What’s wrong with (green) cars?

Optical illusion slows traffic in Vancouver

Earlier in the week I argued that public policy needs to recognise that climate change and peak oil are the least compelling reasons for investing in public transport (Public transport: time for a new paradigm?). There are far more convincing reasons, I argued, such as providing universal mobility and an alternative in congested conditions.

One of my key points was that cars will almost certainly be the dominant mode for many decades to come. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that there are potential substitutes for oil and that travellers will not easily give up the advantages of on-demand mobility.

It will also take considerable time to move our cities to a more transit-friendly urban form and improving public transport to the point where it can “take over” from the car will be enormously expensive. Of course there are also alternative uses competing for investment and attention, like education and health.

I argued that we should therefore give high priority to making cars green i.e. work toward vehicles powered by renewable energy sources with low carbon and pollution. Some people say that even cars powered by zero carbon electricity will nevertheless have enormous negative impacts. Whether that’s right or not, we don’t realistically have a choice – at least in the medium term – because the transformation from car-dependent cities to transit-dependent cities will be long and arduous.

However it is true that green cars will still present serious challenges.

A key problem is traffic congestion. As I argued in the earlier post, one of the priorities for investment in public transport should be areas which are heavily congested. The CBD is the obvious example – without public transport, the vast number of workers who travel to the centres of our cities simply couldn’t get there. Public transport won’t “solve” the problem of traffic congestion but it will provide an alternative means of transport.

The trouble with congestion is that all trips get slowed down irrespective of their value. My trip to the supermarket is as important as your trip to a job interview or an exam. If a price were charged for travelling in the peak (via say an in-car GPS-capable transponder) it would discourage trips that can be shifted to the off-peak or taken by another mode. There are issues with congestion pricing, particularly the equity effects, which I’ve discussed before (e.g. here and here), but there are ways of addressing them.

Another problem is the amount of embodied energy manufactured into cars. They may emit zero carbon and pollution in operation but release huge quantities in the factory. Unfortunately, I don’t have any data on that to hand. I don’t know if, as is the case with operating energy, public transport is much the same in practice as cars (on a per passenger kilometre basis). But since we’re stuck with cars for some time, we need to find ways to reduce their embodied energy.

Almost everyone expects the real cost of motoring to rise with peak oil and with the transition to new technologies. That seems a sensible presumption. Higher costs will help by lowering the demand for travel and hence the level of car ownership – a smaller fleet of cars will have to be used more efficiently. Taxing and regulatory systems can also be configured to reward vehicles with low embodied energy.

But a key issue will be the cleanliness of electricity in the countries where the cars we buy are manufactured. This is an example of why I argue (e.g. here, here and here) that making electricity clean should be the number one priority – it means, for example, that the energy embodied in vehicles manufactured in Australia can be generated without emitting carbon.

Another whole set of problems with cars, green or otherwise, is speed, noise and safety. Cars make urban spaces dangerous and unpleasant. That can and should be controlled by better regulation, stronger enforcement and by technological limits on the performance characteristics of cars. We will have to get used to travelling slowly – something that in any event will be inevitable due either to increasing congestion or greater use of public transport.

We might also have to get used to much more intrusive regulation – transponders measuring at least the speed and location of cars would be extremely effective in encouraging more considerate driver behaviour. There are possibly issues about civil liberties with GPS but as I understand it there are technological solutions. It’s a reminder that there’s invariably a price for living at density.

Some people worry that cars will continue the pattern of sprawl exemplified by fringe development, regional shopping centres, big box retailing and suburban business parks. What they fail to account for is that one of the very issues they see as making sprawl untenable – higher costs from, for example, rising petrol prices – is also the factor that will constrain the way green cars are used.

If green cars cost significantly more to own and operate than cars do at present – and I’m not aware of anyone who thinks otherwise – then that will encourage shorter trip distances and consequently a more compact urban form with a higher average density. If the cost of travel rises, then all other things being equal, I’d expect local facilities and services will be more competitive against bigger centres.

There is also an issue of how car-dependent households on the fringe will cope with the higher cost of travel. As it stands, only the Government seems interested in improving their lot. While public transport boosters argue for big-ticket projects like an airport rail link, high speed rail and a new rail line to Rowville, the Government has quietly introduced a number of orbital SmartBus services in the outer suburbs, including one that links Frankston to Melbourne Airport (it’s a long trip!).

This is a complex aspect of this subject which I’ll write about in more detail at another time, but it seems clear that outer suburban households will have to make the largest adaptations, whether to use public transport more or to shift to more fuel-efficient cars.

13 Comments on “What’s wrong with (green) cars?”

  1. Matthew says:

    Alan you’re correct. Electric cars have almost all the problems of petrol or diesel cars. They still weigh over a tonne or tonne and a half. Bicycles weigh less than 20 kilos. Pedal cars, called velomobiles, which are fully fared recumbent trikes weigh about 30 kilos. Velomobiles can share cycleway facilities. They easily go 40km/hr by a normal adult. They can be fitted with the same electric assist as bicycles. 50km/hr is then a normal speed. They can carry kids and groceries in trailers. They can be ridden in the rain without getting wet.

    Public Transport is not as cost effective as cycleway networks. For the last mile problem near empty buses are a hugely inefficient solution. Cycleways give much better bang for the buck. And if train stations have safe bicycle and velomobile parking then all the PT investment can go into a state of the art train network and we can forget about the buses just about altogether.

    Chuck away the Prius and get yourself a velomobile. There’s even one made in Victoria.

    • Russell says:

      Matthew – they look fairly cumbersome! They would take up a lot of cyclepath, and how fast would they go into a bracing wind (Perth is very windy), and given our ageing population, some of us boomers might find a long commute a bit challenging – a lot of stopping and starting at intersections etc would be a bit draining! (and let’s not talk about punctures)

      • Matthew says:

        They’re not cumbersome – they’re quick and light and comfortable. The sit up seats on recumbants are really good for the back.

        See this for some riding through the Dutch countryside:

        Into the wind they’re good because of the faring and speeds of 40km/hr are normal into the wind. As for 60 somethings riding them I can’t see why not. Electric assist for up a hill, even though going up hills in recumbents is quite a pleasant experience with the right gearing. There are solid/foam polyurethane tyres available now too, so no punctures.

        The infrastructure for them is the same as for normal bikes. Zero emissions. 100% sustainable.

        And a half hour commute of 20km means most cities aren’t too big for it.

        Should cities be built around bikes and velomobiles and trains and trams or everyone having a Landcruiser? I know where I’d rather live.

  2. Joseph says:

    ‘If green cars cost significantly more to own and operate than cars do at present – and I’m not aware of anyone who thinks otherwise’

    I’ll be the person who thinks otherwise! There are two parts to this, cost to own will indeed certainly be higher initially. There are parallels here with catalytic converters and airbags where the costs of these were $1000s but as they were introduced more widely the cost fell dramatically. Mass production will have a huge impact on cost just as it has for every other manufactured product.

    As for costs of operation, if you consider ‘fuel’ cost it will be far cheaper. Coal is cheaper than oil, power stations are better at converting fuel to power than car engines, petrol is taxed at a far higher rate that electricity. Fuel cost for electric cars will be a fraction of the cost of petrol.

    If you assume the marginal cost of car travel is lower in the future and congestion can be cured by policies of road pricing and technology then the implications for urban planning are entirely different.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Re your comment on cost of operation, note that I’ve assumed “clean” electricity. That means sources like wind, solar, nuclear, ethanol, coal with carbon capture, etc. I don’t think dirty electricity is an option.

      It’s a foregone conclusion to my mind that even if clean electricity or any alternative fuel source were to be cheaper than oil is at present, then it would inevitably be taxed at the rate required to maintain revenue (although the rationale will of course be to pay for infrastructure). In any event, it seems unlikely that oil will remain at its current real price! (note that my point was about the real cost of travel increasing – whether from green cars or higher oil prices isn’t really the issue).

      As an aside, that electricity scenario raises an interesting practical problem of how to charge one price for electricity for vehicle use and another for non-transport uses. Maybe taxing tyres would be the way to go.

      And of course I do say that congestion pricing should be implemented (don’t get your comment about lower marginal cost of car travel in the future???).

      Re capital cost of green cars, ultimately the cost might be as low as petrol and diesel cars, but that could take a long time. And will it be as low?

      This is a new technology i.e. batteries that can produce high levels of power and give cars a good range. Can we be sure that economies of scale is all that’s needed or is a technology break-through, possibly involving higher cost, required? Disposal of batteries could also add to costs. PS – contamination associated with minerals used in battery manufacture is a serious issue, but is prevention and remediation subject to the same scale economies as manufacturing the vehicle?

      • Joseph says:

        A quick web search revealed myelectriccar.com.au, which computes cost of petrol v electric vehicles. If use medium sized car based in VIC you get fuel cost for an electric vehicle which is around 25% of petrol cost. I wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy of the figures but I’ve seen other analyses giving a similar answer.

        I agree that the Government would need to recover revenue from somewhere but don’t believe it could do it through power pricing. It’s easier to tax ‘bads’ such as smokers or oil burning cars than it is a green car.

        As for low emission power generation, wind and solar are likely only ever marginal, CCS is only talked about to keep coal miners happy. As technology stands at the moment nuclear and gas is the rational mix and if experience internationally is anything to go by shouldn’t need a dramatic increase in power prices.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Well spotted. Comes down then to capital cost and taxation. Once electric cars have a sizeable share of the market I don’t think they’ll have immunity from taxation.

        I’ve seen some fearsome cost estimates for nuclear but it is a highly politicised debate. I feel confident with my original contention that “green cars would cost significantly more to own and operate than cars do at present“.

  3. Russell says:

    Matthew – I rode back from the beach this morning (15 minutes at a moderate rate) into an easterly, and it was HARD going up the slight hills. This freezing easterly blows in the mornings, and then in the afternoons we get a cyclonic westerly ‘sea breeze’. Believe me riding for 18km to work and back would be a bit much for ‘seniors’. Plus the cycle infrastructure that has been provided is rubbish.

    I have tried and tried to buy those tyres in Perth and nobody sells them. Which is why I don’t think I would even use a bike to ride to the nearest railway station. Punctures make them unreliable. Not to mention safety and convenience.

    In Perth the transport authorities have the mad idea that you shouldn’t be able to drive to a station, park, and catch the train into the city. They’re selling off the parking room for high density housing. All they will provide is “Kiss & Stop” room, assuming that everyone has someone available to drive to the station to take and pick them up.

  4. Michael says:

    I’m quite suspicious about the representativeness (probably no such word) of organisations such as VECCI.

    “VECCI is Victoria’s voice for business – a powerful voice for the interests of Victorian businesses, large and small.”

    Are bicycle shops included? Do they poll their members when compiling a list like this? I’m an RACV member and I’ve never been asked my opinion about anything from them, and I can say that I categorically reject the idea of spending any money on their pet project list, yet they “represent” their members. If they are truly representative then Melbourne is doomed if this are their considered ideas.

  5. Ian Woodcock says:

    In a nutshell, green cars won’t solve the problems of car-dominated/dependent cities because they are … cars! And being cars, they take up a lot of space, regardless of how they are powered, and are implicated in particular kinds of urban morphology and systems. However, it’s incorrect to argue that it’s too arduous to convert low-density cities like Melbourne into places that can be served by public transport. There is no clear fixed relationship between urban form/density and transit. While many cities have co-evolved high-density morphology along with extensive public transit systems, there is also plenty of evidence from around the world of good public transit services being provided to low-density and dispersed settlements. But don’t take my word for it, read Paul Mees’ excellent new book ‘Transport for Suburbia: beyond the Automobile age’.

    PS: the litany of bad planning decisions in Australian cities should not be taken as evidence that transport can’t be fixed, just evidence of the need for better planning.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’ve always agreed with Paul that the sort of suburban densities we have in Melbourne do not preclude provision of good PT services and have said so before.

      However it’s a mistake to think that density is an irrelevant consideration, esp when the discussion turns to the idea of PT being a “viable” substitute
      for cars.

      Garry Glazebrook and Peter Rickwood have done some good research on the complexities of the connection between density and PT in Sydney. Among other things, they point out that it’s really other variables that are correlated with density that are the key attributes (density nevertheless remains a handy proxy).

  6. […] car. While the car’s mode share is likely to decline, the absolute level of car travel – in green cars – is nevertheless highly like to […]

  7. […] those assumptions are made – and I’ve argued before that it’s a plausible medium term expectation – then the arguments are […]

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