Electric cars won’t break our fossil fuel dependency

The future. Image: Getty.

The gulf between what scientists say is needed to save the planet and what governments actually agree keeps growing. International climate talks held last month in Katowice, Poland, were no exception.

At the summit, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined forces to water down recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, Australia celebrated coal, Brazil pushed to weaken rules on carbon markets. 

It’s no surprise that an increasing number of people think that tackling global warming cannot be left to national governments alone. Some have begun looking to local government and community initiatives. Others resort to direct action against the perceived treachery of political elites.

Knowledge of the past is a powerful weapon for those hoping to shape the planet’s future. Cutting fossil fuel consumption requires an understanding of its relentless expansion since the mid-20th century.

We can start with the technological systems and infrastructures that consume fossil fuels; cars, electricity, heating and buildings. Moving away from fossil fuels will require transforming these infrastructures and the social and economic systems in which we live.

Take cars, for example. Technological change helped catapult them to prominence: together with steam turbines and electricity networks, the internal combustion engine was one of the great innovations of the second industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

But it took social and economic change to make cars the predominant mode of urban transport. In the 1920s, US car manufacturers pioneered automated assembly lines, transforming cars from luxury items to mass consumer products. Manufacturers used political muscle to side-line and sabotage competing forms of transport, including sidecars, buses and railways.

Car use exploded during America’s post-war boom thanks to huge state investment in highways. Suburbia proliferated and spread internationally, as some other rich countries embraced this pattern of urban development.

But by the 1980s, the car boom had become a traffic jam. At home in the US, manufacturers mounted effective resistance to the state’s sporadic attempts at regulating fuel efficiency, and gas-guzzling SUVs arrived.


Today, those working to create carbon-free cities are confronted with the economic and social structures that have normalised car use.

The current fixation with electric and driverless cars is an example of spurious technological fixes obscuring the reality that moving away from fossil fuels requires systemic social and economic change.

Using electric cars probably won’t cut carbon emissions much – or at all – unless electricity is generated entirely from renewables. And while countries like Germany and Spain have taken important steps to raise the proportion of renewable electricity, the hard part is yet to come: creating systems that rely mostly, or entirely, on renewable electricity.

Cities must become places where transport systems don’t depend on cars. While trams, walkways and bicycle-friendly infrastructures can help towards this end, the central function of electric cars is preserving manufacturer’s profits.

As with cars, so with urban electricity, heating systems, and built environments: technological change to reduce fossil fuel use must go hand in hand with broader social and economic change.

Like cars, electricity systems were a great innovation of the late nineteenth century.

Their first phase of development culminated in the post-war boom and depended on large, centralised power stations that were usually coal-fired.

Since the 1980s, a third industrial revolution that produced networked computers and internet enabled devices has made it possible to supersede the centralised networks that relied on fossil fuels. Now we have the potential for integrated, decentralised systems reliant on multiple energy sources – including renewables like solar and heat pumps, and wind turbines.

Yet this “smart grid” technology has scarcely been applied, despite three decades passing since the effects of global warming were first discovered. Why?

One explanation is that networks are operated by companies whose business model relies on selling as much electricity as possible. These companies are scared by the possibility of distributed generation systems, where networks collect electricity from multiple renewable sources. And community-based decentralised electricity ventures are forced to compete with these established corporations on unequal terms.

A briefing paper published last year by researchers at Imperial College, London, argued that moving the UK’s electricity and heat systems away from fossil fuels would require a “whole system approach” coordinated by “one single party”.

This implies that the dogmas of competition, which have favoured corporate providers rather than public sector responses, are obstructing the technologies needed to tackle global warming.

This is not a new problem. In 1976, following the oil price shock, sustainable energy advocate Amory Lovins spoke in the US Congress about “soft energy paths” that would combine a culture of energy efficiency and a transition to renewables.

He pointed to the “roads not taken” by governments, who were more inclined to defend incumbent corporate interests than use energy technologies wisely.

Forty years on, despite the threat of global warming, these issues still loom large. Social change, powerful enough to remove the obstructions to the transition from fossil fuels, is more urgent than ever.

Simon Pirani is author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press, 2018) and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.