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Reclaim our cities from the SUV army

Climate change

Reclaim our cities from the SUV army

These tanks of the urban road are environmentally harmful and entirely unnecessary

The pandemic has given us a chance to reclaim outdoor space, with cafés spilling on to pavements. Why is so much of our cities dedicated to cars? © Scott Barbour/Getty

Finally, spring is here. The sun is out. The pubs are open. The cars are . . . absolutely huge?

Seriously, did I shrink in lockdown, or did the vehicles get bigger? Amid London’s cherry blossom, the SUVs have taken over. They patrol the roads like an occupying army. Whose tanks are these? It’s the school run, not the Battle of Kursk.

According to a study by The New Weather Institute, the part of the UK with the highest proportion of SUV sales is Kensington and Chelsea. Seven of the top eight regions are around London; the other is the Cotswolds. Let’s face it: the only reason these cars go off-road is because they’re too big for the lanes. They bulge on to the pavements.

SUVs accounted for 38 per cent of new cars in the EU in 2019, up from 8 per cent a decade earlier, when oil prices were high. There were fewer than 50m of them worldwide in 2010; now there are more than 280m. They’re like a religion. Will no one rid us of these troublesome beasts?

SUVs do range from Land Rovers to so-called compact models. But they broadly have two problems. The first is emissions. Take the Volkswagen Tiguan, a medium SUV: it emits around 20 per cent more carbon dioxide per mile than a five-door Golf. Last year, the fuel saved by the rise of electric vehicles around the world was wholly cancelled out by the growth of SUVs, says the International Energy Agency.

Britons buy 17 SUVs for every battery electric car. As a result, the average car here has become less efficient since 2016, reversing years of progress. Only 3 per cent of SUVs sold worldwide are electric.

The second problem is size. The bigger the car, the more resources are needed to make it and the more wear and tear it inflicts on roads. And, though SUVs may make their occupants feel safe, they have the opposite effect on cyclists and pedestrians. Even driving a normal-sized car next to one, you feel like a seventies rugby player who has teleported into the professional era. So the answer isn’t just to make all SUVs electric. We want our cities back.

I’m not rigidly anti-car. I have a driving licence: when I first got it, I drove as badly as some SUV owners. Everyone uses a car sometimes.

But according to Jillian Anable, a professor at the University of Leeds, cars are 55 per cent bigger than in the 1970s. People are not, even after lockdown snacking, and nor are roads. In Kensington and Chelsea, and in Westminster, a fifth of new cars are now longer than the standard UK parking space.

The UK citizens’ climate assembly concluded that discouraging polluting cars was one of the most palatable ways of reducing vehicle emissions. If we can’t accept slightly smaller cars to stop climate meltdown, what will we do? Carmakers and politicians should act. Right now, SUVs pay the same vehicle excise duty as other petrol cars after their first year. Why? We should also charge them more for parking and permits. (Hammersmith & Fulham has recently taken a step towards this.)

The pandemic has given us a chance to reclaim outdoor space, with cafés spilling on to pavements. Why is so much of our cities dedicated to cars? In London, 44 per cent of households don’t own one. Imagine how much nicer our streets would be if some parking spaces were filled with benches and planters.

During lockdown I bought an electric cargo bike. It takes two kids on the back (or apparently one adult). It goes up steep hills. It doesn’t pollute my neighbours’ lungs. When I go to the shops, I don’t take 1.6 tonnes of metal with me.

Of course, I know my place. I see SUV drivers, riding high like colonial administrators on elephants. I doff my helmet as they pass. If only they would wind down their windows, I’d tell them the secret. My fellow city dwellers, you don’t need an SUV. You may not even need a car.

henry.mance@ft.com

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