Supercharging mobility: making movement joyful in cities
This is the second in the series by Issy exploring how we use critical minerals, the human implications and how it needs to change. The first piece discussed climate justice and creating new systems away from extractivism. In this piece, we dive into moving people around cities; and the importance of moving the most people per mineral ion to avoid global critical mineral shortage.
Supercharging mobility: making movement joyful in cities
Our systems of movement have for a long time relied on fossil fuels, at great cost to air quality and public health. In the UK, the electrification of transport is well on its way, with electric cars, buses and trains increasingly prevalent. One of the most interesting transformations occurring simultaneously is the rethinking movement, particularly in cities. Our daily journeys have a significant impact on personal, community and planetary health. As we make batteries to move, we have a major opportunity to rethink the status quo.
The wheels on which we put batteries, how large we make the packs, and how we structure charging infrastructure will directly affect demand for minerals and population health. This article will set out some of the visions and challenges in using batteries for movement equitably, and why we should think about urban planning as integral to making EVs. The battery industry in particular experiences a significant moral dilemma, as much of its past, present and future is tied tightly to the car industry. Acknowledging this system and pushing for better policy around mineral use will hold the key to avoiding massive supply shortages.
This article will focus on moving people, rather than freight, which is a separate discussion.
Democratising mineral use
Electric Vehicles and their mineral demand
Intercalating Batteries and Urban Planning
1. Democratising mineral use
‘In an era of ecological emergency, we cannot afford to build policy around fantasies.’ Jason Hickel, 2020.
Can we realistically replace every car in the world with an EV in the time frame that would be required to cut emissions to stay below 2 or 1.5 degrees? Are there enough raw materials that we can get out of the ground in that timescale without blowing our carbon budget?
Globally, the richest 10% of the world’s population uses nearly three times as much energy per year compared to the poorest 30%. As the world electrifies, if we don’t address this, this will translate into a minerals inequality with parts of the population using vastly more critical minerals. Often the countries that provide the minerals are those with the least access to using them.
The Democratic Republic of Congo produces around 70% of the current global production of cobalt, a key metal in lithium ion batteries, and yet the average energy use in a year per capita is 411 kWh, and only 19% of the population have access to electricity. This compares to 30,098 kWh for the UK, and 78,754 kWh for the USA, both of which currently produce 0% and 0.37% of the world’s cobalt respectively. It is extremely important that the value of the cobalt mineral is not stripped in order to electrify rich countries without also investing in the infrastructure and conditions in the DRC.
An equitable transition would prioritise building batteries for mini-grids from the DRC cobalt, providing electrification to rural areas in the country, over building huge cars out of a finite and precious resource. This could be facilitated by policy agreements: if you necessitated that extraction required a social payback that would enable more just consumption of minerals. Any policy considering critical minerals must address both supply and demand, a lot of which comes from EVs and stationary storage.
Stationary storage will be needed to give the grid the required resilience to be entirely fossil fuel free. This kind of critical mineral use is national infrastructure that will be a key component of any stable net zero nation, giving their electricity grid resilience to handle ebbs and flows in demand and supply of wind and sun. Meeting daily needs first and luxuries second will democratise critical minerals, and not sell our limited supply to the highest bidder.
This article will consider the demand coming from EVs. A more holistic approach to sustainability is required to ensure a longevity and supply of minerals for this energy transition. We need to make sure we are thinking about how best to use minerals, rather than electrifying the systems we have already.
2. Electric Vehicles
Electric powertrains are the future. They’re significantly more efficient than petrol engines, in which only 12-30% of the fuel put into a car makes it to the wheels or other useful functions. In contrast, electric motors are around 77% efficient.
The main cathode materials used in electric car batteries in 2023 are; lithium iron phosphate (LFP) , lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), and lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (NCA). Increasing electric vehicle production requires a significant shift in the existing global supply chain, particularly around lithium, cobalt, nickel and cobalt production. This graphic below produced by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence captures the full extent of the scale required.
The average lead time for a mine to achieve meaningful production is 15 years. In 2023, we are predicted to need over 300 new mines by 2035 to meet global demand. This raises the question of whether this expansion in mineral extraction can be done without compromising our social and environmental responsibilities, as discussed in the last part of this series. This demand is driven by both stationary storage, which will give the national grid the resilience it needs to be powered by exclusively renewables, and electric vehicles. If the demand outweighs the supply, there will need to be policy decisions on which to prioritise.
Perhaps this race to produce and own electric cars is not the golden ticket to net zero we have been sold. Driving and congestion are major causes of stress to many urbanites, and this opportunity of transition to electric offers the fantastic chance to rebalance public spaces by prioritising active travel and reliable and cheap public transport.
UC Davis sets out the choices for battery use. In dark blue, the lithium required per rider per mode of transport. For the Hummer electric truck, it’s a whopping 4.8kg Li per person. For a regular EV, it’s 1.6kg, but for an electric bus it is 0.52kg and for an eBike 0.2kg. In the UK, 68% of all journeys are under 5 miles. For those short journeys choosing to prioritise transport that requires less minerals will significantly alleviate the pressure on mineral demand and move more people more efficiently.
2. Intercalating Batteries and Urban Planning
We have a mobility system in cities that causes massive air pollution, unacceptable numbers of road collision deaths and extremely low efficiency of resource use. When we electrify that, we only remove the majority of the air pollution issue, but the others remain. To dive a little deeper, let’s look at the issues surrounding personal vehicles in urban scenarios.
The arguments for a change of pace are not simply material.
By 2050, around 70% of the world’s population are expected to live in cities. That’s a lot of people needing to move around in small, densely populated neighbourhoods. Designing for efficiency now will save an awful lot of time in future.
The diagram shows how much more efficient public transport and bike lanes are than car traffic for moving populations. Paris has been installing bike lanes for several years now, causing reportedly improved the response time of the fire service. The reallocation of road space to greenery and infrastructure for people to move actively creates places people want to move through, and spend time in.
B. Cost and Congestion
Congestion is a major problem in cities, not just for air quality, but also for economic productivity. Drivers in Birmingham, where I live, spend 9% of their driving time stuck in traffic, and it’s estimated to cost the city £407 million in lost revenue a year - £990 a year per driver. Yet, 41% of the journeys taken in a car in the greater Birmingham region are less than 2 miles.
In Lagos, congestion is set to cost the city $21 billion a month by 2030. The average speed in London for a car in rush hour is 9mph, which means that most cyclists at a leisurely pace will move faster through the city at rush hour. Replacing every vehicle with an electric equivalent does nothing to solve our congestion problems.
As seen in the diagram, economically driving is also the most heavily substituted form of transport. Cycling and walking end up benefiting society in reduced healthcare costs, as in 2014, it was reported that cycling could save the NHS £17 billion within 20 years and increase the mobility of the poorest families by 25% if the government spent £10 a head per year on safe cycling infrastructure. This would also increase the road’s efficiency.
This isn’t a new concept either. An article from the Independent in 1994 made very similar arguments for the UK and transport subsidies. In terms of cities with limited budgets, the most cost effective way to keep a city moving and productive is to invest in public transport over private vehicles.
C. Social Justice
The poorest households are significantly less likely to own a car, and yet significantly more likely to live in an area of high air pollution. In England and Wales in 2021, 22% of households did not own a car or van. The poorest households are nearly seven times more likely to lack access to a car as the richest.
The poorest communities also have higher exposure to traffic-related air pollution, shown by this study from 2019 in England. Those who are least responsible for traffic-related air pollution are also the most likely to be exposed to it.
Electric cars remove tailpipe emissions, improving air quality, but their greater weight due to the battery pack increases PM2.5 particle emissions, theworst form of air pollution for human health. These are caused by tyre and brake wear, which this company is trying to mitigate. Whilst being significantly better, it cannot be argued that they cause ‘zero’ air pollution.
D. Car Weight
The heavier the vehicle, the more damage it does to roads and infrastructure, and the more pollution is caused by wear and tear of the brakes and tyres. Extra weight also makes them more dangerous to other road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
One study found that every 1000 pounds (453kg) increase in vehicle weight generates an extra 40-50% risk of fatality for those involved in a collision with it. As the size of cars increases, the effect of collisions is more profound. This is particularly relevant for larger EVs with large and heavy batteries.
Heavier cars also contribute to greater wear and tear on the road infrastructure, resulting in greater repair costs. Paris now charges SUVs more to park, which is also being considered in New York, forcing owners of oversized SUVs and trucks to pay more than those in smaller and lighter cars.
E. Battery Pack Size
If most of your needs were met by a small rucksack that could carry all your daily requirements, but sometimes you needed a large suitcase to go on holiday, would you always travel with the suitcase? This is similar to driving enormous battery packs around, particularly as private cars spend 96% of their time sat still, on drives or in parking spaces.
Combining reduced car ownership with improving public transport and city active travel could cut lithium demand by up to 66% in the US alone.
F. Local Community Resilience
A study back in 1981 showed how less through-traffic on a street increased social interactions between neighbours. High traffic flow represents danger, pollution, and noise, all of which would discourage people chatting on the street, or letting their children play by its edge. Hence, less traffic means more community and neighbourly interactions. Anecdotally, it’s much easier to spot friends on foot or bikes and stop for a chat, than to have an equivalent interaction in a car.
Not everybody can move around without owning a car. It’s important to centre accessibility at the heart of any change. However, if unnecessary car journeys were eliminated, how much faster would it be for those who did need to drive around? The less people use cars, the more efficiently the people that need to use cars can move around.
There are also many people who use bikes of all forms as mobility aids, as a non-weight bearing mode of transport and exercise, and it is reported to particularly benefit those living with Parkinson’s. My grandpa zips around on an electric scooter; since he can hardly walk, but this micromobility aid is a lifeline for him moving about his home city. Electric trikes, with three wheels, are the chosen form of mobility aid for many who are less stable on two wheels. If you cater to the most vulnerable, you’ve also catered to the least vulnerable when something unexpected affects their mobility.
Adding things like benches, which have been slowly disappearing in the UK due to fears of antisocial behaviour, makes it much easier for those who cannot walk long distances without a rest, for example the elderly. If you keep the elderly mobile for longer by catering for their mobility needs, the health of your elderly population is increased, which means they can keep living independently for longer.
It’s worth remembering how charging infrastructure affects the urban landscape too. This is talked about in our recent article about the latest fast charging tech and this charity report, which analyses London boroughs policies on siting EV charge points. Chargers that are sited on pavements further encroach into the pedestrian realm. This has consequences as accessibility concerns for parents with buggies, wheelchair and cane users. If we want people to walk more, we have to make it as appealing as possible.
Final thoughts: channelling precious metals to movement
The battery industry must think more critically about how we use batteries to move people, and care about efficiency of mobility. To build a battery-powered future that works for everyone, particularly in cities where space is precious, we need to move the most people per mineral ion. Change is scary, but it offers opportunity, and we need to push for policy that enables us to make the best mineral choices.
In order to materially improve air quality, public space, and road traffic violence some cities will need a massive reduction in the number of private cars. That is not to say that electric cars will not have a place in cities. They will likely be important parts of the transport infrastructure and ecosystem, particularly as enablers of accessibility to cities.
Lithium ion batteries have been hooked up to all forms of wheels, and it is likely that they will be ever prevalent in cities transport infrastructure. Electric bikes, trikes, mobility scooters and scooters, rickshaws and buses use a fraction of the minerals per person, causing much less congestion and, in many cases, giving the user light exercise which will improve their health, hearts and happiness.
Imagine what could be done with the space no longer required for parking all those cars - from mini parks to allotments to coffee shop terraces. This will create more space for people, healthier cities, populations and communities. There will always be a hire car or van for that one time you do need to move a fridge.
The coming change will be transformational. Our cities could have so much space given back previously dedicated to cars, community areas created, and independence given back to both children and the elderly simultaneously. It’s time to fall back in love with movement for all the right reasons, because it is space and time we occupy as a community for a very sociable species. This change will need to be driven by us in the battery industry and the policy written to support this.
Fortunately, we already have all the resources and technology to make this future a reality.
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