Most modern cities have measures to reduce congestion. But if their goal is to dramatically improve air quality and extend lives shortened by pollution, then tolls and parking meters simply aren’t enough. It’s worth asking what a more ambitious target would look like.
Amsterdam has made itself a test case, proposing an outright ban on gas and diesel vehicles by 2030. That may sound extreme, or at least like the kind of thing that should only be attempted by a smallish city with picturesque bridges and lots of cycling enthusiasts. But the Dutch capital isn’t alone; it joins Chengdu, Hamburg, Madrid, Oslo and other cities in moving toward at least partial car bans to reduce pollution.
Amsterdam hopes to dramatically improve its air quality by encouraging people to switch to electric vehicles or to forgo driving altogether. The headline goal is hard to argue with. The question, as ever, is how to balance it with the inevitable costs that such a radical rethink will require.
It’s a debate cities around the world will need to have sooner rather than later: By 2050, an estimated two-thirds of the global population will be living and working in increasingly congested urban centers. Simply banning dirty cars isn’t enough on its own. Instead, cities must be ready to ease the transition.
That means, first, convincing people that the benefits of such a plan outweigh the downsides. Fortunately, in many cities, they will. Congestion wastes huge amounts of fuel, time and money each year. It impedes productivity and slows economic growth.
Pollution from cars not only contributes to climate change, it’s also a threat to well-being: Studies have found that it contributes to asthma and lung conditions, mental-health problems, and even premature deaths. Amsterdam’s council says it reduces life expectancy there by a full year.
Even so, getting people to ditch gas guzzlers in favor of more expensive electrics will be a challenge. That’s why any well-designed zero-emissions plan should feature a combination of regulations and inducements.
Cities should offer up-front incentives to buy zero-emission cars, for instance, as well as non-financial benefits such as parking vouchers. Higher taxes on petrol and diesel cars — whether via congestion tolls or at the pump — will encourage drivers to switch and offset some of the costs of the transition.
And those will be steep. Unavoidably, getting to zero-emissions will mean large-scale investment. Cities will not only need to expand and improve public transit options, but also invest in charging stations, electrify municipal taxis and buses, make accommodations for the elderly and disabled, design appealing public spaces for pedestrians, and more.
Drivers should bear some of these costs. But technology can also do its part. Cities should be open to new ways of getting around: scooter-renting and bike-sharing, driverless cars and delivery drones, hyperloops and underground skating pods. Taking advantage of such innovation, preferably in partnership with private companies, could help alleviate costs while also transforming the urban grid for the better.
Getting to a zero-emissions future sounds hard and is. But making increasingly crowded cities more livable has to become an urgent public-policy goal. Far better to set an overly ambitious target than to get left in the dust.
Note : This article was originally posted on Bloomberg.