Hey, SUV monsters – get off our roads!

Cartoon showing small stick figures fleeing a huge SUV - it's headlights as bloodshot eyes and grille as teeth
Illustration by James Cory-Wright

Walk down a busy street in most urban areas, particularly the more affluent parts, and you may feel somewhat besieged. Indeed, in many public spaces people are being displaced by an occupying force that grows more numerous by the year. I’m talking not about US military bases or extra-terrestrial colonisers, but a homegrown menace: so-called Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs).

Over the past decade, these gargantuan monstrosities have greatly increased their market share of new car sales – of which most people are all too aware. Why? It’s hardly as if roads have suddenly become unnavigable in ordinary saloon cars, or that more people are going for picnics in peat bogs. Well, like many ostentatious consumer trends, it’s a triumph of aggressive marketing.

Dominating the school run

While SUVs were originally inspired by US army vehicles used in the Second World War and early intentions were for off-road agricultural use, this presented a problem for car companies. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; in the UK it is over 80 per cent. Manufacturers needed to enlarge their tiny and dwindling customer base. One way was to convince mums in Hammersmith that the best way to navigate the 10-minute school run through the urban jungle was in a dolled-up safari truck. And that’s exactly what they did.

Varying themes were used to reach different demographics, such as appeals to a sense of adventure, domination of the road, and crucially, driver safety. Once a fashion had been established, it became self-perpetuating. The result is that over 75 per cent of SUVs in the UK are registered in urban areas.

With terrible consequences.

SUVs are a social and environmental disaster. They were the second highest cause of the global increase in carbon dioxide emissions from 2010-2018, behind only the energy sector. They emit disproportionately more CO2 and nitrogen oxides per vehicle than the average car and have far lower fuel economy. If SUV owners were collectively assessed as a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.

Two large SUVs parked on opposite sides of a road, partly blocking the pavement because they are so large
Too big to park? Typical pavement parking by SUVs – forcing pedestrians onto to road if they can’t edge past them. Photo credit: Ross McNally

Ambient air pollution is a risk factor in millions of deaths a year globally, with some estimates rating it deadlier than smoking. In the UK, 97 per cent of households are affected by air that exceeds WHO limits for three major classes of pollutants, with the worst pollution affecting more deprived areas. The main driver of this today is traffic emissions, with SUVs taking an inordinate share of responsibility.

Further to these indirect harms, SUVs are head-on killers

Due to their larger mass and raised profile, they are more likely than saloon cars to kill any pedestrians or cyclists they hit. They’re also more dangerous for their occupants, due to both a false sense of security from being in a large vehicle promoting riskier driving, and to the greater likelihood of an SUV rolling over following a collision. So much for advertisers’ appeals to safety.

Electric rollout stalls

Of course, proponents of SUVs (and car transport generally) will point to the steady growth of electric vehicles (EVs), which resisted wider market volatility brought by the pandemic. Over half of EVs marketed in 2021 were SUVs. Surely, electric SUVs are less objectionable than combustion vehicles? Technically, yes. But the larger models have been difficult to electrify efficiently due to their weight, which limited the rollout of electric SUVs relative to other cars. Of course, where electrification is feasible, EVs have no tailpipe emissions, so air pollution is reduced, as are greenhouse gases.

However, while climate damage from SUVs is reduced by electrification, the extent of improvement depends on the electricity sources. In the UK for example, renewables currently contribute around 42 per cent of electricity (roughly the same proportion as fossil fuels), which is high relative to the global average. And electric SUVs, being heavier than saloon cars, will still use more energy per distance travelled.

A typical SUV parked outside some houses, next to a more normal sized car
Bigger, not better: SUVs are more dangerous and more polluting than the average car. And it’s harder to produce an electric model. Photo credit: Ross McNally

Then there are issues that electrification doesn’t address at all. It doesn’t reduce the likelihood of SUVs killing people in collisions. Tyre wear and brake wear, rather neglected in discussions of transport, are leading causes of ocean microplastic and contribute substantially to air pollution. Again, this is disproportionately worse in heavier vehicles, electric or not.

While there’s arguably a need to phase out private cars from our transport systems altogether, SUVs are an unequivocal, unnecessary scourge. They should be banned from urban areas immediately.

Politicians behind the wheel

Regrettably, we’ve seen time and time again that policymakers refuse to take the climate emergency seriously. Apropos transport and SUVs, the Conservatives remain firmly wedded to Thatcher’s ‘car economy,’ and the current iteration of the Labour Party is also in lockstep, with a leader who not only drives an SUV (badly), but also takes large donations from senior figures in the motor industry.

In the absence of political leadership, activists are taking matters into their own hands. The group calling themselves the Tyre Extinguishers, who have begun covertly deflating the tyres of SUVs, aim to grow their campaign until SUV ownership is untenable. Brighton & Hove has recently become a hotspot for this group, earning them the enmity of local councillors, who it seems would rather call for authoritarian crackdowns against peaceful climate activists than actually engage with the issue they’re raising.

Sussex Bylines is not advocating law-breaking, but a legal way must be found to drive these tasteless displays of wealth and status from our towns and cities for good.

A child's eye view of a cartoon SUV going 'honk' honk' - with the word Chokeman - a pun on Pokemon. And the slogan at the end 'You don't need something that BIG'
A child’s eye view on the pollution caused by SUVs

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