e-Cars are circumventing our chance to mend cities

Alan Finkel was on the radio yesterday, telling us how e-Cars will save the planet, and that his own e-Car can go from 0 to 100kph in 7 seconds. I’m not qualified to unpick his argument that providing lots of electricity is better than lowering energy needs. Any humanist though is qualified to reject his appeal to the base instincts of hoons. Cars with that kind of acceleration aught be seized by police and put into crushers.

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What use are e-Cars? Because of battery range, e-Cars work best around town. But it is within cities that cars, electric or petrol, have proven to be a real menace. They kill and deter users of active modes like walking and cycling, thus causing obesity across populations. They slow cyclists down by causing congestion—cities didn’t have traffic lights before cars created the problem. Cars of any sort harm the economy by trapping workers in jams. They require the construction of car parking stations that push buildings apart, when the reason we have cities is to bring people together. They will perpetuate sprawl for decades to come, when we know cities need to grow thicker, not bigger, to accommodate growth.

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For travel between cities, a network of fast trains would be more convenient, and statistically much safer than highways and cars. Every dollar we spend individually on cars, and jointly on highways, is a dollar we have not spent on a network of intercity fast trains, like the one that serves Europe. The only place cars excel is in gratuitous journeys to beaches and mountains. But for these types of trips e-Cars require auxiliary power, whereupon they cease to be e-Cars.

Advocates of e-Cars aren’t so concerned with the transport needs of cities and regions, as the joys of owning and using transport machines. Me too. The difference is my passion is for a kind of transport machine that does more good than bad, and theirs is for a kind that mostly does bad.

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Now maybe e-Cars can be ran on green energy (though I suspect nuclear will provide the real grunt). That doesn’t change the fact that cars waste space in the city, don’t have the capacity to deliver large numbers of people, are stressful to use, leave our bodies inactive, and ritually sacrifice more lives than Mayan Priests. Bikes have none of those drawbacks. Fast trains have very few.

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Peak oil is an opportunity for cities to reset. The Dutch seized the opportunity presented by the 1973 oil crisis, and have enjoyed many other dividends in addition to lowering energy needs. Advocates of e-Cars will rob us of any chance for the same.

p.s. In addition to the comments below, there was some discussion of this post on Treehugger.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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14 Responses to e-Cars are circumventing our chance to mend cities

  1. 7homask says:

    If the nuclear source is thorium instead of uranium, then there’s no pollution to worry about. But that won’t happen because the US and others want the by-products to use in weapons. And even if it did, then obviously we’d still have the car problem.

    Is there still room in Tasmania? I think we should come down…

  2. crank says:

    Yeah, I feel the ‘peak oil’ argument is artificial when it comes to cars; it’s not like we can’t make electric cars, so I’d say it’s to maximize profit from all the oil enterprises. Once oil is no longer viable, marketing genii will make electric cars sexy overnight, petrol cars will be as cool as smoking. Hopefully we can be enlightened enough to realize e-cars are just filtered cigarettes, not much better. Not to mention the considerable resources that go into just building the things.

  3. Colin says:

    Yes. It’s space efficiency that’s the issue, not fuel efficiency. Or pollution (though that is important).

    Cars could run on angel’s farts and they’d still destroy cities.

  4. Hi Steven, BSNYC has pretty much summed up why we need cars and why we’ll have trouble getting rid of most of them:

    By the way, if you think 30-car pile-ups are an argument against driving when it comes to urban planning, think again. I mean, look at all the money changing hands here! Police overtime, towtrucks, insurance companies, auto repair shops… This isn’t an “accident,” it’s a freaking bonanza! This is why those poor hapless bike advocates need to stop arguing that bike infrastructure makes sense because it’s “inexpensive.” Uh, don’t you get it? Inexpensive is no good! Get the granola out of your ears, for chrissakes. When you build a highway a lot of people get rich! Politicians, contractors, supply companies… Meanwhile, who’s getting paid when they slap some green paint on Prospect Park West? Nobody, that’s who. It’s a few gallons of Benjamin Moore from Pintchik, big fucking deal.

    from: http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/its-penultimate-wednesday-of-2013-spend.html

    Cheers

  5. Gitle says:

    I think you are thinking too narrowly, your arguments certainly does not apply everywhere. I live in a semirural area in Norway, every day I have commute to the nearest city. It is much too far for me to be able to walk or bike, yet my electric car can handle the distance just fine. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe live in such areas. The area is far too scarcely populated to justify trains. I’d also rather not take the bus as that triples the commute time. So electric cars are not just for cities, as you claim. Also, in many countries including Norway, e-cars are allowed to drive in public transport lanes and have dedicated parking spots, so we don’t contribute much to traffic congestion. In addition to all that, 99% of the electricity produced in Norway is hydro-power, so the pollution is precisely nil.

  6. Ant says:

    I find it hard to deny the main thrust of your argument, large portions of which I agree with, but let me put my case forward as an example of why EVs are in fact necessary.

    I own an EV, a Mitsubishi iMiEV to be precise, not exactly a hoon mobile. I also own 4 bikes – they all have their specific use, MTB, commuter bike, race bike, crappy old,( unstealable ) bike to ride to train station.

    I ride to work, at least 4 days out of 5. As most people should if they are not using public transport.

    I have organised my workplace end of trip facilities and I like to think that the reason they are having difficulty finding people to lease car parking at work is because since I have been there the cycling list I keep has grown from 20 to 80 ( in a building that houses 400). I try to take part in cycling advocacy as much as possible.

    Every now and again ( about every 2 months ) if I need to carry something heavy into work or need a break, I’ll use the EV. Call it an indulgence but I also like to show my zippy, quiet , zero pollution machine off. I use it to take my race bike to the more distant gathering places for early group rides or to take the MTB into the hills. I’m not going to ride on the knobbly tyres for 50km so I can ride 30km in the hills.

    But mostly it is used by my wife to go to the shops, especially larger shopping trips, to take the kids to piano lessons, to take the dog to the beach. That doesn’t stop the kids cycling to school, or smaller trips to shops on bike.

    So , rather than being used as a city car, it is more a suburban transport utility and general run around over medium distance, I would agree that if there was less urban sprawl, it might be easier to dispense with cars altogether. But if there have to be cars – and I would say this is still the case, they should not be fossil fuel powered.

    We have solar panels and buy green energy and are an energy efficient house, using only 9kwh a day on average. My EV cost around $10 to run last month as opposed to the gas guzzler it replaced which cost around $160.

    I’m sorry if EVs spoil your ideal of a perfect, bike / public transport only city. I don’t think . however, that EVs will be the cause of a delay in the transition of cities to become more active transport friendly. Generally, they are driven by people who are aware of the bigger picture. I know this because I meet with members of the EV community regularily.

    Laws ( driven by people like you and I ) and infrastructure changes will cause the transition. And i think it is happening , slowly but surely – although we have to work around hurdles like our “Minister for Roads” PM.

    Personally, I think that there are more pragmatic solutions that suit all. My ideal would be a cycling friendly city like Amsterdam with most commuter trips less than 10km done by bike, public transport takes care of most of the rest with EVs to replace the Freight trucks and taxis and private vehicles that already exist.

    Trips to the city should be tolled heavily to prevent them being used as a regular commute. Parking in inner city should be expensive and rare ( with obvious exceptions being disabled , freight bays etc ) for the same reason.

    EVs are not the scapegoat that you would like them to be – they are part of the solution, not the problem.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for that careful reply. I would still say that city planning has been controlled by car companies since WW2. Your personal investment in their products means you won’t help tackle the underlying problem. Perhaps you will help when your shiny toy is obsolescent in a few years.

    • Ant says:

      I am indeed helping with the underlying problem by advocating for and actively building bike facilities, despite the odds being against me. Despite owning an EVil car- whose usefulness I explained.

      I recognise that cars – and especially trucks – will not just go away, there are uses for them that are beyond “shiny toy” to use your dismissive term. We have to find ways to make them used only exceptionally and not by default but we cannot wish them away no matter how hard we try , we have to recognise their usefulness.

      And short of building a car myself, I fail to see how to avoid buying one from a manufacturer. 3D printing is not yet that advanced :)

      Even in the most perfect world, you still need things delivered that are not able to arrive strapped to a bakfiets, in the back of a truck. It’s an inconvenient truth, I’m afraid. And personal vehicles ( including e-bikes and scooters through to trucks ) will be around forever. As I said before, we have to plan for their use exceptionally and not by default.

      They will not be obsolete in a few years time. Can you realistically put forward a scenario where there are zero cars and trucks and other utility vehicles?
      I’d be very interested to hear how this could be done. I’m pretty sure that Dutch farmers don’t use bikes to plough their fields for example.

    • Steven says:

      Hi Antony, first, sorry for the dismissive reply earlier. My youngin’ got me up at 4.30, eager to see his own shiny toys.
      Okay, so imagine post-war suburban sprawl never happened, and new urban districts were as dense as the old stuff. It would reasonable to ask farmers to leave their cars on the outskirts of dense cities, so as not to get in the way of our efficient rail/cargo bike logistics systems, and all our efficient bike transport. So, how do you realise utopia, after 70 years of highways and sprawl? In briefest summary, I think brownfield redevelopments conceived as bicycling heterotopias, linked via the voids that industry has left in our cities, could capture peoples imaginations again with the idea of bicycle transport. (Note to self: don’t respond to helpful blog comments when tired and cranky). Happy Christmas, wherever you are. I hope santa remembers the batteries :)

  7. Ant says:

    The secret to not having kids wake up early is to let them stay up on xmas eve until late. That way, you get a lie in until at least 6:30am. YMMV.

    No Prob, I guessed it was something like that. Or 3 punctures in a row riding home late at night ( speaking from experience this is enough to make one go postal , let alone answer a blog comment dismissively)

    We’re in Perth, situation here is extreme sprawl – we are spread up and down the coast for 100km and around 20km inland, minimum. There are pockets of people elsewhere but that’s the main population. Bike wise we have pretty decent paths, quite a few on road lanes and some seriously bogan , out to kill ( or at least to maim), drivers.

    Amsterdam suffered from post war sprawl too, luckily the inner city stayed largely intact – the 70s saw them react to the petro-shock by going all out on bike infrastructure but also crucially , they made the bike more important, legally, than the mighty car.

    I do enjoy the ideal of a cycling heterotopia rising from the dystopia of the failed carbon wastelands, but I think pragmatically, one should crawl before being able to walk, for example, how does one carry a fridge on a bike…? minimal EV based freight services , essential private cars/vehicles ( eg Electric wheelchairs, EV maxi taxi for elderly etc ) must fit into your picture as even my ideal appears to be hopelessly optimistic when facing reality. We need to bring the fossil fuel cagers into our world not alienate them.

    Given the reality of sprawl and the sometimes impossible demands of being in 2 places geographically disparate in far less than bike time, we’ll have to stick to driving the EV for many years to come, knowing that we are using it for all the right reasons. And having fun into the bargain. I’m convinced, as I said, that EV is part of the solution, not the problem.
    And for the problem look no further than self serving populist rat bags like our current PM and many of his ilk.

    But I feel confident that there are , even amongst his followers, many who feel as we do that sustainability should trump selfish , narrow wasteful behaviour and we will prevail, I have no doubt.

    I grew up in South Africa, this may seem like a non-sequitur, but I know what it is like to feel like things cannot change, that your rulers are so evil, that people are so set in their ways that right cannot challenge wrong. At one point, in 1986 or so when I said to my father and others that I could see a time when we would have Nelson Mandela as our president, I was told I was dreaming, being subversive and “over my dead body”. Things changed. Not as quickly as I would have liked, not as cleanly as I would have liked, but they did. This is now in the history books. So when people say to me that cars rule, that EVs will not penetrate the market, that bikes are not welcome on the road in Australia and never will be, I know that this too will be history given time and enough of a vector for change.

    Enjoy your festive season, I’ve a surprise lined up tomorrow that involved loads of planning, will take quite a bit of riding but should be fun. Will update everyone tomorrow.
    Hope Santa included loads of bikely goodies in his sack this Chrissy for you and yours.

    Merry , happy , prosperous etc etc

    • Steven says:

      You too. You stopped my readership hitting zero on Christmas :) Such a boring time of year this is, truly!

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