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

Archive for the ‘electric cars’ Category

Are electric cars bad for the environment?

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1912 Detroit Electric

I was alerted to this story by the Globe – which this morning is trumpeting going behind the paywall as “access for all” (Orwell would be proud: newspeak lives). I am not going to link there since they were in any event simply recycling something. Not – I hasten to add – plagiarism. Just what we all do – and in this case adequately cited, though without the necessary web links. Which of course Google gets quite quickly.

The Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles is available from the Wiley online library – and since it has yet to appear in the paper version of the Journal of Industrial Ecology you can get the whole thing as a pdf though that may not last for long. What the Globe was doing was reporting on an on line discussion on Leo Hickman’s blog – part of the Guardian’s web presence – and one that I freely admit I had missed.

The study looks at both the potential of increased emissions from the manufacturing process – especially for batteries – as well as the source of the electricity. The EV has often been criticized as an “elsewhere emission vehicle” (49 million google hits on the phrase) – it may have no tailpipe emissions but if the electricity comes from a coal fired power station …

Here are the key conclusions

The production phase of EVs proved substantially more environmentally intensive. Nonetheless, substantial overall improvements in regard to GWP [global warming potential], TAP [terrestrial acidification potential], and other impacts may be achieved by EVs powered with appropriate energy sources relative to comparable ICEVs [internal combustion engine vehicles]. However, it is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion. The electrification of transportation should be accompanied by a sharpened policy focus with regard to life cycle management, and thus counter potential setbacks in terms of water pollution and toxicity. EVs are poised to link the personal transportation sector together with the electricity, the electronic, and the metal industry sectors in an unprecedented way. Therefore the developments of these sectors must be jointly and consistently addressed in order for EVs to contribute positively to pollution mitigation efforts.

All of which is fair enough since all they are doing is comparing one sort of car to another sort of car. Which is why the big problem of electric cars gets completely missed. As I have often written on this blog the problem is the overuse of cars – far more than how those cars are powered or constructed. As a policy issue in urban areas – and after all most of us live in urban areas – what we need to confront – here and elsewhere – is that when most people use a single occupant vehicle for most of their trip making, the consequences are dire. Traffic congestion is the one that gets most noticed, as it is the most obvious, but add to that the horrendous toll on life and limb caused by collisions, the health impact of not using your own muscles enough and being sedentary for most of the time, and the sprawl of urban areas onto productive farm land and essential natural areas (loss of biodiversity and the greenhouse gas collection function of forests are merely examples).

I find it offensive that I am being accused of “a rapture of techno-narcissism” when I have long been advocating some very old fashioned ideas. Electric trains, trolleybuses, and trams as well as human powered bicycles were all widespread at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. Not to mention the somewhat obvious wisdom of building places where it was both possible, safe and pleasant to walk – something humans were able to do for millennia prior to gadarene rush to rebuild cities to accommodate the automobile. Or even something that seems revolutionary in Vancouver but has always been instinctive in older cities – places to sit down comfortably outside in public spaces without any payment being required.

Something similar seems to be going on with the debate about the pipeline. I really do not think that the main issue is the possible impact of spills on either land or sea. It is the problem of burning ever more fossil fuel that worries me. The oil sands are one of the worst offenders simply because of the amount of energy it takes to convert tarry sands into liquid fuels. If we had better ways of moving ourselves around – and we could have very easily and relatively cheaply – then the oil could stay in the ground. Possibly not forever – since there are so many other really clever things we can do with petro-chemicals, for which there often fewer readily available alternatives. Burning the stuff or making non-biodegradable plastic bags  is simply profligacy, given the increasingly precarious future we face.

Or as Bill McKibben states

“We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”

Shocking the Suburbs

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Jago Dodson & Neil Sipe of Griffith University in Brisbane actually entitled their presentation “Oil Vulnerability & Cities” but that is the subtitle of their book – and that has the much snappier title I used. Room 1700 at SFU had 30 people in it at 7pm last night. Is that because Urban Studies talks do not give anyone professional credits? Or was there a hockey game on tv? After ten minutes a few more stragglers arrived and  Anthony Perl did the introductions. Griffith University and SFU have some kind of “twinning” arrangement  which apparently paid for their trip.

Price of NYMEX Light Sweet Crude Oil, 1997-2006

The have been looking at the impact of higher oil prices on Australian cities. In 1990 oil was AU$20 a barrel but by 2004 reached a $140 peak. Since they are  partly transport planners and saw this as a policy and planning problem they thought that this was a useful topic to research since there would have to be a response.  They did not want to engage in a debate on the future sustainability of oil supplies, but showed an IEA chart dated 2008 which showed a steep decline in conventional oil supplies expected from that year forward.  At present Queensland is experiencing an energy boom due to its exploitation of natural gas and coal which as (in his words) “put a floor under energy prices”.

Newman & Kenworthy – produced the first study of  energy use and density of cities in 1989 (the image below was not the one they showed but comes from the same data set)

Unsuprisingly that showed that the US has the most use of energy for private transportation. Australia and Canada are not far behind. They forecast there would have to be an abandonment of car dependent suburbs, which had been the theme of the iconic Australian movie series “Mad Max“. At the time of writing oil prices are $103.80 US per barrel (12 April 2012). The energy returned on energy invested in producing motor fuel which was 50:1 in the 1950s is now 5:1 and for some fuels such as ethanol  1:1  [or worse according to some sources].

They began mapping oil vulnerability using data from the Australian 2005 census. Dependence on motor vehicles was shown by using the variables travel to work by car and number of cars owned and for socio economic status the Socio-Economic Index for Area (SEIFA). These were combined into  the vulnerability index for petroleum expense rises (VIPER) index. They showed maps of Brisbane, where the most vulnerable lived in the outer suburbs with similar results for Sidney and Melbourne. On of the reasons they ascribed was that “public transport is not so good out there”

Mortgage and oil vulnerability in Brisbane

VAMPIRE

The 2ndgeneration of the index the ‘vulnerability assessment for mortgage, petrol and inflation risks and expenditure’ (VAMPIRE) included  median household income and mortgages. The maps also now had data a from 2001 and 2006  which produces a map of growth in vulnerability. Last year they added six US cities and, more recently, Vancouver. In the US cities they used Census 2000 data, and for Vancouver the  2006 census data but without car ownership (as that data is not in our census) and just based it on the mode used for journeys to work. (see also Center for Neighborhood Technology which was covered here recently)

The maps showed that Atlanta is nearly all vulnerable with a few odd spots of low vulnerability near the centre. On both Boston and Chicago the effect of  mass transit shows up. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix were “not as bad as you might think” but conceded that new areas were few people lived distort the picture. Even Portland looks poor as does Vancouver  outside of downtown core but better than Boston & Chiacgo at the highest value index areas. In Sydney they have added motor vehicle data vehicle age and size which shows that older cars (more than 10 years) with larger engines dominate in the lower income outer areas. A regression of the data showed an r2 of 0.85 which is significant.

Their work shows that electric vehicles are not the answer as the owners of old large cars have low incomes. The capability of households to afford electric vehicles poses a policy problem of since market effects will almost certainly lead to the price of older gasoline cars falling as new electric vehicles start to become popular.

Greater urban density is also often suggested as the cure for oil vulnerability.  He questioned the “palatability” of high density using an illustration of high rises in Hong Kong, and pointed out that development  by the private sector is market driven and based on the  distance decay function of land prices (land prices fall as distance from the centre increases). The viability of density in outer suburbs is questionable  due to low land values. A network of public transport with high density development at nodes (stations) was proposed by Newman & Kenworthy in 1999 but  Lenzen et al in 2004 showed that when automotive energy use is compared to total energy use the embodied energy in high rise buildings is taken into account, high total energy use is associated with high density. Is high density development more energy efficient overall? High wealth’s  key to energy use since the wealthy consume more goods and services including international travel. Myors et al 2005 showed that co2 emissions  per person are highest in high rises! The rate of change of land use density is in any event driven by private sector development is is relatively slow compared to the depletion of conventional oil reserves.

There has been some policy response to their work. The South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009 includes a commitment to “actively reduce oil dependancy” which looks good on paper but has not been put into practice. On the Gold Coast, there has been less highway expansion and the building of an LRT.

Paul Mees “Transport for Suburbia” (also available as a preview) recommends a high frequency integrated network. At this point he spoke about “no rush” at Broadway and Commercial at peak periods “You can’t really miss the bus” due to high frequency. See also Zurich’s cross town integrated network.

www.griffith.edu.au/urp

Their work can be read on google books “Shocking the suburbs

Q&A

Questions were raised on mortgage data – which may have been related to the CNT work.

Australian cities are highly centralized with respect to employment “No one wants to be in suburban office parks”

Their objective was to produce a simple model with a few variables for ease of use and comparability which has proved robust at the coarse level

It seems likely that saving energy on transport, then gets used on other equally energy intensive activities

Australia now has a carbon tax BUT it is NOT applied to transport fuel. This was ascribed to the political concern that marginal seats in the suburbs tend to decide elections. Queesland had seen a dramatic change in power after a subsidy to petrol was removed.

The forecast is not rapid change in urban areas due to building life.

My question – or rather observation – was that climate change is happening much faster than peak oil. The response was that they were mainly concerned about socio-economic distributional impacts, not passing the 350ppm threshold.

In Queensland a “balanced” transportation policy looks advanced – but is equivalent to ISTEA 1991

Social exclusion was mentioned but has been mainly a concern in the UK as an impact of bus privatization.

In Australia federal gas tax is not hypothecated to highways but the federal politicians area still “fixated on building things, pouring concrete – not better planning”. The rate of incremental policy change is not fast enough and there will be a shock

REACTION

I do not know if this talk will be on the SFU web page as podcast – there was no evidence of video, and the use of the visual aids a was hampered by some basic fault in the compatibility of video files. It is indeed fortunate that it is easy to to find their work on line. However, I came away convinced that Australia is, like us, sleepwalking where this issue is concerned. I was charmed – but also alarmed – at the perception that we had a Zurich like transit system. Of course we don’t, and our spend rate on transportation is still heavily skewed towards roads and low density sprawl. As I pointed out they are actually fortunate to have retained employment in their city centres where they are served by electric trains (and trams).

But the current rush to exploit shale gas by fracking and the increasing rate of use of tar sands (they are not confined to Alberta) is creating an illusion that the oil shock can be deferred. That is not the case with climate change, and given recent experience with extreme weather events in Australia, their tenacity on holding on to their research focus seems …. perverse? Or maybe just endearing. After all, we all seem to prefer not to contemplate what is now inevitable, most tipping points having whizzed by like publication deadlines.

Australians, just like us, have not seen their personal incomes keep pace with inflation. They did drive until they were qualified to own a home, and are just as much auto dependent in Moonee Ponds as we are in Langley  (…or Richmond, come to that.) We are slowly struggling to produce better urban development patterns and trying to find a way to fund transit (which should not be nearly so difficult as we have made it).But both of us – the whole world in fact – now face a future where the climate is going to be increasingly inhospitable. I think that impact is likely to be as sharp and probably faster than the economic impact of higher gas prices. But then I did notice this morning a pump sticker at $1.51 a litre. Is that enough to produce a revolution? I doubt it. Shame about the polar bears.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

Modo’s Electric Vehicle

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I recently posted a Press Release from Modo about their new electric vehicle acquisition – a Nissan Leaf. I did not write much and I used their picture. Today I was pleased to go for a ride in the car and take some pictures of my own. I was going to change the original post but maybe a photo gallery with comments is a better way to go.

Nissan Leaf rear

I found the car in the parking lot north of City Hall. Modo has a row of reserved parking spaces here along the 10th Avenue side, but the EV charging station is roughly in the middle of the lot. Modo also organizes the City’s own car sharing program.

Mitsubishi MIEV

The City chose a Mitsubishi iMIEV for its program. I think if I had been parking this car, I would have backed into the stall, just to make the cable shorter and reduce the tripping hazard. In fact, if you have a choice, backing into a stall is always a better way to park, as most collisions in parking its occur due to people backing out.

EV sign

$1 an hour including juice seems a good deal to me.

Unlike the Modo stalls, anyone who has a plug in vehicle could use the station. And it is probably worth noting here that at 2pm on a Friday afternoon a lot of the Modo spaces were empty. (It may not be be strictly relevant but while I was there I saw a postie in uniform take a CAR2GO – which shows that Canada Post is perhaps a lot smarter than many people give them credit for.)

Leaf charge port in hood

The choice of the City Hall lot was based in part on Modo’s knowledge of their existing car use from it. The average length of trip is 14km. The Leaf we used was fully charged with a range of 140+ km available, so the probability of running out of juice for most users should not be an issue.

Charge Point

On my flickr stream I have been collecting images of EV charging stations. This one seems neat enough to me

Charge Point display detail

Modo members will find their charge card tucked into the driver’s sun shade. (By the way, if you are a Modo member and you have to refill the tank of an IC car, the cost of fuel (and a car wash) is reimbursed.)

Leaf being charged

You can see the empty line of reserved Modo parking spots behind the car.

The red Leaf with some red leaves

I was not a Modo member when I wrote this so I had to be content with the passenger, not the driver’s, seat. My impression is that this is a very comfortable, easy to drive and quiet vehicle. Electric cars can have quite startling performance simply because an electric motor has a great deal more low end torque than any IC motor. Since we were driving in mid afternoon city traffic, there was no speed or acceleration trial. The car does include a central display, which when I was in it either had the rear view camera (when backing up, which also included a parking guide) and when in forward motion a GPS real time map.

One of the great advantages of car share membership is the wide range of vehicles available. Not only do you not need to own a car, but you can get a vehicle that meets the needs of the trip. Car coop members make far fewer trips by car than car owners – because they do not have the perverse incentive that ownership provides (“I have spent all that money, I might as well get some use out of the thing”). You can have a coop membership and not feel that you have wasted money if you decide that its a nice day for a bike ride, or that transit would be more convenient for some trips. For that reason Modo concentrates on the City – high population density and frequent transit is a good mix for the coop. They are not trying to encourage car use, but recognizing that for some trips in our metropolis a car is the best choice. But it has to be a real choice, not one forced by circumstances.

Modo is trying to get into the suburbs. They would dearly love to have a car at Brighouse Station, for instance. Trouble is that most of the land devoted to parking in the centre of Richmond is private land. Indeed, as I have often lamented here, you are forced by the rules of the parking lots to take your car with you when you leave. You must not park in one place and then walk to complete several errands. That is one of the main reasons why traffic on Number 3 Road is always dreadful. Most of those drivers are making very short trips.

Modo also is getting more and more approaches from developers, who like to provide car coop memberships out of the condo fees and thus reduce the number of parking spaces they have to supply. Quite how we could retrofit existing condos, by getting strata councils to adopt a car coop space as part of the amenities – the same way they provide swimming pools and recreation rooms – presents an interesting challenge. But some of those spaces thus released could be chain link fenced bike compounds.

Car sharing is already good for the environment, due to the reduction of car trips. Making those trips zero emissions (and in BC most of our power comes from existing hydro) is a worthwhile bonus. And coop members get to try a EV before most people – geeky transportation bloggers excepted.

For what its worth, of the OEM EVs I have been in, the Leaf is by far the nicest. The Chevy Volt is not all electric – and it will be a long time before we see any hydrogen fuel cell cars here. Plug in – for hybrids or all electric – does seem to be the best choice for now. Trouble is at present there are only ten Leafs in Canada. Lucky Modo members, then.

UPDATE December 4, 2013

There is a blog post by another modo member on her experience of driving this car

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Modo’s First Electric Vehicle

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Modo, the car co-op, has added an all electric car to its fleet, and sent me the following press release. As it happens, I am not a member of that co-op, nor have they offered me the chance to drive the car. So I have very little to add to what appears below. Except to say that  for people who need to pick up and return a car near City Hall, I would be very interested to learn about their impressions of this car.

VANCOUVER, Nov. 1, 2011 /CNW/ – In a region where sustainability is an important measure of livability, Modo The Car Co-op has added its first fully electric vehicle (EV) to its fleet, a first for carsharing in Western Canada.

The not-for-profit carsharing organization was eager to offer an EV to its members once it could confirm that a parking spot with charging infrastructure would be available.

The City of Vancouver stepped up and offered Modo a spot with EV charging capacity at a City-owned EasyPark parking lot (453 West 10th Ave., north of City Hall) where an EV public charging pilot is currently underway.

Carsharing fits into the City’s Greenest City goals: every carsharing vehicle removes between 4 and 30 vehicles from the road, depending on the study. And an electricity-fuelled vehicle shared by many people further reduces the climate impact from driving cars.

Modo is grateful to have such strong collaboration with the City of Vancouver towards carsharing. “The City has been supportive from the start,” says Douglas Dunn, Modo’s Fleet + Operations Manager. “From offering advice on different EV models to providing the parking spot for our first EV, staff at the City have shown how committed they are to achieving their Greenest City targets.”

The EV, a 2012 Nissan LEAF, is now available to be booked by all Modo members.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Is the Volt a breakthrough?

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Chevrolet Volt

The car is a new, preproduction demonstrator of GM’s latest plug-in hybrid car. That circular cover just below the mirror is where it can be plugged in to a domestic power source and be re-charged. In addition to its batteries, it also has a small conventional gasoline engine, which kicks in automatically after 64 kilometres. That is the designed range in order to prolong battery life, but is also more than most people drive on a daily basis. For many commuters, they will not need to use the gas for most of their trips. This car – or rather one developed from feedback for those who try this version – will be on sale next year in Canada. No word yet about the price, but GM are confident they will not have any trouble selling all they intend to build. UPDATE “GM ended months of speculation on [July 27, 2010] by revealing a price tag for the Volt of $41,000 (U.S.).”
Globe and Mail

I got to drive the car last weekend, by invitation of GM, but not on the streets – because they are not yet licensed here – but around the parking lot of the H R McMillan Science Centre. It is a very desirable vehicle, though they said that it is not ready yet for sale. It is nice driving an almost silent car. Inside you only hear a light hum when moving – outside mostly noise from tyres – specially designed for low rolling resistance.  A “chirrup” can be sounded if pedestrians or cyclists seem unaware of its presence. It has, like all EVs, excellent acceleration from rest – in fact there are two settings to moderate that for everyday traffic and save energy. It handles nicely.

GM think that it will revolutionize the car business. And, from their perspective, they had better be right, as GM had, of course, to be bailed out and its business plan rethought. Toyota currently lead the hybrid business, but GM has a lot of its big SUV hybrids in town right now, shuttling Olympic “family” and other favoured guests around town in exclusive lanes. GM is a major Olympic sponsor. This is an important showcase for them. Toyota is, of course, also in trouble at present due to build quality – a real blow to its reputation. And Toyota does yet have a plug in version of the Prius for sale here. The Volt can be used as an electric vehicle. The engine only has to be turned on for longer trips or for when the nearest electrical outlet is out of range. In many cities in Canada, outlets in parking lots and garages are common for block heaters. Not Vancouver, of course, but the City has mandated charging points in new construction.

A plug-in hybrid is a technological innovation – and is a lot more complex than that simple phrase suggests. I heard a lot about how smart this car is and how innovative its batteries (LiON) and systems are. Oddly, I was given no printed hand out, and I wasn’t taking notes. But cars are going to be part of our transportation future here, and in the rest of the world, for many years. So efforts to reduce their impact are essential. Since we have plenty of hydro resources – or would do if the lure of power exports to California were not so profitable – cutting the use of gasoline for car use will help. Or would if driving patterns stayed the same. Since we have been and still are expanding our road networks, car use will grow. I actually doubt that, at present, gasoline use deters much driving, but of course once you own a plug in car that uses carbon free power those concerns would fade away – even when gas gets very expensive indeed. So the Volt means that more people will keep on driving – just as the Prius has.

Emissions from cars – both common air contaminants locally and greenhouse gases globally – are problems.  But they are not the only problem with car use.   Traffic congestion, urban sprawl, human health – obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes as well as the results of collisions – are problems of significance too. Electric, zero emission cars do nothing to tackle any of these issues and arguably help us put off the day when we start to deal with them effectively. There is also the bounce back effect seen with every improvement in energy efficiency. As each appliance gets more efficient our power consumption does not fall as much as predicted as we just use them more.

On the side of the demonstration GM also had a couple of hydrogen fuell cell SUVs – and I was able to drive one of those across the Burrard Bridge and around the West End. Again, a nice quiet, comfortable ride, and plenty of hydrogen in the tank. But again limited range, and a lack of currently available refuelling stations means that hydrogen cars and trucks – which are also very expensive to build – are not going to be seen in large numbers here – or anywhere else – for while. Hydrogen is going to follow the same difficult path that other “alt fuels” have experienced. Not enough cars, not enough filling stations and no way to short cut the economics that deter owners from facing that conundrum.

I have no problem with GM following its corporate strategy – though I think, like all corporations, it needs a much tighter regulatory framework and careful monitoring to protect the greater good. But it is also tied closely to government spending and thus policy decisions. I have no doubt GM officials are more comfortable now dealing with BC politicians than they were people like Moe Sihota.  (Though he notably rejected a Natural Gas minivan as his official car. It was the previous year’s model.)  Our politicians seem only too ready to support corporate objectives. That was not why they were elected. The reason we have government at all is that corporations – and individuals too – need to set aside their own interests sometimes. We have seen only too clearly in recent years what happens when regulation is lightened. Profits, yes for while they seem to grow, but the social and environmental costs are now unbearable.

Governments ought to be curbing highway expansions, since we know that most of the supposed benefits are illusory. We must reduce greenhouse gas production drastically and quickly and that means significant wrenching social change. Hydrogen SUVs and plug in hybrids are not solutions to our greatest problems and difficulties but emollients that allow some to continue as they always have done. North American consumption patterns are currently shrinking – the stimulus funds have been going to the wrong people. This actually may not be a Bad Thing – if it can be managed properly, and policies like expanding transit and passenger rail were extended at the expense of highway funding.

Will I buy a Volt? Probably not. For one thing, I would have to persuade the strata council to install metered outlets at the parking stalls. That is actually a bigger hurdle than the probable price tag, since lower gas bills could probably finance some of the purchase and I expect that gas will not stay around $1.10 a litre for very long.

More pictures can be found on flickr

Plugged in

Written by Stephen Rees

February 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Mayor releases plan to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020

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Gregor Robertson used the platform of the current Gaining Ground-Resilient Cities conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre to launch “Vancouver 2020 A Bright Green Future” yesterday. This is the document from the Greenest City Action Team that sets out the objectives and looks as some of the possibilities to achieve the Mayor’s desire to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.

My link in the paragraph above will enable you to download the complete report as a pdf file. If you would prefer, there is a short summary in today’s Vancouver Sun.  It does not discuss the recommendations – it merely presents them. And I expect there will be a lot of discussion about these ideas – what is there and, more importantly, what is missing.  On the whole, as a statement of objectives it is quite bold but “you know these environmentalists, they are never satisfied” (a line from the movie The American President, which was also about greenhouse gas reduction, in part. I’d link to the imdb quotes page, but that is one of the few they missed).

The report’s presentation is self-consciously modern. Much effort clearly went into appealing to modern sensibilities. No great slabs of grey text, or formal presentations. But lots of sidebars and anecdotes from other cities. Plenty of good positive examples, and lots of talk about the need for objectives and targets. Where it falls short is the lack of specific programs and commitments – so I do not think it is really a plan so much as a wish list.

Of course, my concerns are transportation and land use – because taken together that’s most of the greenhouse gas emissions.

Buildings and vehicles produce more than 85 per cent of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions and are the focus of the next two sections of this report. However, there is an overarching issue that affects emissions from both buildings and vehicles: density. Land-use patterns are probably the single most important determinant of people’s greenhouse gas emissions and their ecological footprints.

To their credit they do not abandon Eco-density, the initiative of the last administration but they note

Much more can be done. Most importantly, Vancouver should complete the planning processes required to increase density and permit mixed uses.

Because this is a report of the Action Team – not a commitment by the City Council. So it does not have the status of a formal change to the City’s planning activities – yet. But Robertson himself referred to the document as a Plan. Ecodensity was not an easy sell for Sam Sullivan and company – and the issue will still raise the hackles of most communities within Vancouver, who are very happy with the way things are and are deeply suspicious of any change. Anything that affects both their current way of life, and their property values, is going to be subject to close scrutiny.

A series of more detailed implementation plans…will need to be developed by city staff through wide consultation with the community

Indeed. And this is followed by an exhortation to “everyone to do their part”. And I am quite sure that all of the neighbourhoods that had very close consultative processes under administrations prior to Sullivan’s will expect to have that approach returned.

UPDATE: Ned Jacobs has now published a damning critique of the Mayor’s commitment to consultation

Of course the city is not alone in transportation – so of course much of what it says about transportation in general – and transit in particular – is addressed to other levels of government and is all entirely predictable. What is very noticeable is the lack of a set of specific targets in areas where the City does have control. And as we learned this week from New York there is a great deal that can be done, very quickly and at relatively low cost. Paint and potted plants can do wonders.

There are a number of things the City can start to do quickly: and – as long as they stick to a continuous rolling effort – will have significant impact. In terms of broad objectives, this plan does not adopt the one that was pioneered by Copenhagen forty years ago – although there are ten different citations of that city in the document. Their objective was a reduction in the amount of space devoted to cars – both moving and parked. They have achieved that by a steady attrition: a small percentage is taken each and every year. Since traffic adapts to fill the space available, traffic has contracted.

Similarly in New York (18 citations) the decision was made to reduce the amount of street space used by cars by reallocating traffic lanes to become bus lanes, bike lanes and – probably most significantly – pedestrian space, much of which is not devoted to movement but sitting! The City of Vancouver, thanks to its charter, does not have to defer to senior governments here. It is master in its own house, and it can, if it wishes, move the furniture.

Previous City of Vancouver Engineers have fought long and hard against any encroachment on road space that might reduce traffic volumes. They seemed to have been unaware of the simple change in metric that is brought about when “people” are substituted for “vehicles” in the model. The #99 B-Line – the most effective bus route in the region – has almost no on street priority. There are no bus lanes on Broadway. The only thing that sets that route apart from most of the others is that it does not stop so often. On Hastings, a similar type of service is offered by the #135. It is not branded as a B-Line, but it works just like one. The Granville Street #98-B Line is now history: even that had hardly any priority within Vancouver. Contrast this to what New York is doing – and London, Paris and many others have done – in terms of bus lanes which have different coloured tarmac (no arguments about what is a bus lane) and camera enforcement (it is easy to see what is and is not a bus, unlike an HOV lane which is very hard to enforce).

Similarly the City can do a lot about parking. Not just on street but off street as well. But there is no overall parking strategy addressed in this report – apart from the need for bike parking, and for the ability to charge electric vehicles. This is really missing the point. But I can understand why they do not tackle it head on. Because that would immediately incur the wrath of the DVBIA. Well I suspect anything you do like this is not going to please that crowd so you might just as well face up to it. As long as there are lots of places to end car trips (parking spaces) there will be lots of cars. Yet three cars carrying on average 4 people in total take up the same space as a bus with 40 to 60. Or similar numbers of bikes or pedestrians. In Manhattan and Central London only 5% of the trips are in cars – so it is easier to make the case there. Not easier to win it, of course, since those car drivers are disproportionately influential people. Much harder here – as we saw with the Burrard Bridge trial, the short lived closure of part of Robson Street and the battle over Granville Mall.

Sure the City does not provide the transit service, but it can make the provision of transit a great deal more efficient and effective. A bus that can avoid traffic congestion is not only faster but more reliable. There may not even be any increase in the number of buses but those that are there will be moving more people than they can now, because they can complete more trips in a shift. That in itself makes bus lanes worth doing. But the longer term effect – as both London and New York demonstrate – is that you can get a lot more people using buses once you remove the element of uncertainty. The bus becomes reliable. And with only slightly more effort it becomes “the surface subway” that Janette Sadik-Khan spoke about this week. And a bus service can get introduced a lot quicker and cheaper than a subway line.

The contrast between the lack of specificity in areas where the city can do something (density, street use, parking) and transit, where someone else has to pick up the tab, is striking. There the ideas are definite – if a bit lacking in expertise.

  • The Downtown Streetcar project should get the green light, [of course – but since it only serves Vancouver, maybe you should consider following the example of Portland and pay for it yourselves? It is not now, nor ever has been, a regional priority]
  • express bus services should be expanded on busy routes (e.g. Commercial/Victoria) [see notes above about how bus lanes would be the way to achieve that]
  • Electric express buses should be used on Hastings, 4th Avenue, Broadway/West 10th Ave, and 41st Ave [You can do that on Hastings now, as long as it does not stop at intermediate points between downtown and the PNE. Electric B Lines would need a lot of wiring and some expensive “special work” to get in and out of the curb lanes between local buses. Putting trolleybuses back on the #41 sounds like a good idea until you look at the cost of wires to UBC. How about trolleys for Cambie while you’re at it? Maybe someone should start looking at my idea of putting poles on hybrid buses to extend the range and flexibility of trolley routes without more overhead wiring.]
  • Waterfront Station should be redeveloped into an accessible and attractive multimodal transportation hub. [DAFT – it is already. Redevelopment of one of the few outstanding heritage buildings in this City would be unforgiveable]
  • Local ferry services should be encouraged and supported. [yes, and the City can do that without Translink – West Vancouver just did. The False Creek ferries work very well without regional interference. Others could too, if they were financially viable ]

The one thing that is missing, that I am very pleased about, is there is no reference to a subway underneath Broadway to UBC.

Instead of a slab about what Translink should be doing, there ought to have been a direct attack on what is happening on Vancouver’s door step. The widening of Highway #1 may stop at Boundary Road, but that does not stop a huge amount of new traffic being dumped onto Vancouver’s streets. Yes I know that sounds like I am suggesting a Corrigan like bluster, but ignoring the impact of this vast increase in car traffic on the City’s east side is baffling. Not picking up the suggestion of pulling down the viaducts is a small issue in comparison. Freeway expansion will affect Vancouver. It is a very retrograde step – and the plan to make Vancouver “the greenest city” – is going to be undermined by the presence of large numbers of cars trying to get into Vancouver from the freeway.

And hoping that someone else might introduce road pricing is not a Plan, any more than expecting to win the lottery is retirement planning.

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

The Solar Taxi

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Guy Dauncey writes in Common Ground about a Swiss teacher who has been driving around the world in a small electric vehcile with a bunch of sloar panels on a trailer. His name is Louis Palmer and he was in Vancouver in early July. Like me you will probably have missed him. The major media, of course, failed to notice. But you can follow his progress on his own web page.

I will leave the last word to Guy

The moral of this story is that you don’t need to be a genius to invent the future and help save the world. You just need to believe in your dreams, and when it comes to the details, ask other people for help.

And there is more about why electric vehciles are important on the Alernet

Written by Stephen Rees

August 2, 2008 at 11:15 am

Life without transport by oil is closer than we think

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Barbara Yaffe, Sun

That is not a name I associate with this kind of opinion piece. I must admit I ignored this story yesterday. It did not seem to me to add anything we did not know already.

But it seems that is not what she has been reading. Instead it is

Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil, by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, is one of the most thought-provoking books to cross my desk in a long while.

And that book was launched some time ago. Now I thought that the key message in that book was that technological change could deal with the problem – it certainly seemed to me to dwell on developments in that area. But Professor Perl was giving it a much more political spin yesterday.

The Pacific Gateway Strategy, Heathrow’s fancy new Terminal 5 and other “boondoggles” demonstrate society’s reluctance to smell the coffee, Perl observed in an interview this week.

“There’s going to be some steep learning curve for political leaders who are largely unprepared to deal with the impending transport revolutions. Techno-fantasies and wishful thinking will have to give way to reality-based planning.”

Ms Yaffe also noticed the electric car commitment in Israel, which so far as I recall has not actually been reported in her paper. Which is not about technology at all, but policy. The real shift is that a known commodity has to be got to market quickly, and that needs a different marketing strategy – and governments can help by using the power of taxation. The Israeli government is going to tax internal combustion engine cars heavily and maintain that over time, while raising all car taxes (including electric vehicles) but keeping the advantage for electric, in order that there is no revenue loss. The clever bit is the response by the people who can make and sell the cars, batteries and battery quick change operations. And I suspect that the Israelis would have done that in any event simply because the oil is still controlled, by and large, by their sworn enemies. Rather in the same way that the old South African government had to develop an oil from coal program.

Of course, if you are ideologically against taxes and intervention in the “free market”, taking effective action this way requires some mental gymnastics which is well beyond the capabilities of the administrations in Ottawa and Washington.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 8:36 am

A moment of transformation

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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