North America

An Electric Car-Bike Lane Plan, for Cities like Toronto

Many Conservatives disparage electric cars and bike lanes, while many Liberals fetishize electric cars and bike lanes. The correct approach lies between: some bike lanes and some electric cars are good. Others are not.

For bike lanes, geography can be decisive. Cities like Amsterdam—which is almost entirely flat, and which has no months in which average daily highs exceed 22 degrees celsius or fall below 6 degrees celsius—are ideal for cycling. But most cities are much hillier, hotter, and colder than that. These cities need bike lanes too, but not the same type of bike lane system that Amsterdam has.

For electric cars, size and speed can be decisive. The electric cars currently being marketed to us—the Tesla S, the Nissan Leaf, etc. — are actually far too big and fast to be environmentally or economically efficient. Their batteries expend a lot of pollution during their production, do not provide enough range before needing to be either charged or swapped-out (plus, slow-charging stations, fast-charging stations, and/or battery-swapping stations are all problematic, for various environmental or economic reasons) and are too heavy and bulky to come even close to being  ideal.

This is a shame, since electric vehicles in general can be more efficient and eco-friendly than gasoline-fueled vehicles. This is (among other reasons) because they do not contribute to local air pollution, and because they receive their power from power plants, which can be several times more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines and can use energy sources other than fossil fuels.

Electric cars that are much lighter and/or slower than, for example, the Nissan Leaf do not face the same significant battery limitations that electric cars like the Leaf face. If, hypothetically, we all were to decide to buy cars that are closer in their size and speed to golf carts rather than to today’s style of North American automobile, urban areas would very likely experience a substantial economic and environmental gain as a result. The reduced speed limit of the cars would not even cause average driving speeds to drop by much during rush hour, because traffic congestion in urban areas is usually severe enough that vehicles’ average driving speeds already tend to be far below speed limits.

Of course, the goal is not to make people drive tiny cars. Apart from being illiberal, such cars would not be practical or safe on expressways and in suburban areas in which low speed limits would be limiting. The goal, rather, should be to make it safe and comfortable for drivers in urban areas to use small lightweight cars (whether privately owned or, more likely at first, car2go-style rentals), even while they sharing the road with much larger, heavier conventional cars.

Designating certain road lanes (or, better yet, entire streets or downtown cores) as slow-speed limit lanes might accomplish this. Lighter and slow electric cars could safely drive in these lanes alongside conventional vehicles.

Moreover, this could also allow for bike lane systems ideal for cities like Toronto; cities that have a lot of days that are too hot and a lot of days that are too cold/snowy/icy/ to bike comfortably or safely, especially up hills (in summer) or down hills (in winter):

Like electric vehicles, cyclists too would be able to use the slow-speed car lanes relatively safely and comfortably. This could mean three things, all of them good:

  1. the city would generally be much more bike-friendly than would otherwise be the case
  2. if you put a two-lane bike lane on one side of the street (see image below), then cyclists would have the option of either using the bike lane or using the slow-speed car lanes — in other words, cyclists would have the option of biking on the sunny side or the shaded side of the street, no matter what time of day it was. This should be very useful on hot days, when cyclists are trying to get to work without breaking a sweat
  3.  instead of having three or four winter months a year in which bike lanes are extremely underutilized, you could instead use the bike lanes during the winter as a parking lane and extra slow speed lane for some of the smaller very small cars (one-seaters or especially narrow 2-4 seaters) that would become common as a result of the slow-speed car lanes. Having a parking lane in the winter would be useful for older people who are at risk of slipping on ice and falling if they have to walk longer distances from their car to their destination.

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So, there it is: a plan to promote efficient electric cars, rather than inefficient ones or none at all; and a plan for having bike lanes that could be useful during hot summers as well as during cold winters.

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North America

Trolleytrucks + Autonomous Cargo Handling = Clean, Cheap Transportation

It takes a lot of time to unload a large truck and sort and store its contents. This means that trucks tend to make deliveries during the daytime, when the cost of paying people to unload trucks is relatively low.

If, however, the process of unloading trucks and handling their contents becomes automated, overnight deliveries may become much more common. At night trucks are able to avoid being caught in, and contributing to, traffic jams.

Making more deliveries in the evening or overnight may, in turn, lead to an increased demand for electric trucks. Electric trucks are far quieter than diesel trucks, which is obviously an important trait for nighttime delivery vehicles. They can also be operated relatively cheaply overnight, given the generally much lower price of nighttime power.

If – an enormous if – electric trucks do not need batteries that are heavy, bulky, pollute, and frequently need to be recharged, they can also operate many times more efficiently in general than can diesel trucks.

This is mainly because electric vehicles do not pollute city air, and because electric motors and the power plants that generate their electricty can be several times more energy-efficient (and potentially far more eco-friendly) than internal combustion engines. But it is also because electric vehicles can have regenerative breaking systems that recapture some of the power they expend, and because they have dynamic break systems and motors with very few moving parts, and because they have far stronger torque that helps them climb hills.

Unfortunately, the batteries needed to power trucks are too heavy, bulky, polluting, and range-limited*. This is especially true of batteries for large trucks**, which are the most cost-efficient and eco-friendly types of truck — and which would remain generally the most efficient types of truck even if all trucks were to become self-driving.

[*There may be three main options for dealing with batteries’ limited ranges: slow-charging, fast-charging, or battery-swapping. All three options are problematic. Slow charging is problematic because the nighttime is short, so to spend several hours charging a large truck battery is a waste of precious time. Fast charging is also problematic, because it requires a very large amount of energy at one time, which would then increase peak nighttime energy demand for the grid when lots of trucks are fast-charging their batteries at the same time. If, for example, the wind stops blowing at the same time that many trucks are using wind power to fast-charge their large batteries, power might need to come from fossil fuels, making them much less environmentally friendly. Moreover, if fast-charging stations were used during the daytime too – which presumably they would be, because why spend the money to build fast-charging stations if you are only going to use them at night – it could then lead to increased peak demand in general, which would be both inefficient and environmentally problematic. Battery-swapping stations, then, might be the best option — but building them is easier said than done, given the huge size of truck batteries. Even then, however, they would still not overcome any other issues associated with battery use in trucks.]  

[**To quote The Globe and Mail: “Battery powering of heavy duty vehicles may not be expedient. To match the range provided by the diesel fuel tank of a typical long-distance heavy-duty truck, which when full weighs about a tonne, a heavy-duty battery-powered electric-drive truck would have to carry almost 30 tonnes of battery, which is much more than the average payload of heavy-duty trucks.” ]

Barring a breakthrough in battery technology, this only leaves one other option: electric trolleytrucks. These get their power from overhead power wires, somewhat like streetcars do. They then use small batteries in order to travel short distances away from these overhead wires.

Some cities already have large wire-powered networks. Vancouver, for example, which is a city especially suited for electric vehicles given its hilly terrain and cheap, clean, hydropower-generated power, has close to 300 kilometers of wired roads, which it uses for trolleybus transit.

Luckily, trucks making overnight deliveries can avoid the challenges that have thus far prevented trolleytrucks from being commonly used. The main challenge for trolleytrucks has been city traffic. Because they can only travel a few kilometres away from their power wires, they cannot handle the risk of getting caught in stop-and-go traffic.

Overnight, however, the lack of traffic and much longer green light-red light cycles removes this risk. It also means that should a mistake occur that does leave a trolleytruck stranded away from its power wires and out of battery power, it could simply wait for a support vehicle to come and charge its battery, without causing any road traffic blockage as would occur if it ran out of power during the day.

This effectively much extended range away from the wires at night also helps solve another main challenge: lots of people find trolley wires unaesthetic. The ability of trucks to travel further away from the wires at night means you don’t need as many streets wired. You might even be able to get away with only having some highway corridors — where aesthetics is not a problem – wired. The trucks could run on the wired highways during the daytime, then run mostly off-wire overnight to get a few km in the city to make deliveries further from the wired corridor.

A final, hugely significant challenge, which trolleytrucks must face regardless of whether they run during the day or night, is the cost of intermodal cargo transfers. Even if a trolley wire-building spree were to occur, most roads will remain unwired for the foreseeable future. As such, for trolleytrucks to be competitive with diesel trucks, the cost of transferring cargo between trolleytrucks and other vehicles – notably, diesel trucks and trains – must fall. Trolleytrucks being more efficient than diesel trucks will not be sufficient to make them ubiquitous. This can be seen already by looking at the fact that trucks transport much more freight than do railways, despite railways being more efficient than trucks.

If autonomous loading and unloading of trucks, and autonomous sorting and storing of trucks’ cargo, dramatically reduces the cost of intermodal cargo transfers, as seems likely to occur (or at least, plausible), then we might expect the use of cargo railways and of trolleytrucks to increase relative to the use of less efficient diesel trucks.

Indeed, if the automation of intermodal transfers serves to increase
railways’ share of freight transported relative to trucks, one result may be that a larger share of trucking will take place in hilly or urban areas where railways are less competitive. And, since hilly and urban areas are precisely the areas where electric vehicles are most useful — in hilly areas because of their torque, dynamic breaking, and ability to go through tunnels without spewing exhaust that requires ventilation; in urban areas because of their low air and noise pollution – this might further increase the use of trolleytrucks (and trolleybusses!) relative to diesel.

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North America

Canada Needs A Red-Green Party

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Watching the candidates for leader of the Conservative Party debate in Halifax last week was interesting. Thirteen out of the fourteen leaders in the debate argued against the implementation of any cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes, on the basis that the Conservative Party should remain against tax increases in general.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney said: “they say you can put the lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig, well you can add Green to tax and it’s still a tax. So no, there is no need to have such a tax in Canada…we’re all conservative after all.”

Brad Trost said: “taxes must go down. Taxes do not need to go up on anything, particularly not on heating and driving and lighting our homes”.

Andrew Saxton said his first act as Prime Minister would be to “axe the tax”. He did also say that he would try to work with Trump toward a “harmonized” North American solution to climate change. Of course, that may be trickier than he suggests, given that Trump often claims to be a climate change denier and is not known for pursuing harmonies of any kind.

When Michael Chong, the sole dissenter on the issue, pointed out that it might be more desirable to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax model similar to the one that exists in British Columbia, calling carbon taxes “the most conservative way, the cheapest way, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, he was challenged by several of his fellow candidates.

Rick Peterson, for example, told Chong that the BC carbon tax is not truly revenue-neutral, because it disproportionately hurts residents in towns like Dawson Creek, who lack the alternative means of transport like “SkyTrains and bike lanes” that Vancouverites have access to. Yet this was an unsatisfying rebuttle even if one does accept Peterson’s premise that small towns should drive Canada’s tax policies, since other types of taxes could still be reduced in order to fully compensate small towns for any new carbon taxes they have to pay.

Kevin O’Leary, meanwhile, argued that carbon taxes are not needed because Canada’s forests mean that it is already a net carbon sink for the world. In other words, that because we as Canadians are blessed with forests that we did not build, we have the right to emit lots of greenhouse gasses from power plants and cars we did build.

O’Leary also argued that we should not have carbon taxation because Canada only contributes a small portion to global emissions. This same argument was also mentioned by a number of the other Conservative candidates in the debate, none seeming to be aware of the existence of straws or of camels’ backs. Yet not a single candidate seemed to think it relevant enough to point out the fact that, on a per capita basis, Canada has the highest emissions of any significant economy in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, the United States, or Australia. (Canada emits an estimated 1.5-2 times more carbon dioxide per person than is emitted in the European Union or Japan, 2.5 times more than China, and 9 times more than India).

The debate drove home a certain point about Canadian politics: there is no way of voting for a party or party leader who is Conservative on issues like government spending but at the same time Green on issues concerning the environment. While left-wing voters are given at least one, and arguably three, Green parties to vote for —most obviously the Green Party, but also arguably the Liberals or the NDP, and certainly the Leap Manifesto faction within the NDP — right-wing voters are presented with no such option.

A Red-Green voter — a voter who loves the outdoors as much as he or she hates tax increases or having to debate young social activists; the type of voter that a character like Red Green would himself probably approve of — has nobody to vote for in today’s system.

(This assumes that Red is the colour of the Right as in America, rather than the Left as in Europe. I know, I know, Canada tends to use the European colour code, but I’m willing to look past that for a moment because I really want this reference to the Red Green show to hold up…)

This is a real shame, and not only because left-wing parties may not win enough MPs to enact Green policies on their own. It is also a shame because it might, at least in certain circumstances, be the case that right-wing policies would actually serve the cause of environmentalism more usefully than left-wing ones do.

Most economists, for example, would be in support of a conservative proposal to use carbon taxes to reduce other taxes such as sales taxes, capital gains taxes, or corporate taxes, rather than use carbon taxes to grow the overall size of government budgets as some left-wing leaders might be more inclined to do.

Trudeau’s plan, in contrast, which is to allow cap-and-trade rather than carbon taxes in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, and also to allow the provinces to decide on their own whether or not their systems will be revenue-neutral, most economists are less thrilled about.

Ontario’s cap-and-trade plan, for example, will not be revenue neutral, for a number of reasons including that Ontario is going to spend some of the revenues on projects like wind farms rather than give the money back to the population of Ontario in the form of tax rebates.

An even more pressing environmental issue than carbon taxes is animal welfare. It is, sadly, the case that the food industry in Canada tortures or mistreats tens of millions of mammals and birds each year, and that poor treatment of animals can be dangerous to humans as well because of the overuse of antibiotics and risk of poor farm conditions allowing dieases like Avian bird flu to spread. The environmentalist Left, however, which cares about this issue dearly, is not large enough to have yet made animal welfare a government priority. And some of the solutions that many on the Left champion, namely vegetarianism, veganism, local farms, and small-scale farms, may not be the most practical courses of action, even if they are the most laudable ones.

A more conservative approach, such as mandating that large-scale industrial farms adopt humane methods — the “large pastoral” approach championed by Canadian writer Sonia Faruqi in her excellent and hilarious book, Project Animal Farm — may prove to be more successful in providing a more effective model for animal welfare than would the promotion of small or local farms. Yet among the modern Conservative Party, the issue of animal welfare is generally not even viewed as urgent or worthy of discussion. If only there was some sort of barbaric cultural practices hotline we could call to report the Conservative Party for such a cruel negligence…

An environmental issue that the Left has been particularly negligent on, meanwhile, but which the absence of a Red-Green movement means that the Right has not at all stepped in to fix the Left’s mistake, is the marijuana industry. Because the Left has long seen smoking weed as being cool and weed prohibition as a bad policy — and, by the way, they are correct on both those points — it has for the most part turned a blind eye to the vast environmental destruction that marijuana production often causes. This destruction is actually needless in most cases: it stems from the desire among consumers for weed that is both cheap and blemish-free, rather than for coarser “shwag”, even though the former is of only slightly higher quality. (Read Stanford professor Martin Lewis’s article on the topic to get a fuller picture of this key issue).

With legalization impending, this issue should be addressed in government. But instead what we have mainly gotten from leaders like Trudeau is tough talk on the need to keep THC away from the developing brains of young adults. The truth, though, is that it would be far easier to prevent needless environmental destruction than it would be to stop students from taking drugs.

There is, finally, the issue of local pollution and quality of life. It seems odd that the party that claims to best represent salt-of-the-earth Canadians puts relatively little priority on maintaining landscapes that these same Canadians might otherwise be able to enjoy themselves. It would, again, seem only sensible that Conservatives should prefer taxing things like air pollution, noise pollution, and visual pollution, rather than taxing sales or middle-class income. That way at least Canada’s GDP can grow, even if its oil sands or suburban sprawl grows too.

The argument you frequently hear Conservatives imply, that the economy and environment are at odds with one another because eco-taxes would imperil economic growth, misses the point entirely. The status quo —the Harper majority government status quo — is one of medium-high taxes in general, which limits economic growth, and intensive resource extraction and suburban sprawl, which harm the environment. A Red-Green movement would ideally serve market-lovers as well as nature-lovers. Today’s Conservatives, in some respects, often do neither.

Who will lead this new movement? I hereby nominate Robert Herjavec, the self-made business mogul and surfer with Trudeauesque hair, who sits to O’Leary’s right in the Tank/Den. (If nothing else, a sharkfight between Herjavec and O’Leary could raise Canada’s profile south of the border). While a Red-Green Party might have little chance of electoral success at first, the creation of such a party by a prominent Canadian could help to chip the Conservative Party towards the Green. It’s time to step up and serve your country Robert!

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