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

Archive for March 19th, 2009

Electric cars

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Better Place chief executive Shai Agassi talks to David Pogue of the New York Times about how his system of providing the infrastructure for electric cars is going to work.

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.

Electric cars – with energy from renewable resources – are going to be one essential component of weaning the world off fossil fuels.  But just as every other solution, it will not be the magic bullet that solves every problem. The land use we now have was designed and built around mass car ownership – as was the transport infrastructure – and that will be with us for a long time after fossil fuel has become rare, expensive and socially unacceptable. There are going to be all sorts of bumps along that road – and in some places low density suburbs will be slums – or even deserted and torn down to be replaced with windfarms – or maybe even real farms.

Cars are also not going to be as welcome in urban environments – even if they are zero emission. Because cities are for people not their mobility devices. And since many of us still have legs that work (and of course we must make better provisions for those that don’t) we will be using those a lot more in future – because that will help us keep healthy and also produces a better social environment. There is no sociability in a traffic jam.

One of the current bumps in the Usonian road is that funding for transit is getting cut just at the time when more people have started using it. That might happen here too. All it takes is continuing inertia.

But what I think is really interesting about Agassi is the role that he has identified for himself

Well, I’m more of an integration guy. …  What I bring in is that understanding of complexity of both the technology and the economy. When you look at the problem mobility with a fresh set of eyes, sometimes you find solutions that the guys who are sort of locked in the inertia of day-to-day business–have missed.

It is because of his Usonian origins that he thinks of cars as the solution to mobility problems. But in fact cars are one of the least efficient systems we could have devised. They spend most of their time parked – empty and idle.  The space they take up is out of all proportion to their utility. They are inconsistent with nearly everything that makes city living desirable. Electric cars will be part of the solution for the suburbs. But we will also need lots of other solutions too – starting with places that are walkable and adding other transportation systems that are efficient and effective. This will not just be transit. Some of it will be the expansion of car provision that allows for much better mobility and utilisation by eliminating individual car ownership. Car co-ops, but also shared ride taxis and other innovations yet to be seen.

Electric cars will not help solve traffic congestion – and I doubt they will do much to reduce collisisons either. And neither of those are trivial issues. But this sort of thinking is a step in the right direction. And, boy, do we ever need more “integration guys” like him!

Written by Stephen Rees

March 19, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Posted in electric cars