Tuesday 4 December 2018

Enough of cars... Overuse of motorized transport is destroying everything.

Le Curé: "I don't like cars".
Three months ago our car reached the end of its economical life and we took it to be scrapped. I'm not missing it. I never used it much anyway.

When we first moved to the Netherlands we brought our car with us from the UK but after we arrived it didn't move a single centimetre until more than three years had passed and we finally got around to registering and insuring it.

Even longer ago, when I eventually learnt to drive I was 27 and I only did so then because it was forced by circumstances.

Cars never appealed to me. I had a car for somewhat under less than half of my life, didn't use it much, and becoming car-free again isn't so much a change as it is a return to normal. The effects of Brexit have cost us twice as much as the price of some new cars, but if such a windfall arrived I wouldn't rush out to buy a replacement.

I arrived at the car dismantler in the silver car and I went home
on the red bike. At least the Netherlands recycles 98% of what
is in a scrapped car
Managing without a car
Giving up a car isn't difficult if you didn't use it much anyway. Neither Judy nor myself have ever been particularly enthusiastic or high mileage drivers. We've always chosen to live close to places that we needed to go to regularly such as work and shops and by ensuring that our regular journeys were within walking and cycling distance we freed ourselves from having to drive everywhere.

Our car was built in 1998 but we bought it in 2007 with 84870 km on the odometer. On its final day the odometer showed that it had covered a total of 115300 km in 20 years and 3 months since its first registration. Over 11 years and 8 months we had driven 30430 km. That's an average of 2600 km (1630 miles) per year for Judy and I combined. In fact we drove slightly less than that because neither of our adult children own their own cars and they sometimes used it too.

Last weekend, collecting a large table for Judy to use for craft
projects. We always have done this because even if you have
a car it's no more difficult to transport things like this by bike.
Large objects don't fit well into the back of an average car.
When we used our car it was usually as a small van or bus for an exceptional journey which we couldn't make by bike. It was never used for everyday journeys such as shopping, commuting, taking children to school or for our business. The many bicycle components which we send to customers worldwide always begin their journey by bike.

Though there are always other ways to do things, once we had it it didn't cost all that much to keep and it had the advantage over a rental that we could put messy things in the back without losing a deposit. Sometimes it was genuinely useful and convenient: It transported us from our old home in the UK to our new home in Assen, our adult children moved between rooms in shared houses before they found flats to live in long term, and a couple of times it covered half its annual distance in just one week when we went together on holiday to visit family in the UK. But even including some of these longer journeys our total distance never added up to very much. 2600 km a year works out as something around 30 hours of driving per year. It's only possible to run up high mileage in a car if you sit in it for a lot more time than that, you have constructed your life around using it, and you drive more or less every day. We have always cycled much more than we drove.

A subsidy for zero emissions ?
Our car probably had the lowest emissions of any in the city. Our emissions were low because we filled the petrol tank infrequently. Now that we've replaced it with no car at all, our emissions from personal transport have dropped from much lower than average all the way down to zero.

85% of Dutch electricity comes from fossil fuel sources.
No vehicle charged with Dutch electricity can achieve
"Zero emissions" but they still receive a subsidy. Other
countries are similar. e.g. while writing, British electricity
was 65% fossil,14% nuclear,2% wind,2% from NL.
The Dutch government subsidizes purchases of new electric cars to the value of €6000 and offers other tax advantages. Similar subsidies are available all around the world for scrapping old cars and buying new ones. The best that any alternative fuel car can do is pollute fractionally less than the one it replaced. This attracts a generous subsidy even though a background of rising use means that the energy consumption and resulting pollution will continue to rise even with slightly more efficient cars.

These subsidies are only ever available to people who buy another car and who commit to continuing to pollute by continuing to drive. No subsidies are available to those who stop driving and stop polluting or for those who never started.

Having received €50 scrap value for our car and having stopped driving we will continue to pay tax as usual, some part of which will be used to subsidize people who continue to drive and continue to pollute.

Update January 2019:  An editorial in our local newspaper confirms my suspicion. The €6000 subsidy is going in large part to people who buy large electric cars which create higher emissions than small petrol cars. It's not advantageous for the environment to subsidy purchases of electric cars, it's only advantageous to the wealthy.

Bicycles genuinely have zero emissions
Odometer of one of our bikes a few
weeks ago. One bike and one rider,
more km in 9 years than four drivers
over 11 years in the car.
Cycling and walking are the only truely zero emission means of transport. Cycling is more effective because a bicycle amplifies the effort of a human so that we can go much faster, over longer distances and comfortably carry weight well in excess of that we can carry when walking. This makes cycling a great choice for everyday transport. A person on a bike can travel 5000 km per year using no more energy than that which we have to consume just to achieve the recommended daily amount of exercise. No external source of energy is required. No charging of a battery or filling up of a petrol tank.

The most efficient vehicles on the planet are Dutch, they're human powered and therefore have zero emissions, but they receive no subsidy from the Dutch government which is sadly more enthusiastic about subsidizing imported electric vehicles which can never be emission free because 80% of Dutch electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.

Los Angeles: already defined by traffic-jams in
the 1950s. A template copied around the world.
Enough of cars
Driving is seen as socially normal. Driving tests don't require particularly high skill because they're intended to enable so many people as possible to take part. Only the very most obviously poor drivers, or those who are especially nervous on the day of the test, will fail. Like most people, I passed first time despite no special ability and with an obvious lack of experience. This immediately meant I was qualified to take a remarkably wide range of motor vehicles onto public roads without any further education being required (very slightly curtailed when I swapped my British driving license for a Dutch license and the maximum vehicle weight dropped from 7.5 to 3.5 tonnes). I've never been fined for a speeding or parking offence and I've never crashed into anyone. We have, however, had two of our cars written off by other people crashing into them (one when it was parked, the other when we were stopped at a red traffic light)

Driving should not be viewed as socially normal. Motorized transport is one of the main factors which is destroying the conditions on this planet which we require in order to live. By rapidly consuming resources which can't be replaced we're also reducing the options available for our children and grandchildren who will have a hard time living on the planet which we have left for them. There is no other place for us to live other than on this planet but we are risking making our only home into a place where human life will be difficult at best.

A state of life that calls for another way of living
Genuinely excellent new cycling infrastructure in Assen.
Infrastructure like this, removing interactions with cars,
makes it much easier to use cycles as everyday transport.
The risk of making human life impossible seems to me to be rather a high price to pay for something which it seems almost no-one actualy even enjoys doing. Driving is so boring that people regularly fall asleep behind the wheel.

When it isn't inducing sleep, driving a car means paying for fuel, for maintenance, for tax, for insurance and for parking. Driving also means stressful queues in traffic jams, searching for parking spaces in cities, road rage, insurance claims after crashes and also the sorrow caused by more than a million deaths in car crashes every year.

Even drivers who never crash their cars still cause deaths: The death rate from air pollution due to cars (car exhaust and particulate pollution which largely comes from tyres) is four times so high as that from crashes.

"Shared Space". Presented with a pretence about "sharing", it's
really about unfettered motoring. Until a pedestrian crossing
was retrofitted here, pedestrians couldn't safely cross the road.
Where is the social good in any of this ? We would all be better off if we lived such that we didn't need cars. We'd all be better off if we stopped designing the places where live as if cars were the most important things in them.

We got into this state because problems which were seen very early on in the history of motoring were ignored. The first car crash fatality resulted in a judge saying that "this must never happen again" but others did not heed his call. Rather than taking action when problems such as pollution and congestion were first observed, cities around the world instead repeated the same mistakes of treating this threat as an inevitability and trying to adapt themselves to cope.

The Netherlands provides some excellent examples of where policy has been turned around, but prioritization of motorized vehicles can still be seen here too. To this day, the Dutch government spends vastly more on infrastructure for cars than on infrastructure for cycling. Cyclists are sometimes put into dangerous situations for the convenience of motorists. Even the world's leading cycling city pushes bikes into undesirable conflict.

Cars are not the only problem
We need to reduce our emissions to zero. Rapidly. Dillydallying
with a few percent here and there can't achieve this yet even
the IPCC seems mostly to be ignore the potential of cycling
in favour of expanding car use with slightly more efficient cars
A few months ago I watched a TV interview in which a representative of an aircraft company stated that every human on the planet now averages 1000 km of flying per year and they're expecting this to continue to grow. What used to be a small cause of pollution because few people did it has now grown into something ar more significant due to exponential growth of flying since the 1950s. While modern aircraft are vastly more efficient than older models and also far more efficient than ships, no efficiency improvement is meaningful when seen against this rate of growth.

We all make our own excuses, but we've all got to stop relying on powered transport. Cars and aircraft are not the only problems. If we make the same journeys using different modes of powered transport then the problems remain. An individual's impact per km may be slightly lower by switching to train or bus but it remains an impact and we need to cut our emissions to zero, not just by a few percentage points.

Powered modes have similar consumption per passenger mile. You can
argue with the figures in this table if you wish, but even if they're out by
a factor of 4 the resulting per km consumption remains a problem. Switching
from one mode to another can only make a very small difference. Making
fewer and shorter journeys is far more important than changing modes.
Every form of powered transport pollutes.
Travel so much as you want by foot or by bicycle every year and you do not trash the planet by doing so, but if you fly, drive or even take the train all of those modes consume about the same amount of energy per passenger km and all are problematic. Changing between modes against a background of ever increasing transport is at this stage akin to moving deckchairs on the Titanic.

It hardly makes hardly any difference at all which powered mode is used. We need to travel much less in order to leave behind a planet on which our children and grandchildren can live.

Every single km has a cost.
Everything starts with individual action. Yes we need to lobby government and try to change the action of large companies but in large part we're the customers of that government and those companies. If we provide the demand they provide the product. If we reduce our dependency on externally powered devices which use engines and motors to push us around and start to use our own muscles then we have made a change to the market served by those actors.

If considering a journey over a distance which can't be covered by human power alone, how do we justify that we should do this at the expense of all those who will come after us ? Is there genuinely a greater good which will come from that journey ? Do such journeys need to be made at all ?

Addendum: If I always felt like this about cars why on earth did I ever learn to drive ?
Getting a driving license is widely seen as some kind of right of passage. "Cartwheels turn to car wheels," a metaphor for a child becoming an adult. Not everyone sees it that way of course and even as a child I did not. I saw cars as yesterday's technology, smelly and inefficient and I held out from bothering to learn to drive for as long as I could. This turned out to be until I was 27: Judy was pregnant and a car was the only sensible way of reliably being able to travel at any time day or night from the village in Cambridgeshire where we lived to the closest hospital to our home.

It was only 15 km between our home and the hospital, so not an extreme distance. Shortly afterwards my regular cycle commute grew to 20 km each way. But the hospital trip was not a journey that either Judy or myself thought she'd want to make by bicycle so I quickly learnt to drive so that we could be sure about what we'd do on the day. When I drove to hospital I immediately found myself on the wrong side of the parking policy which attempted to deter driving by charging a lot for parking and allowing payment only for short periods by advance tickets from a machine in the car park. This policy existed in almost total absence of infrastructure which made cycling into a safe and pleasant experience for everyone and therefore was completely ineffective: the car park was more or less permanently filled. Because of this policy, brought in in with total disregard for the surrounding chaos on the roads, the arrival of our daughter was interrupted by having to repeatedly leave my wife to "feed the meter".

As soon as they could sit in the seats of this tricycle, this is how
we transported our now adult children for all our short journeys.
If a good alternative to driving had existed then we'd have used it. I was forced to learn to drive because Cambridge and Cambridgeshire were (and still are) built around cars as the main means of transport.

I'm not an advocate of driving but I remain against the idea of charging patients at hospitals for car parking as any part of an attempt to change behaviour. No-one visits hospitals for fun. There's always stress and it's quite possibly some kind of family emergency. The other 364 days of the year are a better time to educate people about transport and that is best done by providing world class infrastructure which encourages people to cycle instead of drive for their regular journeys. In an emergency people will naturally turn to whichever form of transport they have become used to and what they will be used to is whatever works best on the infrastructure provided in the area. Note that here in Assen where extremely good cycling infrastructure enables cycling for a far wider range of journeys, the hospital provides good access by bike and many visitors use it but there is also free parking at the hospital for those who arrive by car. While many people make a high proportion of their everyday journeys by bike, few Dutch women in labour travel by bike to give birth.


Taliesin said...

Terrible example of wasted subsidies:

from the BBC

Unknown said...

Don't trains encourage intensification (though limited by government sometimes), which makes more types of trips shorter locally around the station?

Also what do you think of the bicycle+train phenomenon happening in NL right now?

David Hembrow said...

Taliesin: Governments around the world have policies which look superficially "green" but are not. Any promotion of one type of car over another (your example from the UK and the Dutch subsidy are both examples) is dubious because there can never be anything more than a fractional difference between them. The scandal of diesel emissions shouldn't have surprised any of us. Car manufacturers have been trying to greenwash their products for decades and if government provides a financial incentive of course these things will happen. Car are the problem. Not a particular type of car, all of them.

B L: I'm not convinced of intensification due to trains. Trains enable longer journeys and when it is made easy to travel further that is what people will do. Intensification certainly has not happened here as is demonstrated by the fact that Dutch commutes are the longest in Europe and many of those long commutes are by train.

It's not sustainable, though just as with cars the train companies are also great at greenwash. In NL this goes as far as NS (the railway company) claiming that trains are entirely powered by the wind, but of course that's not true: The disconnect from the wind is made obvious by the fact that Dutch trains run on the same timetables and (usually) perfectly on time whether or not the wind is blowing. There is no storage of electricity so just like everything else which is electrically powered in the Netherlands, the source of the energy which pushes the trains along is actually the Dutch grid which is 85% supplied by burning fossil fuel.

As for the cycle parking at stations, it is certainly impressive compared with other countries and I've been writing about it for at least 15 years, including for the last 10 years on this blog. Assen also has greatly improved its railway station in the last few months and I'll soon write about that. But of course what all of this does is attract more people to make more journeys, which is not sustainable. To have a bare minimum chance of meeting a 2 C climate target we need to reduce by 10% a year indefinitely. That's not compatible with growth.

Geruman said...

I recently read (in a car magazine in a waiting room) that the electric Hyundai Kona, currently the most energy efficient electric road car (far more efficient than an electric Smart or Tesla) emit the CO2 equivalent of 3.2 l petrol per 100 km distance (under German energy mix). This is better than the approx 5.9 l of a small Hyundai (of similar interior space) and is also much better for the air in urban areas. The electric Kona costs "only" €40k, but has a removed interior space to make room for the battery-pack.

However, the approx 30% saving in CO2 emissions has to be set against a €25,000 higher price (in Germany) and the resources going into a 700 kg Lithium-ion battery pack! Like some other electric offerings, there is a long wait, as they can't make enough of them (same will happen with the VW NEON when launching in 2019 I am told). We will habe to reduce our reliance "on powered transport" indeed.

I am happy to read that you looked after the car for so many years ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I am sorry to report that I am now a full time car commuter after being a cycle commuter for about 20 years. I never got back to cycling after my treatment for cancer, and now my commute has increased to 10 miles each way, and I am deterred from 2 wheels partly by the increased time cycling would take (which does not fit well with my family commitments) but mostly by the prospect of cycling across the full width of Cambridge in the rush hour, with no practical route that avoids dangerous road junctions. In theory my car commute should take 20 minutes (electric car) but can take twice that due to long term roadworks to increase car carrying capacity (irony!). At least the speed restrictions improves the fuel efficiency of the journey. I fully expect electric cars to become much more mainstream as battery sizes increase, but the disappointing side effect is the manufacturers are making them ever more powerful, so that drivers can waste more of their precious battery capacity cutting each other up at the traffic lights.