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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.