Ever since the first production car rolled off the assembly line more than 100 years ago, our love affair with automobiles has grown and grown. In countries like the UK, France, Italy and Germany there are now around 5 vehicles for every 10 people. In the USA, Australia and New Zealand, the number is higher still.

But, after a century of the automobile playing a central part in our lives, we’re starting to see a shift toward alternative forms of transport. If this trend continues, the car’s domination of global transport could soon come to a spluttering end.

Cars in Beijing © Greenpeace / Natalie Behring
A gardener tends to shrubs along Beijing’s third-ring road during a weekday rush hour. Beijing is notorious for its smog and is rapidly earning the distinction of having the highest vehicular pollution in the world.

Hidden cost of cars

With the cost of electric vehicles set to plummet over the next decade, many car firms now admit that the future is an electric one. But will this be enough? Shouldn’t we also be asking ourselves if we need so many cars in the first place?

If we could flick a switch and turn every fossil fuelled car into an electric one, lungs across the planet would breathe a sigh of relief as toxic emissions dropped (as long as the electricity used was from clean energy sources).

But this wouldn’t address the problem of just how wasteful a car dominated transport system is.

In 2016, more than 72 million new cars hit the road. Manufacturing such a giant quantity of vehicles year on year uses vast quantities of steel, aluminium, copper, glass, rubber, and other raw materials.

It’s a great environmental cost, considering the majority of these vehicles sit idle 95% of the time.

Parked cars take up a vast amount of space, too. In urban areas in Los Angeles county, an estimated 14% of land – 200 square miles – is dedicated to parking.

Changing attitudes

Though progress is often slow, city planners and politicians are gradually waking up to the fact that when cities offer safe and affordable alternatives to cars, we start to travel differently.

Cyclists on Street in Copenhagen © Chris Grodotzki / Greenpeace
Cyclists cycling on street in Copenhagen. © Chris Grodotzki / Greenpeace

More and more young people are choosing bicycles, buses and trains over owning a car out of the sheer cost. In Berlin, it’s public transport, not cars, which is the coolest way of getting around.

In Copenhagen, a city that has a long held reputation for being bike-friendly, a whopping 62% of people choose to cycle their commute.

In the French city of Lyon, the number of cars entering the city has fallen by 20% compared to just a decade ago. As the city’s network of bike hire stations continues to grow, town planners are hoping for a further 20% decline.

In London, where cycle super-highways are becoming popular, the share of journeys made by car has fallen by a quarter since 1990.

Car free days are rising in popularity in many of the world’s largest cities, giving people a taste of what it’s like to live with less noise, traffic and pollution. Bogota was one of the first cities to introduce a car free day, and it’s now become so popular that it’s been extended to a full week.

Our vision

Though the rise of electric cars should be celebrated, a truly sustainable transport system isn’t just about ditching fossil fuel vehicles.

It’s about building more cycle lanes, and supporting schemes to get people on bikes in the first place. It’s about constructing roads which encourage a more diverse range of travel – cycling, electric scooters and cargo bikes – instead of so heavily favouring cars. It’s about mass transport that runs on clean energy and is affordable and easy for everyone to use. And it’s about all of us – citizens, politicians, and businesses – playing a part in making it happen.

To coincide with the World Economic Forum taking place in Davos this week, Greenpeace has published Freedom to Breathe: Rethinking Urban Transport, a report that lays out our vision for the future of transport.

Richard Casson is a campaigner for Greenpeace UK