that electric cars were made for American suburbia and for almost nowhere else. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024