21 December 2009

Electric Cars in Amsterdam and Elsewhere

Amsterdam Traffic

This article from the NY Times about the emergence of electric cars highlights the problems and frustrations of electric cars being percieved as 'green' and of politicians who are keen to promote them.

A Pro-Bicycle City Faces Trouble Promoting Electric Cars

The article is interesting because we are on the cusp of the same issue here in Denmark, one of two countries along with Israel that is a testing ground for new electric cars and technology. I read the article with Copenhagen in mind.

"...now officials are trying to switch gears and mount an aggressive effort to encourage people to buy new electric cars. That jibes with this country's fight against global warming, but it is also warming the tempers among cyclists. They worry that their traditional right-of-way over cars will be sideswiped by more cars and more parking ramps.

The city council is giving free power to new electric car owners for the next two years and has agreed to pay half of the extra cost of purchasing plug-in vehicles, as compared to cheaper gasoline-powered models. The city might even carve out a reserved parking space with fuel access and front-door approach for new owners. That's a jackpot in this space-squeezed city."

Is this the beginning of the transport battle for Amsterdam? And other cities like Copenhagen? Will this be the greatest challenge bicycle planning has faced in established bicycle cultures for the past four decades?

I recall Adrienne from Change Your Life, Ride a Bike telling me about how her lobbying for bicycle lanes in her neighbourhood is not completely understood by her neighbours who offer up pearls like this: "Why do you want bike lanes?! We'll all have electric cars soon!"

Full article:

A Pro-Bicycle City Faces Trouble Promoting Electric Cars


Amsterdamize said...

it's the most ridiculous thing unleashed on us and I consider it a green-washing scheme.

- electric cars will never offset oil/fossil fuel use, ever, the energy and materials needed to produce and maintain these vehicles ensures that...yeah, oil.
- EU subsidizes and promotes electric car use, cities jump on it. Electric cars have 'green' label, ergo: they're good, easy sell
It's all one big sham, one massive delusion. There's no real vision, this is all short-term, jump-on-the-bandwagon stuff. It riles me up, you guessed right.

The NYT article carefully points in that direction.
You can always find enough people to support this kind of thing. With anything, it's all about money and convenience. Car owners will be provided with an alternative at seemingly lower costs, but it will also reach a lot of people who had given up on a car and are handed all kinds of reasons (and approval in a social sense) to move about on 4 wheels again.


Mikael said...

double ugh.

funny how they interviewed a 'sweaty cyclist' though, as well as got helmets into the article.

from what i understand, helmet promotion for children commences next year in NL.

Kim said...

I have always wonder where all the extra electricity for electric cars was supposed to come from, they are not really a green option at all.

portlandize.com said...

There's been a big push for electric cars in Portland/Oregon as well, with the governor and Portland Mayor Sam Adams doing foto ops and press conferences and efforts to get federal grants for charging stations and all kinds of things.

I agree with Marc that it's simply a green-washing of money and convenience - it's all the same thing, with the label of responsibility slapped on it. Of course it's not doing much to reduce fossil fuel usage - especially in the U.S., as most of our electricity comes from fossil fuel. But people just don't think about it, they imagine the electricity is just generated within their walls or something, and just comes from the plug in the wall.

Adrienne's neighborhood view is not at all uncommon here either - people simply see bicycles as a thing of the past, a step backwards in terms of progress, and Electric Cars are promoted and seen by the general populace as these magical no-impact vehicles, which is crazy and ridiculous. Even bicycles are not no-impact. For that matter, neither are human beings, ourselves.

In any case, I hope people who are swayed by this green-washing in the end (hopefully sooner rather than later) realize they've been had on all fronts, that neither is it greener, cheaper or more convenient than the last automotive dream, and that they will return to happily biking and walking their way around Amsterdam and Copenhagen (and all the rest) so that we in the land that consumes more than most of the rest of the world combined can have some comfort knowing somewhere in the world there is a place where a sizeable chunk of the population doesn't buy the farce.

Erik Sandblom said...

Amsterdam already has over 200 electric vehicles on the streets. They are called trams. The trams were electrified in 1900 and there is now 213 kilometres of track. There is also a metro.

Electric vehicle, oooohh!!!

Erik Sandblom said...

Nine million cars were sold in China in 2008. And 21 million electric bicycles.

TIME: On the Streets of China, Electric Bikes Are Swarming

The future is electric, but it's not cars.

Amsterdamize said...

It's an American paper, they can't help themselves.

Helmet promotion for kids, who says and by whom?

Amsterdamize said...

@Eric: I get your point, but there's a big difference between public transportation and personal transportation, imho. The whole point is to transition to more sustainable transportation (that's not just about the fuel) and we human beings will at some point come to terms with the end of oil. Now it's mostly heads in the sand and thinking small, feeling good about ourselves, without giving up on our acquired comforts. Heaven forbid we'd actually face up to where we're heading.

Anonymous said...

Ridiculuous over-subsidy for electric cars when there's clearly still a lot of need to support bikes.

I say let commercial operators use electric cars by offering tax incentives for businesses of a particular size, and charge points selling market-rate electricity for a fee. If electric cars can't attract those businesses in those conditions against high fuel cost cars, then they can't compete at all.

The rest of that public money would be better spent on more bicycle garages or a Velib-style program that can withstand the thefts and vandalism.

kfg said...

A long time ago, in an oil crisis far away, I designed electric cars.

That gave me some background to spend the next couple of decades criticizing them as a delusion or, yes, even at times a scam.

I like electric cars, they're great toys, but they're no solution to the energy issue and only tend to INCREASE oil use.

For a while I played around with HP/electric hybrid velomobiles, but the battery and microelectronics technologies weren't quite there yet.

Now they are and other people are making strides (and perhaps even profits) in that field, but I've lost personal interest.

The more I try to redesign transportation machines, the more they turn out to be electric trains and pure human powered cycles.

As Illich, Gorz, Behrman, et al have pointed out, the problem is not energy; the problem is the personal car as transport system itself.

They just don't make any sense.

Anonymous said...

If the COP15 conference showed anything, it showed that the developed world is perfectly willing to suspend disbelief. Electric cars are the Santa Claus of transportation. Nobody can explain how they work for real, you just gotta believe.


Adrienne Johnson said...

We will never make true progress with electric cars until we can plug them into a USB port ; P

interestingly, my word verification is

redolies- Hey! You know, there is still some millage in that electric car scam. We should redo that!

Brent said...

Hmmm...the comments seem uniformly against electric cars, but I rather like them, given that people are going to drive no matter what. They're cleaner and quieter, and I'd rather share the road with fewer tailpipe emissions than with more.

I did find interesting this argument that the per-trip CO2 emissions from electric cars compare well against bicycles:


John Romeo Alpha said...

I really want an electric car for trips of 75 miles or more here in the wide open SW United States where gas-powered car is the only choice currently. But for getting around Amsterdam, give me a human-powered bicycle any day. And not one with an electric rear wheel that reports my location to HQ and requires an engineering degree to fix. Human power, like will get me to work tomorrow, no USB or Bluetooth or GPS required.

Erik Sandblom said...

Brent, it's true that food and agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. But all foods are far from equal. The best thing most people can do is to eat less meat. That makes you healthier, richer, and saves the planet. Kind of like biking.

And to put it bluntly... just about everyone needs the exercise cycling provides.

Mark said...

We will never convince the entire population to get onto bicycles or onto public transport - even in Copenhagen I understand that a third of all journeys are by motor vehicle. These vehicles create masses of pollution on high-density city streets. As such, so long as there are automotive vehicles in our cities I'd rather they ran on electricity than petrol.

Whilst I am fully conversant with the fact that yes, electric vehicles cost in terms or production, and yes, their seemingly 'green' energy is probably being produced in a coal-fired power station in the burbs somewhere, but surely it is better to push for more electric urban cars in urban areas and then aim to improve the source of the power, than to do nothing at all?

The potential for electric cars (run on greener energy) is huge - that's not to say there is no place for the bicycle. Much as I detest the impact of the automobile on our urban environment, we must remember the sense of liberation it is perceived to have brought to the masses (just like the bicycle did to women back in the day). That sense of liberation is going to be a hard thing to overcome.

We must campaign strongly for the rights of the bicycle but should not show ourselves to be turning out noses up at all other non-cycling engineering solutions. We have to ride and live in a real world and we will never bring everyone over to 'our side'. Is it not better for us to help refine the process than to thumb our noses at it?

Erik Sandblom said...

Mark, "even in Copenhagen I understand that a third of all journeys are by motor vehicle."

Impressive isn't it? And they are still working to reduce that.

I don't think we're turning up our noses at electric cars as such, we're just turning up our noses to them as a solution to urban mobility. If it were a matter of electric delivery vans for urban use, that would be great. Or electric cars for personal use outside the city, that would be great too.

For urban personal mobility, there still isn't a greater invention than walking, cycling and public transportation.

Mark said...

Agreed and agreed - they are not a solution to urban mobility, but they are a good solution to 1000s of internal combustion engines running around. Maybe we should be engaging with the city and guiding their thinking - ie these charging points would be better placed in the suburbs rather than the city, and that subsidies should go on electric vans rather than private electric automobiles. Just a thought. Engagement is better than being stand offish.

It's not good for 'us' to be seen to be throwing our hands up in horror at everything with four wheels - we don't want to be perceived as being so righteous as to be part of the problem....

*he says, gulping, feeling dirty as though he's just slept with the enemy*

didrik said...

The last two paragraphs about helmets and sweat are just weird. The author seems to be implying that adding more cars would not be a problem for cyclists if they just wear a helmet.

lagatta à montréal said...

With four wheels includes ambulances and other emergency vehicles, delivery trucks, trucks for collecting rubbish and recyclables etc. If electric power becomes really dependable there are a lot of potential uses.

I fail to see why those two young people who don't seem to have any kind of disability or limitation are on that motorbike on an Amsterdam fietspad. The only motorbike-like vehicles I'd seen on them were those little carts for disabled people, but I guess if they are authorized they will come - very unsafe for cyclists.

I'm not opposed to a motor assist for climbing hills or facing off against North Sea gales for people with a joint or heart condition, but I don't think fully motorized bicycles (nobody ever pedals them) are the best thing for a lot of disabled people, who need exercise at least as much as able-bodied people do. Not everyone can use an adapted bicycle (low step-through, hand-operated etc) but many can, and for those who can, it keeps them fit.

There is a scary aspect of these vehicles for cyclists - they are silent. Nice to cut down on urban noise, for sure, but also a safety hazard for cyclists - and pedestrians.

Adrienne Johnson said...

I think the danger of the electric vehicle lies primarily in the fact that the car industry really wants them to succeed. They are looking for something to keep them alive. That is the wrong emphasis and thus, will create the wrong application.

If what we are creating are silly little electric scooters that are used to clog up cycle lanes, then we have a problem. If we are creating 5 person station wagons that will get you somewhere, then we are talking about something else.

Last I heard, there was still no place created to deal with spent Prius batteries. That is a problem.

Christa said...

The guy on the bike is incredibly cool.

Anonymous said...

Well, well... okay, here is a vision of Better Place (the Israeli-ish partner in the electric car scheme in Denmark) and Danish State Railways, a near future of (ugly) suburbanization enabled by a private electric car - electric train - shared electric car journey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wPOxEVhxhE (In Danish, but you can see the English version on the upper right side of the window).

Bicycles barely make it into this vision.

Better Place http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Better_Place is based in Silicon Valley but its top leadership is predominantly Israelis.

The Chairman is Idan Ofer. Here is an interesting article about one of his other activities: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1100048.html

The CEO of Better Place Israel is Moshe Kaplinsky, formerly near the top of the IDF's command structure. Back in 1982 he was a top commander in the IDF when it was slaughtering Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moshe_Kaplinsky

These people really care about sustainability.

Rick @ Bicycle Fixation said...

Electric cars still take up room and require either sprawl or the usurpation of public space, and usually both. See: Methadone for Road Hogs.

The embedded energy in an oil-powered car equals one-third of its energy use during tis lifetime; this would not change with electrics even were they powered by magic.

And thirdly, on the bike vs. Tesla comparison, for one thing, for the average rider it's 35 kcal/ mile, not 58; for another, is the driver of the Tesla dead? If not, he is still emitting almost as much CO2 as the cyclist. And the Tesla flack admitted he did not count manufacturing (embedded) energy.

In other words, ZEV=BS.

Anonymous said...

What a perfect metaphor for the moral bankruptcy of the electric car as environmental savior.


kfg said...

". . .the Tesla flack admitted he did not count . . ."

The secret to making the electric car green. Just don't count manufacturing, disposal, infrastructure, environmental damage and a number of other parameters.

If you add up all the claims of all the flacks, their hyper tech is a PRE-REQ for the existence of life. I sometimes get the feeling that some of them actually believe that's true.

Anonymous said...

Mikael, when you have a lot of negative comments about Danish or Copenhagen policy, do you discuss it with city officials?

Anonymous said...

''The one factor that you can't find on a spreadsheet is the willingness of the people in government to lead change,'' Mr. Agassi said. ''And in Denmark every single one of them is engaged and willing to do whatever it takes to get Denmark to be a leader in electric vehicles.'' - http://www.wbcsd.org/plugins/DocSearch/details.asp?type=DocDet&ObjectId=MzY3NTE

Mikael said...

what i enjoy most about this blog is the fantastic collective knowledge of the readers.

on subjects i don't know that much about, i learn a lot. on subjects i know a lot about i benefit from other opinions and angles.

regarding discussing negative things with city officials, yes. we discuss all mannner of issues. it's a good dialogue.

spag said...

ough this article is pretty much BS, thankfully.

- I don't see how a lengthy explanation of flood protection works is necessary here (as rising sea levels depend on global emissions, a city low emission program is primarily aimed at city air quality, not sea levels), but anyway the IJsselmeer dike is not part of the Delta Works, as that is the project around the Rhine delta.
- mopeds are not always allowed on bike paths, it depends on the bike path width and the speed of the adjacent main road.
- sweaty cyclist, is that relevant? i am sure that was a sweaty person on a bike...
- helmet quote without context, what's the point..
- "Smart tossing" to canals is very funny (not so much to the owners) but is not part of an anti-electric car movement but simple vandalism.

anyway, i totally agree that electric car is less green than trams (powered by waste disposal plants btw in Amsterdam) and cycling, and electric cars still kill people, provide less exercise and take up space.