Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

A moment of transformation

with 9 comments

I am going to ask you to sit and watch 20 minutes of video. I have just done that. I am amazed. Electric cars have always been “just around the corner”. But it now appears that things are going to change – because of a man who understands “the social contract” between car drivers and automakers. He has worked out what it would take to wean Israel off oil – and says that he can do the same for the US – for the cost of one year of imported crude.

Now what am I, a transit advocate, doing promoting electric cars? I do not believe that it will ever be possible to convert most of the trips in this region to transit trips. I think we can do much better than 11% – which is where we have been stuck for the last ten years – but in order to do that we would need the sort of transformation that Shai Agassi talks about for cars. We do not have anyone trying to do that here. I would love to think that we could have, but I am not going to wait for that moment. IF we can have electric cars and clean power generation, then we will have to deal with the traffic congestion. We cannot wait for the gas prices and taxes to rise enough to do that for us. For as we have seen, it has had very little effect up to now – at least in BC. And as long as transit is in the cold dead hands of the bureaucrats appointed by Victoria, do not expect things to change much.

So I am prepared to see lots of electric cars – and remarkably quickly – because this one man has 1) made it unnecessary to buy the battery and 2) I get a free car if I sign up for a long term contract – just like a cell phone. We will still need a lot more transit. We will still have a congestion problem. But air quality and ghg emissions will have been removed from the equation. That will present the transit system with an even bigger challenge. How can you be better than a zero emission vehicle that is as good as my (EV) car? And I think we can do that. Just the way we could do it now, if we were doing the right things.

(And thank you Erika for sending me this link)

It will at least buy us some time, as adapting the suburbs and the transit system to fit together better will take longer than Mr Agassi says it will take to perform the switch from IC to EV.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

9 Responses

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  1. You’re welcome! Thanks for your take on it.

    Erika Rathje

    March 28, 2008 at 8:40 pm

  2. Well this is the one and only hope for saving the suburbs from becoming the next slums – possibly also saving the world from another great depression. The only way we can sustain the level of mobility we currently enjoy is if they can be powered by clean energy. Considering we have an abundance of hydro opportunities in this province, we are quite well off, all things considered.

    I do have to make issue with the proposal of incorporating the “cell phone contract” model here. It creates the perception of a far lower market entry level than is frankly necessary and I think people are finally beginning to understand how much they are in the pocket of these companies. I’m sure people would jump at the idea of simply entering a multi year contract and getting a “free” car, but in this age of credit gone mad, I don’t think it’s the direction we should be headed. Furthermore, I’m sure the whole EV thing will pick up quickly enough on it’s own without further subsidization.

    Also, and this is where Vancouver is actually the best model for urban sustainability in the world: we still end up with the problem of not only traffic congestion but urban sprawl as well. Not to mention, how fast do you think Indians and the Chinese will be to grab these highly subsidized EVs? It’s just fixing one problem and accelerating another. The end all solution is the Vancouver model: live, work, and play all within the same walkable neighbourhood. Then, you don’t need a car in the first place! And, if you do need to leave this neighbourhood, that’s what’s rapid transit and other modes of transport are for. Of course, we are still a long ways off to realizing this vision. But all things considered, until the world re-adopts this historic model for modern civilisation, we will continue to face unforseen consequences in our habitats.

    I’m not dissing the EV proposal. I just don’t think it should be considered the quick fix – we should be properly investing in greening the grid, electrically powered public transportation systems, and putting in place incentives encouraging urban densification.

    Paul Hillsdon

    March 28, 2008 at 11:54 pm

  3. Yes, finally!

    The polluted urban wasteland now known as Oak St shall become a not quite so polluted urban wasteland!

    Give me a break. Electric cars solve almost nothing except pollution problems. They don’t solve land-use problems, nor do they fix the damage done to communities by increased mobility.

    Besides, the thing I hate most about driving is sitting in traffic, and it’s certainly not going to address that problem one tiny bit.


    March 29, 2008 at 7:21 am

  4. ps – I live on Oak, hence my ecstatic joy.


    March 29, 2008 at 7:23 am

  5. Paul, might I also point out that what you call the “Vancouver model” has, except for the last ~60 years, been the *only* model around the globe (still is in many places) and it certainly isn’t Vancouver’s genius that brought it about.


    March 29, 2008 at 7:26 am

  6. The “Vancouver” model, it seems to me, applies to downtown Vancouver only. Everywhere else is car oriented – and that includes most of the City of Vancouver.

    Secondly, I live in Richmond and drive a Yaris. That is both my preference, and my judgement of what I can afford. I was born and brought up in the East End of London in a small row house. And that has coloured my perception of what is desirable. It is probably very significant that most of the people I grew up with did not stay there but moved away – most as soon as they could. My father used to point out that there was more open space in East Ham devoted to cemeteries than children’s playgrounds.

    So far, we have not seen widespread acceptance of electric cars – and I much prefer Mr Agassi’s anaylsis of why they have not been accepted. It seems to me to be a much more positive message than “Who Killed the Electric Car” and the vehicle he will be distributing in Israel is not going to be like the Zenn or the IT. Or, come to that, the Prius.

    Electric cars solve some but not all of the problems. As I said, we will still need to rethink the way suburbs work – or rather don’t work very well for many. For instance I see one of my neighbours most days. He commutes by bus, but that means has to walk to the bus stop. He is disabled and uses two canes – the type that have clips above the elbows. He wears a backpack – with a flourescent patch – as he has no hands free to carry anything. His progress along the street each day seems to me to be painfully slow – but I am sure he would say that the exercise is good for him. The bus stop where he has to wait has no shelter. There are no sidewalks on our streets, so he is at risk from someone who decides to speed along – and through the sharp turn outside our house. As they do, frequently. And he has to get around the vehicles left at the side of the road, even though every house has multiple off street parking spaces.

    The bus he takes will get stuck in traffic at peak periods. There are no bus lanes here. Bus priority measures are few and spottily enforced. I imagine that many days he does not get a seat. We are not good at giving up our seats voluntarily. He may even wave away offers from polite young women. There will be days when he has to wait – as there are not enough bus operators, and every so often scheduled buses are missing. The service is not exactly frequent. I do not know where he goes or how many times he has to transfer.

    There are no magic bullets. But right now our attention is not focussed on transit. Even though it would help a lot to tackle a lot of issues including emissions. We even do things like paying double for electric trolleybuses (which, by the way, as a transit enthusiast, I really like) which means we have fewer buses than we might have but some are really clean. Even though in terms of emissions per passenger kilometre travelled a diesel bus beats the average car easily.

    We do not make investment decisions based on evidence or data – in fact we prefer not to have good data about transportation as it would make the decisions we do make more obviously ill advised. We let powerful individuals impose their preferences upon us. And we tell ourselves we have a good transit system. I do not see that changing any time soon.

    Our traffic engineers could have done a lot to make our streets safer, and our lives more pleasant. They have chosen instead to facilitate the use of the single occupant vehicle. Despite some cities (including Vancouver) adopting different priorities that put pedestrians, cyclists and transit first, that is not apparent anywhere. We have no pedestrian only streets or squares. We cling to outdated “standards” for things like parking spaces and road widths – even though they have demonstrated to cause the very problems they are supposed to solve. I do not see that changing much, yet.

    And it is quite likely that we will double the freeway. It is a willfully bad decision. Those who have decided to proceed know that it will not do what they say it will, but it will please the people who fund them and vote for them – for a short time anyway. And when it doesn’t work, they will just do it again. They are not listening to the evidence that shows this decision – and many like it – will spell the end of the Livable Region. They do not care about that. They have treated its concepts with utter contempt for years. Even its current supporters allowed office parks to be built in places far from rapid transit. Even the man who wrote the plan is working against it while claiming to be an environmentalist.

    So when – out of the blue – someone comes forward with a way to help wean us off fossil fuels for personal transport, that looks like it is going to work – I am glad. It is a rare ray of light in a world gone mad.

    Stephen Rees

    March 29, 2008 at 8:24 am

  7. It’s definitely, as Stephen suggests, not an excuse for urban sprawl or for more car usage. I don’t know what it’ll do to mode share but it’s important nonetheless. We can’t wait for transit and urban planning to catch up first because we need this zero-emissions solution now.

    Last night I saw a commercial for News 1130 with chopper or plane footage over the Port Mann. I’d be very interested in seeing some aerial footage at rush hour that demonstrates (as I could see somewhat in the ad) the smoothly flowing traffic over the bridge and the chaos leading up to it.

    Maybe we do need an annual tax on car ownership (reduced for hybrids and greatly reduced for EVs) that will go toward better transit with somewhat more luxurious features.

    When is our opportunity to vote out Gordo and his minions?

    Erika Rathje

    March 29, 2008 at 1:30 pm

  8. […] This interview is for those who have not been paying attention since I know I have heard this before and blogged about it. Actually nearly a year ago. […]

  9. […] is not about the emissions – or lack of them. As I have said here before, the problem is that they are still cars. Cars are the problem. An electric car is a little bit better than an internal combustion engine […]

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