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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.