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Electric vehicles won’t solve the suburbs’ transport woes

People in the outer suburbs - who need a cheaper alternative for their long commutes - are unlikely to buy electric vehicles. Steve Kay

Electric vehicles have been touted as the dream technology to solve our suburban transport challenges and rescue us from oil dependence and environmental threats. Yet technology use occurs in a social context. Almost no discussion of electric vehicles has addressed the uneven suburban social patterns among which electric vehicles might be adopted.

The evidence that my colleagues Neil Sipe, Terry Li and I have assembled suggests the socio-economic structure of Australian suburbia, in combination with the distribution of public transport infrastructure, constitutes a major barrier to the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, especially among the most car-dependent households.

Relying on electric vehicles as a solution to energy and environmental problems may perpetuate suburban social disadvantage in a period of economic and resource insecurity.

Australia’s five largest cities are the most car-dependent national set outside the United States. Our previous studies (Dodson and Sipe 2007; 2008 have shown that outer suburban residents, especially those with lower socio-economic capacity, are among those most exposed to the pressures of higher transport fuel prices.

Future transport fuel costs are likely to be even higher (currently oil is approximately US$100 per barrel). Unconventional oil sources such as shale or tar sands may be abundant, but they have much higher production costs than conventional light crude. Their current production boom is underpinned by expectations that global oil prices will remain high or increase further over the long term.

Higher oil prices and the need to constrain carbon emissions will likely lead to much higher transport fuel costs than have prevailed in the past decade.

Electric vehicles are often presented as the most likely way to resolve this transport conundrum. Australia’s 2012 Energy White Paper alludes to a transition to electric vehicles as the economy of conventional fuels wanes.

Much of the Energy White Paper and the rhetoric around electric vehicles assumes an unproblematic transition - consumers will change their behaviour in response to price pressures. There is little discussion of potential barriers and impediments to this comforting, convenient narrative.

It makes sense that households who are most car dependent and least able to afford higher fuel prices would be the most eager to switch to an electric car. But, it turns out, the social structure of Australian suburbia means these groups are poorly placed to lead such a transition.

In our study of Brisbane we created datasets linking vehicle fuel efficiency with household socio-economic status. In our analysis, high vehicle fuel efficiency, including hybrids, serves as a proxy for future electric vehicles. We linked motor vehicle registration data with the Green Vehicle dataset on fuel efficiency, plus travel and socio-economic data from the ABS Census.

Our analysis builds a rich picture of how the spatial distribution of vehicle efficiency intersects with suburban socio-spatial patterns, using Brisbane and Sydney as case studies.

We found that the average commuting distance increases with distance from the CBD while average fuel efficiency of vehicles declines. So outer suburban residents travel further, in less efficient vehicles, than more centrally situated households. Outer suburban residents are also likely to be on relatively lower incomes than those closer in.

The result is those living in the outer suburbs have relatively weaker socio-economic status but are paying more for transport. For example, one-third of the most disadvantaged suburbs in greater Brisbane also have the most energy-intensive motor vehicle use.

A socially equitable transition to highly fuel efficient or electric vehicles ought to favour those with the highest current exposure to high fuel prices. Yet our research finds it’s not likely to happen.

Outer suburban groups also own the oldest vehicles in the fleet - they can’t afford newer ones - and this also contributes to poor fuel efficiency and big transport bills. The newest most fuel efficient vehicles are more commonly purchased by wealthier inner-urban households. They can afford the car, but have less need of the efficiency because they don’t travel as far. If such patterns are applied to electric vehicles, their high cost and novelty status means they’re likely to also be taken up by this more advantaged group. Any subsidies offered to spur their uptake will be largely captured by the wealthy.

The implication of our analysis is that the intersection of new fuel and vehicle technology costs with the social and travel patterns in Australian cities mean that suburban households face continued socio-economic stress even as these new vehicles become more widely adopted in Australian cities.

So if new technologies such as electric cars aren’t the solution, how can we secure suburban households against higher fuel prices?

We need a sustained strategy to redress the grossly inequitable supply of public transport to our suburbs. We also need to decentralise our cities, getting jobs and services out into the suburbs and reducing the distances people need to travel by car.

Electric vehicles may be fantastic technology but they risk heading up a cul-de-sac of real suburban vulnerability.

The full paper on which this article is based can be downloaded for free until 6 March 2013.

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