Thursday 28 February 2013

The Amazing Electricity Trickery

Will electric vehicles solves our urban transport problems? Will they heck!

After reading a blog on Notes From A Transport Planner, I was inspired to rant a bit about our government's absolute desire to keep people in their cars by the promotion and subsidising of electric vehicles (EVs).

First, I do drive my 11 year old Ford Focus with 96,500 miles on the clock. It spends about 0.5% of a usual week being driven and the rest of the time parked off street. It is a fantastic tool if I am working very late, carrying my concrete mixer around or picking up timber for my latest DIY project. It is great for trips out of London where there is no public transport (or expensive trains) At those times, it is used more. A bit of hypocrisy? Possibly, but it is my blog, so there!

Mmmm, Tesla Roadster, not a milk float, does not get a subsidy

in the UK and just as good as my Focus at sitting in traffic.
I am not anti-car or anti-driver. I reckon I do more annual miles by cycle than car, I use the bus more than I drive for longer (but localish) trips and going into London, it is always a Travelcard - so aren't I a good boy then? I am more anti the effects of unrestrained provision of infrastructure for cars has had and continues to have on our urban environment and if that means sitting in traffic on the few occasions I drive any great distance, well so be it.

What has this to do with EVs? Well, I have no basic problem with EVs. In my mind, there are two main advantages to the urban environment;

1) No tailpipe emissions - this is infinitely preferable to the mess chugged out by petrol and more especially diesel engines and could reduce pollution in urban areas. Even if pollution continues at the power station, it is often away from large area of population. EVs are a more efficient way to use fuel for motion than vehicles with internal combustion engines and so they can make better use of dwindling non-renewable resources.

2) If powered by renewable energy, then they are a clean transport technology (I know it takes "stuff" and energy to build them, but I cannot see us living in mud huts and having dung for dinner any time soon)

Taken from the executive summary of the strategy this map
shows the mean annual concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.
Domestic and commercial use of gas for heating provides a
large contribution to the problem, but you can very easily pick
out lots of major roads such as the North Circular, M4, M40
M1, M25 and A13. You can also pick out the City and
Westminster and London town centres such as Croydon, 

Romford and Woolwich which have dual carriageways and 
gyratories. These pollutants can aggravate asthma and
other respiratory illnesses and long-term exposure can
contribute to lung and heart disease or even cancer.

In London, the Mayor's Air Quality Strategy cites that bad air could contribute to the deaths of 4000 people a year (based 2008 data). 

This is not all because of transport, but a significant amount is and there are clearly issues with the road network being "hot spots" for pollution as well as Heathrow Airport. 

The Mayor's policies for dealing with the problem are;
  • Age limits for taxis
  • Promoting low-emission vehicles (such as electric cars)
  • Promoting eco-driving
  • New standards for the Low Emission Zone
  • Retrofitting older buses
  • Targeted measures for areas where air quality is poor.
  • Using the planning system to reduce emissions from new developments.
  • Retrofitting homes and offices to make them more energy efficient.
I am not going into the detail of whether this is a good set of policies but words such as "promoting" are nicely vague and anything where people are invited to apply for grants or do anything will not appeal to the masses; and besides, the UK faces an EU fine if it doesn't get a grip.

My main problem with EVs is that they are seen by the government as a way of maintaining business as usual and their policy is geared to maintaining transport in its current form, but with less pollution and indeed there are grants available for people to switch to ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs, including EVs). The grants extend to commercial and private vehicles as well as subsidy for the provision of domestic and public charging points. It is all part of a £400 million budget to promote ultra-low emission driving which runs until 2015. There is even an Office for Low Emission Vehicles I kid you not! (Just imagine if there was a dedicated office for cycling with £400 million to spend, it could be called Cycling England, oh, wait).

There is of course all sorts of linkages between road transport pollution, congestion, road safety, the need to travel, lack of alternative transport and the way in which our streets and urban environment are arranged around private vehicles and plus their use by the people who can afford them. Indeed, the car market is falling over itself to come up with EVs and 2013 will see many manufacturers releasing models - given the influence big business has in this country, there is no way they would be developing EVs if the government was going to change its policies any time soon. Even the congestion charge in London is changing because of the uptake of low emission vehicles!

Congestion? More of it please! Image from DfT website with current
statistics for congestion!
So, even if we replaced all of our vehicles overnight with EVs (all powered by renewable energy), we will have solved the pollution issue, but we would still have the same congestion in towns and cities, a lack of public transport, the push for road widening, hard-shoulder running on the motorways (at the cost of several hundreds of millions of pounds), an abject lack of investment in walking and cycling, children being driven to school, communities still severed by urban trunk roads, obesity growing, parking everywhere and people getting killed and injured on our roads. Yes, the air will be cleaner, but the myriad of other deleterious issues will simply remain.

So, for those people in the market for a new EV car, they can get up to 25% towards the cost of their shiny new motor, up to the value of £5,000. So if you are in the market for a nice new Nissan Leaf from £23,490, you can get your £5,000 grant just leaving you to pay (or finance) the remaining £18,490 (other cars available). Compare this to the starting price of a Nissan Micra which is £9,750, it is seems to me that those able to afford or finance an EV and the tax payer are directly subsidising the car industry (£8,740 and £5,000) respectively (in my example). 

I am happy that the taxpayer subsidies certain things and everyone has their own opinion on what should be subsidised, but this is a scheme for those who can afford a new (and relatively expensive) car in the first place, and will do nothing to alter travel behaviour or do anything to deal with the problems I have set out above.

I think EVs (and ULEVs) will be a great way of replacing some of our urban fleet such as buses, refuse trucks, highway maintenance vehicles, taxis and some delivery vehicles, but it is no solution to our urban transport nightmare.

The Ranty Highwayman's bike. Please do not mock, I like it.
Potholes are eaten for breakfast, it will cope with gravel and it has
got me through the London to Brighton, so there.
Now, my bike is a Carrera Subway hybrid which I got in the sale in January 2012 for less than £250. I am not even getting into a debate about the bike, I like it and I would have another. The current version is on Halford's website for £399. So, for the £5000 for a Nissan Leaf, the government could give 12 people a new Carrera. For the £400 million, they could give a million people a new Carrerra!

Or for £400 million, they could give grants to people to buy bikes and implement so much cycling infrastructure such as 1000km of quieter cycling routes in London which would be about £100 million invested and of use for many years to come. Sorry for being London-centric, but imagine what £400 million could fund here.

It is the job of government to use subsidies, taxes and other fiscal mechanisms to influence behaviour, the markets, research and development and so on, but I am worried that the EV scheme is little more than political greenwash and of interest to those who can afford a very expensive car, even with the subsidy. Certainly, my old Focus is here to stay and is not going to be replaced by an EV any time soon as my trusty Carrera at least solves a few transport problems for me. 

If the government really needs to invest in EVs, why not concentrate on buses and other public service vehicles which do need to be on the roads?

1 comment:

  1. Good thing my own city is looking at electric buses. I think they recently placed an order for a few dozen of the things. Combined with my provincial government's plan to shut down coal fired power plants and replace them with clean renewables, it should work quite well at solving our emissions problems for electricity and bus fuel prices.

    You are certainly right, electrics won't solve most of the problems with cars. It's a worthy goal to work alongside, but that can be covered with regulating the car dealers and what they are allowed to sell and with regulations on how old vans, lorries and taxis and the like can be. The public's money is better served by implementing Sustainable Safety on the roads, encouraging cycling, walking and transit use (transit by making the tube less stuffy, accessible and less noisy would be nice, and lower fares couldn't hurt, and on the surface by making buses have more dedicated lanes provided we aren't denying protected cycleways to cyclists, and priority at traffic signals (what signals would remain after a Sustainable Safety makeover), making the stops accessible and with those waiting time indicators and the buses being electrics, and more frequency and more direct routes couldn't hurt, cycling by adding sustainable safety to each one of our roads, more bike parking and providing subsidized omafietsen to people, and walking would barely need to be encouraged at all if Sustainable Safety was the reality on our roads, some PSAs would work well.

    That being said, it would be nice if local authorities and businesses had a system where deliveries were coordinated and combined so as to use fewer vehicles, that works quite well in Den Bosch and Utrecht.