Is Edinburgh really going to ban SUVs?
How the Scottish Capital is aiming to take a global lead in the charge against 'auto-obesity'
There is now a name for it: auto-obesity. The way so many of us replace our cars with bigger and heavier models is also known as ‘car bloat’.
You can’t have missed the growing number of SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) and 4x4s on the city’s streets. The same thing is happening across most of the developed world.
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Car park operators have felt compelled to act, creating extra wide bays in a failing attempt to keep up.
Now a serious push back is underway and growing in size and ambition. It goes far beyond the Tyre Extinguisher eco-activists letting down tyres on the ‘Chelsea tractors’ in affluent city neighbourhoods from Trinity to Marchmont.
A handful of city authorities are drawing up plans designed to discourage SUV ownership amid growing evidence of their negative impact on the environment and the safety of vulnerable road users.
Paris, Frankfurt and now Edinburgh are looking at higher charges and other disincentives for driving heavier vehicles in urban areas. Edinburgh is believed to be the first local authority in the UK to commit to exploring such steps.
If the Capital implements one of the measures it is considering - using Traffic Regulation Orders to ban SUVs from certain streets at particular times - it is likely to be the first in the world to do so.
The rise of the SUV
SUVs are popular. It is easy to see the attraction, extra space for transporting the extended family in comfort. The extra height gives you a sense of security and they are easier to get in and out of, especially for older drivers. They are also the safest cars on the road - for those travelling in them, but not other road users. More on this shortly.
SUVs accounted for 45% of global car sales last year and around half of new car sales in the UK. In Europe, in the last six months of 2022, they accounted for more than half of all new vehicles sold for the first time.
Without doubt they are the main driver of profits for motor manufacturers. Volvo, for example, now only sells SUVs in the UK after abandoning saloon and estate cars altogether.
This has all changed the nature of the traffic on our roads. One study found that average weight of cars in Europe had increased by almost 30% (from 1186kg in 2000 to 1521kg in 2021); the average power of cars has increased by 60% (from 65kW to 103kW); and the average bonnet height by 15% (from 73cm to 83cm).
The case against ownership
SUVs have been blamed for everything from causing pot holes to fueling air pollution and posing a risk to road safety. Some of these accusations have more substance than others.
Holding them responsible for causing potholes, because they weigh more than standard cars, does not stand up to much scrutiny. Aren’t city roads supposed to be able to bear the weight of buses and lorries without breaking up?
They are, however, more polluting. Heavier vehicles use more fuel and SUVs are on average around a third heavier than hatchbacks, saloons and estate cars. The International Energy Agency estimates SUVs require up to 25% more fuel. Exhaust emissions, a significant cause of air pollution in cities, is greater. Even if all SUVs switched to electric, there are still environmental issues. Harmful particles from tyres and brakes are produced in greater volume by heavier vehicles.
The road safety argument is perhaps the most significant and the main prompt for Edinburgh council’s commitment to exploring what action can be taken.
Lessons from Belgium
Prompted by concerns about the impact of so many vehicles becoming heavier, taller and more powerful, the VIAS Institute in Belgium carried out a major study. It looked at all crashes in the country between 2017 and 2021, involving 300,000 car passengers and vulnerable road users.
What it found was the increased weight of SUVs had a significant effect on the outcome of any crashes in which they were involved. Drivers and passengers in the SUVs were significantly more likely to escape death or serious injury, the outcomes for everyone else - including the drivers of other cars, pedestrians and cyclists - were significantly worse.
Its key findings included:
Vehicle mass: In a collision between a car weighing 1600 kg and a lighter car weighing 1300 kg, the risk of fatal injury decreases by 50% for the occupants of the heavier car but increases by almost 80% for the occupants of the lighter car.
Bonnet height: The risk of fatal injuries to vulnerable road users increases as the bonnet height of the vehicle hitting them increases. For example, a pedestrian or cyclist hit by a car with a bonnet 90 cm high runs a 30% greater risk of fatal injury than if hit by a vehicle with a bonnet 10 cm lower.
SUVs: SUV occupants are less likely to suffer serious or fatal injuries than car occupants. Occupants of a car involved in an accident with an SUV have a higher risk of serious injury. The risk of serious injury decreases by 25% for SUV occupants but increases by 20% for occupants of a car involved in an accident with an SUV.
For Ellen Townsend, the European Transport Safety Council’s director of policy, the conclusion is inescapable. She said: “This study shows how the car industry’s relentless push to sell ever larger and heavier SUVs in every segment is bad news for road safety, but particularly for those driving smaller, more efficient vehicles, and vulnerable road users. This trend is only getting worse with electrification as SUVs also need the heaviest batteries. It’s critically important that the EU, national governments and local authorities push the market towards vehicles that are more fit for purpose and safer for all road users.”
So, what is Edinburgh going to do?
Some headlines this week suggested that Edinburgh was hoping to ban SUVs from all or part of the city or alternatively refuse to grant their owners residents’ parking permits. While both these steps are technical possibilities - nothing after all has been ruled out as yet - they are highly unlikely.
The city council has committed to “explore the feasibility of steps to discourage or restrict larger and heavier vehicles in the city” after the idea received cross-party support.
What is entirely possible - and maybe even probable - following this week’s council vote - is smaller, more targeted measures. Detailed plans will be brought forward early next year, but expect to see proposals like:
an increase in the charge for a residents’ parking permit if you own an SUV,
a ban on SUVs using specific streets at particular times, for example, ones identified as safe walking or cycling routes to schools.
These kind of measures are most likely to fall within the powers available to the city council and command popular support at the City Chambers.
Classifying what is and what is not an SUV can be vague, so the vehicles targeted by any council measures are likely to be identified by the weight of the model.
More radical steps such as adding SUVs to the vehicles banned from the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) due to take effect in Edinburgh city centre next year are more problematic and not being actively explored. The LEZ is being implemented as part of a national programme meaning significant changes would need Scottish Government approval and potentially new legislation.
‘Think before you buy your next car’
Chas Booth, the Green city councillor for Leith, is the driving force behind the moves to try to cut the number of SUVs on Edinburgh’s roads. He is clear that any measures introduced will need to pass three tests first.
There will, he says, need to be full consultation to ensure that the measures are fair, with exemptions for specific groups who would otherwise face an unjust impact, such as disabled people and businesses relying on commercial vans.
They will need to be enforceable within the legal powers and technology available to the council, including CCTV cameras, and there will need to be evidence to suggest the measures are likely to change people’s behaviour.
“This is about sending a message to people when they're buying a new car to consider buying a lighter one, or perhaps even to consider alternatives to the car,” he says. “For example, you might think about using bus or bike or walking, or a combination of those for everyday journeys, and then perhaps membership of the car club or renting cars for journeys that are are longer or more difficult by public transport.”
Booth says there is now a strong case for taking action, both on road safety grounds and environmental ones.
“The evidence on road safety does appear to be there. For every 300 kilogramme increase in the mass of the car, the probability of death for vulnerable road users involved in an accident increases by 23%. That’s quite a significant increase for a small increase in weight.
“We also need to look at the other problems that are associated with our overall over-reliance on cars and tackle those as well.
“If we simply convert all of our existing cars on the road to smaller electric vehicles that might help significantly with road safety, but it will still leave the other challenges like our clogged road system in Edinburgh. Then there is the impact of congestion on the amount of public space that is taken up in the storage of motor vehicles.”
Action around the world
Edinburgh is one of a very small number of global cities to have so far announced plans to take action. Others are likely to follow.
US legislators are preparing to close a tax anomaly dating back to the 1970s when heavier vehicles were almost entirely working ones. The “SUV loophole” continues to tax manufacturers in the US lower rates for larger vehicles. The French government is considering a national levy on heavier cars.
In Paris - which pioneered the idea of the 15-minute city - the city authority has agreed to impose higher parking fees on owners of SUVs in its battle to cut down on air pollution.
The exact details of the charges, due to come into effect on 1 January, 2024, have yet to be announced, but the size and weight of vehicles will be taken into account. Electric vehicles and those with larger families are expected to be exempt.
David Belliard, a deputy mayor responsible for public space and mobility policy, said SUVs were inappropriate in a city.
“SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture,” he said.
Lyon in the south of France is drawing up similar plans, while the German university city of Tubingen is doing the same. Frankfurt is reportedly increasing fines for running red light for SUVs on the basis that the heavier vehicles pose a greater risk to pedestrians.
The tide appears to be turning around the world.
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