On Sunday, the #StopSUV vote passed in Paris. In a local referendum, 54.6% of voters opted to introduce tripled parking fees for SUVs. While ostensibly a vote on parking fees, this vote was more widely seen as a rejection of SUVs across the city, intended to discourage them from being driven at all (It also amounts to a snub by the host Olympic city to leading Olympic sponsor, Toyota, which is a major manufacturer of SUVs). This follows a trend of decisions in Paris – including increased parking costs, gradually banning diesel vehicles and increased bicycle lane capacity – that suggests more and more people are sick of SUVs in their streets. According to polling conducted before the vote, more than 6 out of 10 Parisians were in favour of increasing parking charges for large, heavy and more polluting vehicles, and the majority have a negative opinion of SUVs overall.
So what’s the deal with SUVs, and what can we do?
Huge, heavy, highly polluting
If SUVs were a country, they would be the sixth most polluting in the world, producing 20% more CO2 emissions than conventional cars on average. In 2022 alone SUVs were responsible for almost 1 billion tonnes of CO2, emitting the equivalent of the U.K. and Germany combined. In 2022 the global rise in SUVs was also responsible for a third of the increase in global oil demand.
But it’s not just tailpipe emissions, as these cars continue to get bigger and bigger in spaces that simply weren’t designed for them. In 2019, 150,000 cars were sold in the UK that were too big to fit into a standard parking space, and cars are getting approximately 1cm wider every two years. If this trend continued, by the year 2544 the typical car will be as wide as an average UK terrace house. Any potential environmental benefits from improved technology are cancelled out by this constant increase in vehicle size. Emissions from the motor sector could have fallen 30% more between 2010 and 2022 if car sizes hadn’t grown, with larger cars requiring more materials and energy, and producing more pollution and waste.
Even if you go electric, that’s still a huge demand for increased metals and doesn’t account for other forms of emissions. Car tyres produce 2000 times more particle pollution than the pollution from exhaust pipes. The larger and heavier the car, the worse this is.
Tiny particles from the wear of vehicle brakes, tyres and roads already make up about half of the air pollution particles from traffic. This will be getting worse because our car fleet is getting heavier and there are no clear policies to control this pollution source.
Cars for the rich
These heavy and super-heavy cars are also a clear sign of differing climate impacts for different levels of privilege. SUVs are far more prevalent in the highest-income postcodes, with the wealthy borough of Kensington and Chelsea known as the large SUV capital of Britain. Three-quarters of new SUVs and two-thirds of all large SUVs bought in the UK are registered to urban addresses; with most registered to wealthier districts, but it’s the most vulnerable who are most adversely affected by SUVs’ climate-wrecking consequences.
On the other end of the spectrum, 70% of people on the lowest incomes in big cities like London don’t own cars at all. Yet it is the most deprived communities in cities that are exposed to the highest levels of toxic air pollution. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels kills 8.7 million people per year. Add this to those who are impacted by increasing extreme weather events and the consequences of climate breakdown around the world, and the numbers are staggering.
Dangerous for everyone
With size also comes danger, and potentially death. In the US the average weight of a new car is now almost two tonnes. Research has shown that people in a light vehicle are three times more likely to get seriously injured when in collision with a much bigger car than one of similar weight. For pedestrians and cyclists, the risk of death rises 30% if the bonnet of the car that hits them is 10cm higher than average.
Cyclists in particular are at greater risk from SUVs, due to the shape and height of the car’s front end, causing 55 per cent more trauma and 63 per cent more head injuries than crashes with normal cars according to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the US. SUVs are 28 per cent more likely to kill occupants of other cars, too, according to the same research.
It’s also not so safe for those inside SUVs either:
While many people buy them to feel safer, they are statistically less safe than regular cars, both for those inside and those outside the vehicle. A person is 11% more likely to die in a crash inside an SUV than a regular saloon. Studies show they lull drivers into a false sense of security, encouraging them to take greater risks. Their height makes them twice as likely to roll in crashes and twice as likely to kill pedestrians by inflicting greater upper body and head injuries, as opposed to lower limb injuries people have a greater chance of surviving.
So what can we do?
The Paris vote is a great example for urban spaces that aren’t equipped for such huge cars, with London watching on in case it wants to try the same (here’s hoping!).
Despite the toxic reality clogging up city streets with congestion, SUV ads are filled with nature shots and vague green credentials. They may like to say they’re eco-friendly, but it’s becoming harder to hide the truth. In November 2023 two Toyota SUV ads were banned by the UK ad regulator because they “condoned the use of vehicles in a manner that disregarded their impact on nature and the environment … they had not been prepared with a sense of responsibility to society”.
It’s also clearer than ever that SUVs cause a whole lot of damage, and votes like Paris are a clear indication of their growing redundancy in urban centres. A just transition comes in many forms, and a key component has to be shifting our ideas of urban planning.
‘David Belliard, a deputy mayor of Paris for the Green party, said: “SUVs cost between €6,000 to €7,000 more than a standard car and all the studies by car firms show that they are bought by the wealthiest people with high incomes … This measure, if applied, will be directed at the richest people in order to finance the transformation of our public space to adapt to the climate crisis, so it’s a form of social redistribution.”’
Cities must work for people and planet, with accessible and expansive public transport readily available. With the right investment, these goals can be achieved. Rendering SUVs redundant needs to come as a wider package of social and economic transformation.
Tackling SUV advertising is a key part of this. Car manufacturers spent almost $42 billion on marketing in 2022, encouraging people to buy these bigger, more dangerous and polluting cars. Globally, the emissions as a result of car advertising could be as high as 572 million tonnes of CO2e, 27 million tonnes higher than Australia’s total emissions in 2019. At a minimum, these emissions are 191 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, which is more than the annual emissions of the Netherlands in 2019.
In 2010 SUVs accounted for just one in 10 new car sales in the EU. By 2022 this had climbed to over half, as manufacturers discovered they could charge more and make more profit from SUVs, and began bombarding people with marketing, all while lobbying against regulation and climate action. We need a tobacco-style ban on SUV adverts to curb the ultra-rich enthusiasm for these vehicles and set things right.
As the people of Paris have shown, the tide is turning on SUVs. It’s time for an end to SUV advertising to reduce demand for city-clogging tanks that fuel the climate crisis, and instead to start creating better public spaces that work for all, for good.