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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.