Friday, January 29

Cities weighing electric vehicles carefully

Many cities have been looking carefully at introducing electric cars lately. The cars may be private, but they do exert some unique pressures on public infrastructure. Seattle and others have been investing in a set of charging stations with enough voltage to power the cars. Paris set up an electric car sharing system, and London is thinking of following. Today, New York City released a report on how electric cars may be adopted there and how to meet their needs.

Charging station outside of Portland. Flickr: Todd Mecklem
Much of the discussion about electric vehicles centers around energy usage, yet the efficiency question is a tricky one. Ultimately, moving an object of X mass through space at Y velocity will always take Z energy. Strictly speaking, electric cars are not a means of energy conservation but of energy centralization. It's a switch from many fuel-based combustion engines to a few power plants, based on a mix coal and alternative sources depending on the region. Right now in most places in the U.S., concentrating the pollution into smokestacks is typically more efficient than distributing it to tailpipes, even when accounting for the transaction costs, but this is hardly a foregone conclusion.

The picture of an electric car that you probably have in your mind is that of a small vehicle, a "city car," but there is no intrinsic connection between size and energy source. Electric cars can be as large as combustion engine vehicles, and as technology improves the market will likely push electric models toward size equilibrium with other cars.

According to architect Christopher Alexander:
"The fact that cars are large is, in the end, the most serious aspect of a transportation system based on the use of cars, since it is inherent to the very nature of cars."
Size is important because larger cars hurt more when they hit you, fill more roadway and parking capacity, and generally spread things out. It is incorrect to assume that support for electric cars will necessarily lead to smaller or slower vehicles.

But Noah Kazis of Streetsblog gets straight to the most important consideration:
As a sustainability initiative, the merit of the proposal depends on whether trips in these new electric cars will replace trips powered by internal combustion or trips by foot, bicycle, and transit.”
It seems that the easiest way get around the dilemma is to place any incentives for electric cars on the production side rather than the consumption side. The stronger vehicle emissions standards announced by Obama last May will inevitably encourage more electric and hybrid production. Likewise, the $2.4 billion of federal support for EV battery research from the Department of Energy can help producers improve performance and efficiency of their vehicles. On the other hand, consumer incentives such as this year’s $7,500 per vehicle tax credit is a less effective approach. This goes for the myriad of state and local tax credits as well. Producer incentives make cars that would have been built anyway better; consumer incentives may actually lead to a net increase in the total number of cars on the roadways.

The New York study opted to pass on the more expensive subsidies in favor of education and some recognition of early adopters. This makes sense. A change that might to a little bit of good probably deserves some quiet cheerleading.

1 comment:

Eric Orozco said...

Your point on the consumer incentives and Noah Kazis's pertinent observation point to a more effective question to ask, which is what form of personal transport encourages greater reliance on transit, bike-use and walking? My thinking is that we should encourage Zipcar and car-sharing (and car-pooling) incentives to remove the "last mile" problem and thus support modal choices. Vehicles that are lighter and size appropriate for urban environments, "golf carts" can also provide the folks (esp. the elderly) with greater mobility, and cut down on energy-inefficient transportation.

I'm for the tiny car option. There have to be many ways to increase mobility with development which keeps these more efficient personal transport choices in mind. These choices are going to become more and more pertinent as the boomers age, don't forget. What if you planned a golf-cart/scooter community 1 mile away from the a bus or light rail route with scenic, safe lanes that lead to tiny, compact (and perhaps covered) park & rides at the stop? Might be pie in the sky right now, but we should anticipate what cities will be willing to consider when the percentages of the elderly go up.