Friday, March 13, 2015

Green solution or middle-class welfare? Auckland Transport's electric cars

Last week Transport Minister Simon Bridges was reported as having urged officials to consider "ways to accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles...ruling out incentives or subsidies." The announcement implies the government (or Minister) is keen to show off its green credentials and at least pay lip service to reducing fossil fuel emissions ("New Zealand [has a] very high proportion of electricity generated from renewable resources.")

The article linked above goes on to note that:

"Promotion of faster EV uptake is being pushed by electricity companies, particularly Mighty River Power, has support from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, and the rebranded lobby group for electric vehicles, now known as Drive Electric."
There are two key issues with electric vehicles (EVs): the first is that the evidence they reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not persuasive (a good piece outlining the arguments for and against with useful links can be found here). To suggest, as Simon Bridges has, that the only variable is whether or not the electricity used to recharge the batteries comes from renewable sources is simplistic at best. The second issue - and the crucial one for Aucklanders stuck in commuter traffic - is that electric cars do not reduce congestion. They are cars, and, although they may be green, EVs take as much road space as a gas guzzler.

There is also a third issue, and that is that currently electric cars are relatively expensive. If the government wants to upgrade the national vehicle fleet to newer, more energy-efficient cars, including EVs, then it needs the general population to be richer. Poor people buy old Toyotas, not Teslas.

There is an upside to EVs, and that is that they help elites and risk-averse officials foster the illusion of business-as-usual: the focus is on the technological fix rather than behaviour change. Thus, the motoring public don't need to worry about being inconvenienced by ghastly stuff like climate change; congestion is not your fault; and government support for EVs sends a clear message to the roading lobby that their interests remain paramount.

By happy coincidence, just days after the Minister's public musings on EVs, (and in the absence of gossip, we assume it is coincidence) Auckland Transport announced its latest bright idea, namely a fleet of EVs to be shared by some lucky members of the public in the interests of reducing congestion and air pollution.

Reducing air pollution and congestion are worthy goals, and ordinarily one would support measures that made a contribution to these. Investment in Auckland's rapid transit network would be an example of such a measure. But a small fleet of electric cars?? Is AT serious?

Consider some numbers. According to the Herald the scheme would start with 250-300 vehicles, rising to 500 "in time". If each of the shared 500 EVs contains four people then this is the equivalent of about 50 buses worth of commuters. New Zealand Bus alone (there are numerous smaller operators) has a fleet of 650 buses in Auckland and moves over 35 million people per year. So EVs will offer an exclusive service. More important is the volume of cars already on the road: there were 220,557 new car and station wagon registrations in 2014 (figures here). If these new registrations are allocated between the regions on a population basis then about 72,000 of those vehicles were registered in Auckland. Vehicles also leave the fleet so the net gain would have been less. Bear in mind this is just the gain in one year. Similarly, the 2013 Census records about 435,000 Aucklanders commute in some form of private vehicle (see here).
Given these figures, it would seem that relying on 500 electric cars to solve congestion and reduce air pollution is magical thinking.

Unfortunately  none of the media releases let slip how much 500 EVs would cost. In the US the average EV costs about USD$32,000 (the rebate doesn't apply in New Zealand). That's about NZ$40,000. At that price, 500 EVS will suck $20,000,000 out of the already-stretched transport budget. This is at a time AT is already pruning back much-needed public transport upgrades in the South, including bus shelters. OK, so bus shelters aren't sexy but they're a lot more useful than electric cars for which there is no public mandate (the South Auckland public transport upgrades have been consulted on and signed off by the Local Boards).

So who will get to use these EVs? AT envisages they will be shared. Sharing vehicles is not popular in Auckland because it is difficult to coordinate work times and destinations among people who live sufficiently close to car share. It only really works for workers in the central city, which has the employment density and a greater likelihood that people work similar hours. It is unlikely, for example, that a group of office cleaners will be able to organise around their different hours and workplaces in order to enjoy an electric car and free parking on the ratepayers dime. For people working in differing locations (contract tradesmen), or who work zero-hours contracts, or have multiple part-time jobs, car sharing as envisaged by AT would be all but impossible.

So we are left with the uncomfortable fact that, like the light rail proposal, AT's electric car fleet is middle-class welfare for those already in good jobs, working regular hours. And it will be subsidised by those seeing their current public transport needs being deferred while AT scrambles around to save a few bucks here and there. 

The Council wants Aucklanders to support a motorway toll to support its expanded transport plan. At the moment, there is no reason anyone in South Auckland would have any incentive to support such a toll. Light rail and EVs are not regional transport priorities. They are a benefit for the already privileged. Sorry AT, but this merits an E for equity.