Sunday 3 July 2011

The future of transport?

From this video of the Nissan Leaf, clearly Nissan believe it is cars. Albeit snazzy electric cars as opposed to the standard ones. Now, I am not so naive as to believe a car maker is going to say that their business has no future, but the thing that interests me with the wave of excitement concerning electric cars are the ways they are being marketed and the questions that aren't being asked.

So in this video we have the car - which looks very nice - being praised by members of the public interspersed with short clips of it popping around some rather quiet city streets.

Electric cars are being marketed principally as city transport. Cynically, one might think this is because even the 100 mile range isn't going to endear it as a long-range tourer, so an electric car at the moment is only suited to short (urban) journeys.

But the elephant in the room that questions the very purpose of these cars isn't mentioned. Not even a whisper of the potential issue.

And that is congestion.

Now, I own a car. I find driving on occasion very convenient. I have no great mission against the car in principle, although I find the complete dominance of this mode of transport in cities utterly idiotic. And one of the reasons it is so stupid is the matter of congestion.

Take for example a recent trip I did by car. From East London to Reading and back again. A trip of 50 miles around the North Circular and M4, and around 70 miles using the A10, M25, M4.

This took me 2 hours going to Reading on the North Circular - at around 6am - and 3 hours coming back on the M25. At 1.25pm. This wasn't even rush hour.

That means that on  my return journey, on expensive roads designed specifically for motor traffic, I averaged around 23 mph. And this included a large stretch of 70mph on the M4 which was free-flowing.

Matters are much, much worse in cities. The fact that the car is neither an efficient nor sympathetic bedfellow with densely built areas can no longer be in dispute. Unless we decide to flatten huge swathes of our cities (a strategy that I wouldn't put past planners even now), then capacity isn't going to change in any meaningful way. Boris might fiddle with light timings under clever acronyms such as SCOOT, but, even by the planners' own admissions, this isn't going to make any appreciable difference to journey times for drivers.

So, with the status quo, the future looks like we will have streets clogged by cars with electric engines instead of combustion engines. Aside from the advantage of them not polluting the immediate environs and being quieter, it hardly seems a great leap forward.

There can be no doubt that the car has given huge mobility, and in certain areas has driven growth. But there can also be no doubt that this is no longer scalable. The extra mobility with each new road scheme is outweighed by the cost, not only of the scheme but also of the congestion due to over-reliance on the car. Yet we are in catch-22. Without a significant re-think on our urban roads we are doomed to view the car as the only serious transport option and thus make the very roads that should be welcoming to more sustainable modes of transport ever more hostile.

Cars like the Nissan Leaf look fabuluous. But, if they aren't actually solving the wrong problem, then they are at least only solving part of the problem. Our cities cannot magically find more space for a private car simply because it is more "eco" than the combustion versions. Not only that, but the electric cars currently have a limited range which means that they can only be seriously considered as an option for short journeys - normally in cities - where better alternatives already exist.

If I had driven from East London to Reading last Friday in a Nissan Leaf instead of my standard car, I still would have wasted hours of my time in stressful traffic, and actually probably run out of juice 20 miles before getting home, if I couldn't charge inbetween journeys.

It hardly seems a breakthrough.


  1. If Boris really wants to improve the emissions count in London, and if manufacturers are really interested in “zero”-emission or no-tailpipe urban transport, they are wasting their time with cars. The private car is a minority participant in city traffic, the majority being commercials. A few companies such as Office Depot have shown the way here with the modern equivalent of the milk float – local delivery vehicles and similar functions. Buses could also go battery, and indeed taxis, if they were incentivised to compensate for not being able to do the airport runs. All of these spend an entire day travelling fairly short distances, and then go back somewhere, typically a depot, where they can hook up for an overnight charge on “economy Seven”. Once the range can be stretched to about 100 miles this is viable, whereas a private motorist will occasionally need larger range, and unless very rich, is not going to have a second, internal combustion engine, car just for that.

  2. I have seen many UPS electric lorries in London too. I agree with Paul that delivery vehicles and taxis should be incentivised to go electric, some taxi ranks/bus stops could even be equipped with induction loops for contactless charging. But this does not tackle the main issue of congestion. I cycle down part of Euston road during rush hour regularly, and I fail to understand why bin collecting lorries, wine deliveries and laundry pick-ups feel like they have to be there at 8:45 in the morning. Surely these companies should be charged heavily for putting such large vehicles through central London at that time.