In China, low-speed electric vehicles are driving high-speed urbanisation

Rush hour in Shanghai, 2014. Image: Getty.

As nations around the world struggle to halt the Earth’s rising temperature, China has made the transition to low-carbon transport a priority. As part of the effort to develop low-emission vehicles, national electric car manufacturers have enjoyed significant support from the Chinese government.

Yet their sales are dwarfed by those of a pint-sized competitor: the low-speed electric vehicle.

Despite the name, low-speed electric vehicles (LSEVs) aren’t actually that slow. With a top speed of 60kmph, they’re fast enough for getting around big and heavily congested cities. Most models are compact, resembling three-wheeled utility vehicles or golf buggies – a practical solution for the dire lack parking spaces that have become a significant problem as more and more people take up driving in China.

Saving space. Image: Dennis Zuev/author provided.

But perhaps the biggest draw of the LSEV is its cost efficiency, with an average price tag of £4,000. What’s more, all owners of these vehicles in China will now get a license plate, regardless of the brand or the size of their vehicle.

This is remarkable, because until recently, most LSEVs did not even have a license plate – indeed, until October 2016, there were no rules governing the manufacture or use of LSEVs whatsoever. But now, the government has announced its intention to oversee the sector, and these vehicles are set to play a major role in China’s rapid urbanisation.

Cities of the future

China’s new urbanisation plan foresees the migration of 100m people to third and fourth tier cities by 2020, so affordable transport is imperative. By gaining oversight on the growth and development of LSEVs, the Chinese government has acquired a new tool for reshaping the urban environment.

In particular, China has a reputation for car-centred cities, which suffer from heavy traffic and pollution. While the best option would be to direct people onto public transport, LSEVs can play a major role in cleaning up Chinese cities, by offering a more compact, low-emission alternative for aspiring car owners.

Less of this, please. Image: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr/creative commons.

But the LSEV is not the only urban “low-tech” transport option in China: there are also about 300m electric scooters of different shapes and makes. In fact, electric two-wheelers are currently the most popular alternative fuel vehicles in the history of motorisation in China.

Yet for a long time, e-bikes have been a thorn in the side of city authorities, which favour high-tech mobility solutions to make their cities look more modern. Indeed, stricter rules have been imposed in Beijing and Shenzhen, among other cities, in a controversial effort to curb their use.

Whether e-bikes could eventually become extinct is hard to say. Our own research into low-carbon mobility innovation in China suggests that e-bikes and LSEVs will continue to co-exist and compete with each other for some decades to come. Yet the Chinese government’s decision to give LSEVs formal legal status will definitely give their manufacturers a fresh edge in the low-tech mobility game.

Yet previous attempts to regulate China’s EV businesses have – to put it mildly – got out of hand: last August, it was reported that 90 per cent of EV manufacturers could be put out of business by tough new rules. In other words, though regulation will raise standards, it will also favour a few big producers and stifle competition.


Global trendsetter

Even so, China currently boasts the largest number of privately-owned LSEVs of any country in the world, as well as the largest number of LSEVs used for car-sharing. And the Chinese government is keen to build on this success.

There is already a growing global interest in smaller LSEVs, including foldable EVs in European cities and 3D printable EVs in Japan. But so far, many international cities have been reluctant to adopt them on large scale. As a result, LSEVs have remained a marginal “neighborhood EV”.

By controlling this booming sector, the Chinese government will be able to raise standards. This will not only benefit consumers and boost sales internally, but also help manufacturers to reach into new markets in European cities, such as Milan in Italy.

Tapping into international markets will give manufacturers more capital to reinvest in upgrading LSEV technology and adding new features. As a result, these vehicles will become even more appealing, and better able to compete with cars and conventional EVs for both individual consumers, and contracts for city-wide car-sharing schemes.

As some scholars like to say, “as China goes, so goes the world”. More modestly speaking, many countries around the world are likely to follow China’s lead, when it comes to urban development. The Chinese government’s decision to oversee the production of LSEVs shows that China is serious about steering the development of low-carbon mobility, not just at home but all around the world.The Conversation

Dennis Zuev is an aassociate researcher in the Institute of Social Futures at Lancaster University.

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

 
 
 
 

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.