A Nexus of Crises, and how to solve them.
Updated: Mar 29
“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is one of the more sanguine quotes of Winston Churchill. At the beginning of 2022, there is such a confluence of crises, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. The war in Ukraine has intersected with the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis. It has laid bare the fallacy of relying on fossil fuels, mostly supplied by autocracies for the running of our lives. Revenue from these resources are being used to carry out atrocities from Ukraine to Yemen. Even as the appalling war rumbles on, displacing millions, Russia receives €1 Billion a day from European countries for oil and gas, and perversely, they are benefiting from the increased costs caused by the war.
We have been lulled into a false sense of security, so much so, that up to just a few years ago, the thought of anything but a suburban house with 2 cars in the drive was always going to be the default development model. Some, advocating for further car-based development, think it still.
How wrong we were. This transfer of transport responsibility from public sector to the private individuals is also a huge failure of public policy. Our towns and cities become ever more congested and less safe, particularly for those we declare to protect the most, our children. The costs of this transfer of responsibility is staggering.
An academic paper published by Gossling , Kees , Litman (2020) found that the lifetime cost of car ownership in Germany is between €599,082 for a small 1.2L car to €956,798 for a top of the range car.
Approximately 40% of this cost is due to the private ownership costs and 60% the societal and health costs of car ownership.
“Results confirm that motorists underestimate the full private costs of car ownership, while policy makers and planners underestimate social costs”.
The costs of car ownership also disproportionately negatively affect those on lower incomes with the cost of a small car representing 60% of net income for an unskilled worker.
This is an abysmal failure of social policy and a searing abdication of responsibility by successive governments.
To put this into total cost for Ireland. We have approximately 2.2m private registered cars. Taking the median lifetime cost of €780,000 x 2.2m amounts to €1.716 Trillion, over 50 years. That equates to approximately €34.32 Billion per year, €14 Billion of which is foisted onto individuals for transport. It also locks in unsustainable development and carbon emissions for decades into the future and severely impacts costs of living, especially for the most vulnerable in society.
To put this figure in context, a 425km high speed rail line from Cork to Belfast would cost €6.4 Billion by European construction cost averages. While new urban light rail costs about €55m/km due to the large amount of civil engineering works needed to divert services, innovations like very light rail currently being installed in Coventry (population 345,000) is being delivered for €12m/km.
In Cork, the new 18km of light rail from Ballincollig to Mahon is estimated to cost €1 Billion. But for very light rail, 83km could be delivered for the same cost, delivering true integrated mass transit. While it may not be suitable everywhere, it is certainly an option to scale mass transit to smaller towns where light rail would otherwise not be viable.
These multiple crises present an opportunity to revisit our relationship with rail and immediately cease the vast majority of plans for further road building.
The Problem with Electric Cars
The conflict in Ukraine should teach us to be less dependent on others for vital technology and resources.
Currently, China has control of 90% of the world’s rare earth minerals needed for batteries and electrification. This raises the risk of being dependent on and compromised by a large geopolitical entity. Aside from the cost of replacing the country’s ICE cars with battery electric, it would be a strategic mistake.
Aside from the huge upfront cost of electric cars, the main problem is that they are still cars. All of the same problems with the exception of fuel costs will still exist, and as the life time cost report shows, there are other much better use of funds.
Of course, rolling out a major rail building programme takes considerable planning and time whereas the cost of living crisis is now. During covid, cities around the world rolled out protected cycle routes at lightening pace. Cycling could be termed a silver bullet solution due to its low cost, fast application and very high cost benefit ratios. A study conducted in the Netherlands found that cycling prevented 6,500 deaths each year and had health related benefits to the economy of €19 Billion per annum.
Bringing it all Together
Our pattern of development over the last 60 years has led to a highly car dependent culture. Immediately ceasing car dependent development in all its forms is vital to transition to a low carbon and cost-efficient future. While cars will continue to form part of the future, private car ownership should not be the default. Greater use of car sharing and pooling services, micro mobility and expanded public transport has to be embraced fully. Expanding affordable, efficient rail, together with extensive cycling infrastructure would be a wise investment for a competitive economy, energy security, our children’s future and a liveable planet.
Gossling, S., Kees, J. and Litman, T. (2020). 'The lifetime cost of driving a car'. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800921003943 [Accessed on 26.03.22]
Fishman, E., Schepers, P. and Kamphuis, C. B. M. (2015). 'Dutch Cycling: Quantifying the Health and Related Economic Benefits'. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4504332/ [Accessed on 26.03.22]