December 8, 2020

Moving to Electric Vehicles Will Not Save Our Cities


Jon Burke, the London Councillor for Hackney responded to Britain’s plan to ban all gas and diesel vehicle sales by 2030 by pointing out that this only addressed  half the issue.

In an opinion piece  in the Huffington Post, Mr. Burke reminded that it was not gasoline powered vehicles that destroyed communities but the presence and use of the vehicles themselves.

Outstanding issues remain with continued private vehicle use regardless of how it is powered.  Those issues include congestion, speed, automotive pollution, and the fact that the trend to larger SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) means more road fatalities.

This view is counter to that of many of the electric vehicle companies, who perceive the change away from the ICE (internal combustion engine) as being the way to continue manufacturing vehicles. As technology becomes self driving, it has also been thought that autonomous vehicles will provide transport for seniors, who need to retire from driving vehicles.

Mr. Burke quotes Jane Jacobs from the book Dark Age Ahead  who stated

“Not television or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities”.

It’s been suggested that the invention of the affordable automobile is the 20th century device that most shaped cities, to the point that car use factors into how we perceive space, time, independence and ourselves.

While we are in the second wave of the Covid pandemic in Vancouver, an article written by Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail in June showed that one-third of those surveyed expected to take transit less and use a vehicle more. The need for physical distancing and worries about  the proximity of people on transit has translated in a new reliance on the private vehicle.

That new adaptation of car use for personal virus bubble protection is part of a trend in Canada that has seen bigger vehicles dominate the market. As Matt Bubbers in the Globe and Mail notes nearly 75 percent of all vehicles sold in this country are “light trucks” inclusive of SUVs.  Cars, pickups, SUV’s and cube vans also contribute to nearly 50 percent of all GHG emissions from transportation. Large “heavy-duty” vehicles make up a further 35 percent of GHGs with rail transport contributing 3.8 percent and motorcycles .2 percent.

There has been an increasing tie-in with  private vehicle ownership and wealth. The SUV with higher seats, all terrain capability is marketed with a rugged persona, and available from all vehicle manufacturers. In North America Ford  will no longer sell cars, just trucks and the very profitable SUVs.

While using electric vehicles is noble, it still does not address the issue of congestion and the deadly statistics with SUVs.  Statistics show that SUVs with the high front end grille are twice as likely to kill pedestrians because the higher engine profile is a driver’s blind spot and directly damages pedestrians’ vital organs,  but this information has not been well publicized.

In the United States a federal initiative to include SUV pedestrian crash survival into the vehicle ranking system was halted by opposing automakers. Drivers have an 11 percent increase in the chance of fatality in them, as their size and bulk is connected with more reckless driving.

There is also not the recognition that there are significant emissions associated with the creation and shipping of electric vehicles, and fifty percent of “lung-stunting” particulate emissions come from tire and brake wear. I have written about vanadium, found in brake dust contributing to a condition called “London Throat” that has an adverse impact on immunity.The metal particles in the dust from worn-out brake pads on vehicles can be just as harmful as diesel emissions. Called BAD for Brake Dust Abrasion, studies done by King’s College London found that the metallic  dust from brake pads cause lung inflammation and “reduce immunity, increasing the risk of respiratory infections.”

The real issue is realizing  that we simply cannot drive ourselves out of this mess. While road speeds can be slowed to 30 km/h to save lives and to make the road environment more comfortable for vulnerable road users, vehicular traffic appears to be increasing in residential areas in many cities. In London England transport data shows from 2009 to 2019 that  there is an 18.6 percent increase in the number of miles driven annually despite congestion charges.

This increase sadly impacts the social street  life of citizens living in London and may be due to several factors including growing online shopping delivery, private cabs, and navigation wayfinding apps that use neighbourhoods to shortcut around congestion. London’s data indicates that it was solely residential streets that “absorbed the full net increase in driving over the decade, the increase on these roads has been 3.9 billion miles over this period”.

Main roads designed for larger capacity are not taking the load of increased traffic; neighbourhoods have been taking the higher load of vehicles in London England. Going completely electric will have no impact on this problem.

As Mr. Burke bluntly states

there can be no immaculate conception of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Oslo. We will not humanise the city by chance.”

As policies move towards banning the sale of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles in British Columbia by 2040, simply getting rid of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles is only solving part of the problem. As Mr. Burke reminds we have an “addiction” to private vehicle travel, and that has been compounded by the pandemic. In many jurisdictions the price of second-hand vehicles has risen markedly as people search for a work commuting vehicle.

Instead it is one more reason why if we are serious about putting pedestrians, cyclists and public transit before vehicles, we have to walk the talk. One of the positives from the pandemic is the increased concern and interest in mental and physical health and well-being. If we mean to create communities where citizens are first, the whole “transportation decarbonization jigsaw” must address the 50 percent of vehicle trips that are three kilometers or less and make that be safe, comfortable and convenient without a private car. That’s where the concept of the “Fifteen minute’ city comes in, where schools, shops and services are a comfortable walking or cycling distance from every residence.

That makes the switch to electric vehicles just part of a paradigm that puts people ahead of the 20th century vehicle dominance of road space and policy. It needs to be much more holistic  and led by citizens and  policy makers if our neighbourhoods are to truly survive and thrive.


Images: SJames




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  1. I don’t think anybody is seriously making a claim that EVs resolve city MV problems. The mission of the global leader is to hasten the switch to renewable energy. And that they do – particularly with Tesla’s suite of interrelated technologies: solar, battery storage and EVs. This goes further than creating the potential to be entirely self-sufficient (off-grid) for all energy use, it can also play a major role in reducing fossil electricity production far greater than the distributed energy created on peoples’ roofs.

    I’m no fan of car dependence, but I give a lot of credit to Musk for kicking the entire industry in the ass. We need to phase car dependence out of our cities but I would argue we must also ensure the vehicles that are still going to be necessary must be EVs.

    While it is true that currently EVs have a higher manufacturing footprint, this may not always be the case as systems, battery chemistries etc. evolve. But even now, the larger footprint is paid back in just two or three years of driving. Given that EVs are far far simpler mechanically, with a tiny fraction of the moving parts, there is every reason to believe they will last longer than ICE vehicles, further reducing their footprint. Furthermore, the batteries can have secondary uses as stationary power storage long after the car itself has expired. And finally, those batteries can be almost entirely recycled. Early pilot projects show greater than 90% recovery of the most important components. Again, Tesla is a leader in setting up pilot projects to ensure they are ready as their earliest cars come off the road en mass.

    And to address one not inconsequential benefit in cities is the brake particles mentioned in the article. Modern EVs use almost no brakes. And as mentioned, brakes have nasty consequences on air quality. It is true that tire wear particles could be slightly elevated due to the heavy batteries. But even there, new tech is attempting to seriously reduce their weight by making the batteries a structural component of the vehicle.

    I’m no fan of cars. But I’m excited to see how this exploding technology is going to rip the economics out from underneath the tar sands.

  2. I think there’s a bit of a conundrum –

    In advocating a holistic approach that implies joy, happiness and little stress.
    The overriding driver for car use (and everything environmentally unfriendly, it seems) is convenience.

    In thinking collectively for the greater good, you need to sacrifice a bit of that convenience, in small or big ways. i.e. combining errands and trips to reduce car use, take longer to get to your destination by walking or using transit., etc.

    But sacrifice isn’t really consistent with a feel good approach (nor with the “me” generation and its successors).

    Even pre-COVID, a look around a crowded SkyTrain car would rarely cause one to think of it as a holistic approach.

  3. Studies from Germany show even their enviable transit is becoming the purview of the poor. Those wealthy enough to afford homes near the central business district might switch to a bike while those farther away switch to a car, often used:

    “.. an analysis of car registration data in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom conducted for Reuters by IHS Markit also shows there’s a significant shift toward older, used vehicles.

    In France, for example, the IHS analysis showed used car registrations rose nearly 16% in the third quarter while new vehicle sales fell more than 5%. It also showed that in 2020 so far, vehicles over 15 years old made up a higher proportion of used car registrations than in 2019.

    “It’s fair to say in the time of corona that the amount of vehicles older than 15 years has increased versus prior years,” said Bjoern Huetter, an associate product director at IHS.

    There was an even bigger jump in Spain, with used car registrations up nearly 25%, according to the IHS analysis Cristian Lopez, 34, is another buyer in Spain who went for the cheaper second-hand option, partly thanks to having saved some money during the country’s strict lockdown..”

    1. This is an article about EVs – not an article about short-term habit changes during the biggest global upheaval in a century.

      1. And yet the “short-term habit changes during the biggest global upheaval in a century” is fair game to use an excuse to push through bike lanes at the expense of motorists, at a time more people are turning to cars

        1. Cycling has been growing for decades – long long before Covid. Bike lanes are growing along with, and helping promote, this win-win-win for the city and society as a whole. Motorists have absolutely dominated our public spaces and the world over cities are clawing that back to something a little more balanced. There are a few new and most likely temporary bike/walking facilities around the region that have come about to ensure safe distancing. You’re opposed to that?

          There is one (1) new bike lane spurred by the pandemic that has permanent potential in the city’s busiest and most popular walking/cycling corridor. So far, all the bike lanes have been designed to have little to no negative impact on MV traffic flow. It is all about erroneous perception and the unwillingness of some motorists to reallocate space for safer cycling even if it has no impact on them. Most of the general public has come to favour bike lanes and the repeated loss of candidates who campaign against them is pretty evident. You have an opinion that differs from the vast majority.

        2. I don’t think it’s at the expense of motorists. They are well served already. They have other places to store their cars so can easily accommodate this minor change.
          Something to remember is that having alternatives helps motorists. If everyone who cycled, took transit and walked were to make those trips in a car instead, the traffic congestion would be extreme. Having cycling infrastructure in a city reduces congestion.

        3. “… a time more people are turning to cars.”

          Until vaccines are everywhere. I’ve said before that the cure for pandemics, poor urbanism and a host of other aliments and afflictions (e.g. demagoguery) is good science.

    2. That they are choosing old cars is further evidence that they don’t see this as a permanent change in transportation habits.

  4. Here is what Globe & Mail economics columnist Eric Reguly has to say about EVs:

    “By now, the arguments in favour of battery-powered cars are broadly accepted as gospel. EVs have zero-emissions (not exactly true, since batteries have to be recharged and most electricity still comes from fossil fuels), so their use will clean up city air, and who can be against air that is not toxic? They are quiet and cheap to maintain, since they have far fewer moving parts than regular cars. And, for car nuts, they are rocket sleds, because they are capable of producing instant torque and lots of it. A high-end Tesla can accelerate as fast as a Ferrari.

    “Self-driving EVs would be even more loveable because they would come right to your door to pick up you or your kids. And they would be safer, since dependable human idiocy – like fiddling with your iPhone while you are driving, or speeding – is the cause of most traffic accidents.

    “Some mayors are swayed by these arguments, especially the clean-air one. The few enlightened ones, such as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, are not. Ms. Hidalgo and her like see an EV for what it is – a car. Cars take up public space. They need to be parked. They are a menace to pedestrians and bikers. They require roads and taxpayer funds to build and maintain those roads. The ideal city is not filled with sleek, silent, non-polluting e-cars; it is a city devoid of cars. Yet the tech lobby, the Wall Street machine behind it and Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, the world’s most successful EV company, would have you think that buying an e-car is the morally correct and patriotic consumer choice.
    Local and regional governments who push EVs might not realize that doing so commits themselves to a spending program they cannot afford. Making cities EV friendly would require digging up streets to create a vast network of unsightly charging stations. In a 2019 report, the International Council on Clean Transportation estimated that installing a single direct-current, 150-kilowatt fast-charging station, with two chargers each site, would cost more than US$38,000 in labour, materials, permits and taxes (the greater the power level, the higher the cost).

    “Paying for home charging would alleviate some of that expense, but residential garages are a rarity in many cities, especially in Europe. In old, densely packed cities such as Rome, almost no one has a garage. Juicing up EVs would rely on street charging points. Walking along streets cluttered with power cables would be a miserable experience.

    “If EVs prove to be popular, governments would face another enormous expense – building extra generating capacity. It wouldn’t take a lot of EVs to overload the system, especially on a hot summer day, when air conditioners are running full blast. Blackouts are never popular with voters.

    “A 2018 report by Wood Mackenzie determined that charging 60,000 EVs simultaneously in Texas (which has 24-million registered vehicles) could bring down the electrical grid, assuming they were plugged into 100-kilowatt fast chargers. To accommodate hundreds of thousands of EV, Texas would have to build new peak-demand generating plants, probably coal burners. Cost aside, that would be a rather pointless exercise, since EVs are supposed to make the air cleaner.

    “Cities are run by politicians and the smartest politicians stick with what they know and what they can control. They know and can control public transportation. Most big cities around the world have a century or more of experience in this field. They have zero experience in building and managing vast networks of charging stations and all the supporting infrastructure. Public transportation will make a comeback once the COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out. The best way to reclaim cities from cars is to invest in subways, buses, rail and bike paths.

    “Ultimately, no city will ever be car free, because bikes and public transportation are not suitable for everyone and cars will remain essential in the suburbs. But big parts of city centres can be made mostly largely car free, as long as mayors and governors do not buy into the myth that EVs will make their cities more liveable. The propulsion system of a car is irrelevant. What is relevant is that any car of any technology takes up public space that should be devoted to people. For cities, EVs are not the future; they already belong in the past, along with gasoline and diesel cars.”

    I copied-pasted about 3/4 of the column above because this link will lead you to a paywall beyond five initial free reads.

    1. I find this article to be terribly one-sided – almost comical. I’m all on board with the need to reduce MVs in cities and not buying into EVs as a solution. But there is a lot of misinformation here. First, even in regions that generate most electricity with coal, an EV produces fewer emissions because the electric motor is so much more efficient. And unlike an ICE vehicle which won’t see any emission reductions over its lifespan, an EV gets cleaner as the grid gets cleaner.

      It’s also just way too simplistic to say EVs will overwhelm the grid. They are just as likely to help stabilize the grid and reduce its fossil fuel dependency. That’s because the filthiest and least efficient parts of the grid are the peaker plants that run short-term during maximum demand from the late afternoon through the evening. As the tech for EVs improve all those cars that were powering up under peak solar output during the day can replace those peaker plants in the evening and then recharge again overnight when demand is low and power is cheap. This is already being tested in pilot projects and is likely to save the owner enough money they’d be foolish not to participate. But this will also save utilities a fortune in up front storage costs and buy them time to ramp up their own stationary storage or use other innovative strategies like producing hydrogen from cheap excess electricity.

      Currently in some jurisdictions renewable energy already exceeds demand during parts of the day and they have to curtail renewable energy production, which is simply absurd. Get everybody charging their cars instead.

      The point about the cost of installing charging infrastructure is really quite hysterical. $38,000? Give me a break. It’ll cost 20X that to decommission most gas stations let alone the cost of building a gas station in the first place. Which is still happening unfortunately. And because EV charging isn’t nearly so vulnerable to catastrophe as a gas station they can and are being built curbside or in parking lots or peoples’ garages without an attendant required.

    2. Re the statement “The ideal city is not filled with sleek, silent, non-polluting e-cars; it is a city devoid of cars. ” – What does the ideal city look like and how to folks get about, close by and afar ?

      Re the statement ” … charging 60,000 EVs simultaneously in Texas .. could bring down the electrical grid, ..” where woudl the energy come from in BC as many Green folks are against Site C even ?

      Re the statement “US$38,000 in labour, materials, permits and taxes (the greater the power level, the higher the cost).” – who woudl build and finance these stations in BC with ~50% renters, rent control and cities strapped for cash?

      1. “Devoid of cars” is certainly a stretch, but aiming toward that is a great goal to not quite achieve. Most car trips are unnecessary and they can become even less necessary still as we evolve the city toward a sustainable future. Let’s not use the major wrong turn that most city’s took last century as a given.

        Those who fret about EVs bringing down the grid do not understand EVs nor the grid. First, you can go up this thread and read about how EVs have the potential to improve the balance and resilience of the grid. But smart grids will also increasingly gravitate to variable rate charging that will discourage people from charging at peak times and encourage them to charge while the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and/or over night when demand is low. Smart grids will siphon power out of EVs at peak times for those EV owners who want to participate and earn top dollar for their juice. The grid can handle a major influx of EVs and has twenty years or more to incrementally increase supply to meet the demand of fully electrified transport.

        A friend of mine is the most frugal and least green person I know but he’s got 27 solar panels on his roof because he’s crunched the numbers. The future of supply will be distributed in this way also with larger solar arrays and wind farms dotted throughout the province. That will reduce the demand on long distance transmission and offset the electrification of our economy. There never was nor never will be a need for Site C except to provide a gift to LNG.

        Who built and financed gas stations that cost 100X as much? The majority of EV owners will have charging in their home. The network of fast chargers required to make long distance travel possible will pay for themselves like gas stations did.

        1. “Majority of EV owenrs will have charging at home” .. True for home owners.

          Not so true for the ~ 50% renters or even condo owners in most cities as that charge dilemma is still unsolved or unclear if a condo building with say 70 units with today 1-2 EVs but tomorrow 10-20 will be able to convince enough owners that an investment of $500,000 or maybe more is useful to allow their parkade with 30-70 charge stations. Worse with apartment buildings in a rent controlled province. Who will pay for the charge stations and how to bill tenants for it?

          re solar: yes that makes total sense for those that own their own roof in BC with a roughly 6% yield today ie spend 30,000 today to save $1800 in electricity cost/year.

          1. The majority (as I said) in BC still live in SFHs. Those who live in condos/apartments also have access to BC government rebates to install EV charging to offset what could potentially be a big expense to upgrade the electrical service into the building. Or they could just install the charging they can within the limits of the building’s service relatively cheaply.

            Back of napkin: my building could charge 5 EVs* over a 24 hr period just from the savings of converting common area lighting to LEDs, which has already been done. Might double that if all units did the same and upgraded to more efficient appliances over time. Might add more yet if common area lighting was motion-sensored, as is common in Europe, instead of on all the time.

            That, in total. is still less than 10% of the cars in the building but might cover the next ten years before EVs really ramp up. But ten years is a long time to find all sorts of other solutions including neighbourhood fast chargers nearby – or the big electrical upgrade for those who choose it. And many buildings could also install solar to boost internal supply and make a return on that investment.

            * This is based on charging EVs for typical daily use – not from empty to full. Note, though, that apartment/condo owners are likely to drive less than the provincial average.

  5. Historically, gas stations were an adjunct to auto repair businesses. The stand alone gas bar attached to a convenience store is a more modern incarnation. So it is a different animal from the early days of adoption. Time to recharge will be the deciding factor IMO as to whether petrol fill-ups can be replaced by plug and fill your battery stations. I will note that the design of current gas/convenience establishments is for a quick in/out experience. Whether it takes 15 minutes to charge, or an hour, it will be a decided change from past practice. I would posit that there is no guarantee a network of fast chargers will spring up across the long distances that characterize North American travel. Especially if electricity doesn’t come with a healthy profit margin.

    “The future of supply will be distributed in this way also with larger solar arrays and wind farms dotted throughout the province. ”

    So we will need skilled and talented technical people in locations across our mostly rural province to make this happen so we can have a better future? Where have I heard that before? 🙂

    1. Already happening. Check out the map.

      And that’s just Tesla. Many other for-profit outfits are quickly expanding across the globe. And it’s still early days. See the other map further down. A simple charging station can be built in days so there’s no need to have skilled people move to the hinterlands to accomplish this. The more elaborate setups are going to be in towns and cities where skilled people already live.

      In the short term it’s going to be beneficial to have the chargers where people need to spend time anyway: work, shopping, meal breaks on road trips etc. In the longer term, batteries will charge as fast as you can fill a tank of gas today so it won’t matter so much.

      1. At what price per kwh though? When will charging an EV per 100km cost as much as an ICE car today ? Surely the days of 10 c per kwh is behind us as EVs become more popular and charge stations are more common but still must be profitable to spring up in enough locations?

        1. The market will decide. Considering that solar and wind installations are outbidding new fossil fuel plants the cost of electricity could stabilize even with increased demand. Some solar and wind installations are cheaper than just the operations of existing fossil fuel plants, let alone their capital costs. The days of cheap fossil fuels are also behind us.

          Remember, the claim was that installing a charger installation was supposed to be a whopping $38,000! In what other business could you begin making a profit for such a small capital expenditure?

          We’re likely to see a proliferation of solar, even here in BC, which may drive mid day electrical costs to near zero as is happening in other jurisdictions. So charge mid day for cheap while your car is likely sitting around doing nothing anyway. And you may be able to sell part of that charge back to the utility in the evening at a profit.

          1. Yes true for summer and sunny winter days. Not so true for northern or more rainy locations thoughout BC or Canada. And with Site C dam cost overruns unabating I think we will see easily 10-20% annual electricity price increases from now 10 to likely 20 cents per kwh well before 2030.

            Indeed I am considering a solar panel on our roof. many might not be so lucky though but you are right those condo and apartment dwellers, on avg, will drive less or own fewer or no cars.

            We may see these chargers on every street light on select streets, perhaps owned by cities or private firms or individuals.

          2. Don’t forget wind. Most places do have access to one form of clean energy or another and with grids potentially becoming more interconnected we here on the coast will benefit from a sunny day in California as much as a windy night in Alberta. And they, too, might benefit from a particularly rainy winter in BC with dams wanting to sell to lower their reservoirs.

            The more expensive electricity gets the more players will enter the game. And much of it is a relatively cheap thing to do. I see supply easily keeping up with demand.

  6. I was referring to the solar arrays and wind farms you are proposing for installation across the province. One presumes they will need some sort of staffing.

    1. Yup, you were. Fair point. Sorry.

      I once heard it argued that we’ve only been able to create the intense cities as we know them today because of the intense energy density of fossil fuels. That may be true. The low density, distributed energy production paradigm we seem to be headed toward may create all sorts of new opportunities. Cities offer many opportunities for low impact transportation and low energy housing (shared surfaces). But I’m also hopeful that small town/rural living will offer solutions too.

  7. “I once heard it argued that we’ve only been able to create the intense cities as we know them today because of the intense energy density of fossil fuels.”

    I am sure this is true.

    1. But that doesn’t mean cities will lose density or intensity as we transition to clean renewables. Fossil fuels were a cheap and easy way for a more primitive society to concentrate energy. But it’s now easier to move energy into and around the city via power lines rather than pipelines and trucks.

      And while cities did not get virtually any fossil fuels within their borders they can certainly produce a not insignificant amount of electricity within their borders.

      1. Electricity makes sense in balmy climates for heating homes or water like Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island. It doesn’t make sense for colder climates such as Northern BC or the rest of Canada or part of North America, and that’s why they use primarily gas for that today.

        Over time we will see more and more electrification of buses, trucks and cars but it’ll be a few decades to change that all over.

        1. Of course it will be a few decades so that’s why we shouldn’t be worried about overwhelming the grid.

          But as the best air source heat pumps are over 3X more efficient than gas for heating/hot water in our climate, ground source heat pumps can reach those efficiencies in cold northern climates. It’s more capital cost but the payback is there. Trucking in diesel is not cheap either. And as carbon taxes ramp up the switch away from gas where it is readily supplied will become easier too.

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