This is a translation of an opinion article (originally in Basque), entitled “Many minutes”. Published 20 Mar 2021 at Berria: https://www.berria.eus/paperekoa/1876/006/002/2021-03-20/hamaika-minutu.htm

Batteries and private vehicle promotion are on track to receive ten percent of the funds to rebuild the economy [in the Basque region] in the name of sustainable mobility. Sustainable mobility is much more: a strategy that reduces local transport needs and improves opportunities, even outside the capitals.

Anne spends fifteen minutes by car to get to work in a nearby village, or 75 minutes in two buses, including waiting times — by bike is too dangerous. John goes farther and loses twenty minutes every day due to traffic. They return home and walk ten minutes from the parking lot to the front door, because cars have multiplied in this city’s crowded neighbourhood in recent decades.

Fast forward, in 2030 the electric car has taken off. Anne has the same options to go to work. The air is cleaner. She doesn’t know whether greenhouse gas emissions have gone down or up: electricity and hydrogen appear to be grey rather than green because renewable energy has not grown as fast as consumption (thanks to the Jevons paradox). John often gets stuck in traffic for 40 minutes. They often walk for twenty minutes from where they parked to home. Ah, right, you can get to Madrid by train in fewer hours now [thanks to the high-speed railway currently under construction]. Perhaps for the holidays. The nearest train station is still 30 minutes away.

The official proposal to allocate [European Next Generation EU and other administrations’] funds for economic reconstruction in the Basque Autonomous Community is open for discussion since December (its clarity is appreciated, as there is not so much detail in the plans for other regions). According to this interim document, 18% of the funds would go to “sustainable mobility”, the second strategic area moneywise. Of this, 60% would go to projects that primarily promote batteries and the automotive industry (in this percentage I exclude bus electrification): this is one tenth of the 13 billion euros. Of that number, half the amount goes to a single project. Making batteries locally — and if this single enormous bet was successful — could boost the regional industry and its GDP (a poor indicator of development, but that’s another matter). As a result, tax collection could increase, in order to help secure public goods and help pay off the debt generated by the recovery funds.

[But] sustainable mobility is much more than changing the fuel. In just two points: it’s a strategy that reduces transportation needs and then, improves mobility. How? Following “15-minute city” criteria, wise planning of freight transport, restoring the functionality of bicycles, ensuring the provision of public transport and reliable information (Who hasn’t felt abandoned, wondering when or whether the bus would arrive, despite the presence of digital screens at bus stops?). Also, systematically analysing daily trips to workplaces and industrial estates and the special needs of rural inhabitants, and providing solutions — whether it’s smart mobility doesn’t matter, but it has to be effective. Cars need not disappear, but their need should be reduced.

Much work has been done in recent years, such as interoperability in public transport modes and numerous local initiatives. Moving the weight of the funds under the sustainable mobility rubric to these initiatives would truly boost well-being. Given the bill for the funds will be paid by the Next Generation, we owe it to them.

Our protagonists have long forgotten car queues, dirty air, having to find parking, the maintenance of two cars … They go to work in collective transport without spending too much time, reading the newspaper, contemplating the Spring, talking to colleagues in a shared car. Or quietly cycling, because the few circulating vehicles drive respectfully. They’ve added many minutes of quality to everyday life, not just a battery.