“It could destroy domestic wiring systems”: on the unexamined costs of the petrol ban

Fill 'er up, guv. Image: Getty.

The ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040 is perhaps the most significant policy announcement made by the UK government in the past decade (with the possible exception of Brexit). It feels like a key moment for the fight against pollution and climate change.

But the shift from petrochemicals to electric vehicles will be disruptive and extremely expensive. The ramifications need to be considered systematically.

The issue that springs most immediately to mind is that the UK’s national taxation system will experience a major shock. The government raised about £28bn from fuel duties over 2016-17. It is the largest component of indirect taxation and pulls in about the same as tobacco, alcohol, gambling and vehicle duties combined.

The removal of diesel and petrol cars and vans will undermine this tax stream and it will need to be replaced. Tax on petrol and diesel currently accounts for 69 per cent of the total price. To put it in context, one year’s worth of fuel duty revenue pays for more than 4m UK state pensions.

Electric dreams

One option to replace lost fuel duty might be a tax on electric vehicle charging. Currently, VAT on domestic energy consumption is charged at 5 per cent – this will have to rise dramatically to cover the shortfall.

The government has been silent on this: the issue appears to have been taken for granted, or perhaps overlooked. It may seem that 2040 is a long way off, and the transition will be softened by product lifecycles, but people’s vehicle buying habits will start to change long before deadline day.

A creative solution to the taxation deficit will have to be developed for every country pursuing a similar course.

Generational change. Image: Michael Oakes/Flickr/creative commons.

Tax is not the only worrying unknown. The gradual replacement of more than 31m diesel and petrol cars with electric or autonomous vehicles represents a moment of transformation that is arguably more of a threat to the UK automotive industry than Brexit.

During 2017, electric car pioneer Tesla’s market capitalisation reached $51bn (£39bn), briefly surpassed that of General Motors and is well above that of Ford. We are seeing the impacts of disruptive technologies on established and conventional automotive manufacturers. We simply don’t know how this will play out in a UK sector which directly employs 169,000 workers and which generates annual turnover of more than £70bn, but which has little or no exposure to this new industry. Where is the UK or European version of Tesla?


Grid lock

The 2040 ban presents another huge problem too. The 25,410,360 houses and properties in England and Wales will need to be rewired. The current system will not be able to cope. Charging two cars for daily commuting could destroy existing domestic wiring systems given the demand placed on the system.

That means all houses, and the grid feeding them, may need to be altered to ensure that they have the ability to cope safely with the demands of charging electric vehicles. This would be a major cost and create more disruption.

It is possible to plug a vehicle into 13-amp domestic wall socket, but the charge time would be 12 to 15 hours and it carries a fire risk if the plug is old or unsuitable for the high loads required. Dedicated 32-amp charging points could be installed with a charging time of five to seven hours, but does the UK have sufficient electricians to deal with all these alterations?

Those changes also assume there will be enough electricity in the first place. The UK has suffered from major under-investment in generation capacity for more than two decades. As we stand right now, recharging electric cars would result in blackouts and systemic failure across the grid.

This will require hundreds ofbns of pounds of investment in additional generation capacity. This is a challenge that must somehow be met just as the UK starts to lose a huge chunk of tax revenue from fuel duty.

Rules of the road

The fundamental questions just keep coming. Roads and pavements will experience a major upheaval as electric vehicle charging points are installed. And what will happen to the UK’s 8,500 filling stations? Even if most become electric charging stations, they will have to be repurposed and decontaminated. There will also be a significant employment and economic loss as refineries close. This will affect the equivalent of 18,000 full-time jobs in Britain. More subtle changes will present themselves too. New approaches to etiquette will be needed – when can you use someone else’s charging point for free, or for a fee?

The ban will require a dramatic restructuring of the tax system alongside massive new capital investment in infrastructure. Our estimate here of £1 trillion is a calculation based on the cost of new electricity generation combined with the installation of charging points. It is a starting point for discussion. No one has yet calculated, or perhaps could calculate, the full cost of this simple policy statement.

The ConversationIt might be that vehicle use alters in a way that means many of the potential investments will not be required – car ownership may be replaced by a car version of city bike hire schemes perhaps. But there are only 23 years for the UK to adjust to what will be the most significant transport, infrastructure, electricity generation and tax revolution since the arrival of personal computing and the internet.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained some fairly dodgy maths. We’ve removed the offending paragraph.

John Bryson is professor of enterprise & competitiveness, and Tasos Kitsos is a policy & data analyst at City-REDI, at the University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.