Cities can start to tackle climate change by plugging in their vehicles

Mmm, electric cars. Image: Getty.

President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement reaffirmed what was already clear: The federal government is no longer leading American efforts to shrink our carbon footprint. But many state and local governments – along with businesses and consumers – aim to help fill this policy void.

At least a dozen governors have joined the United States Climate Alliance, committing their states to achieve emissions reductions consistent with President Barack Obama’s Paris pledge. More than 200 mayors are promising their cities will follow suit.

My research with my former student Shayak Sengupta about how cities can benefit from buying electric cars suggests that fuel-free municipal fleets can cut urban carbon footprints while improving public health and saving taxpayers money.

Options for states and cities

States can help curb emissions in many ways, such as by setting caps on power plant emissions and creating incentives and targets for renewable electricity. Most of those steps lies beyond the jurisdiction of cities. So how can they take climate action?

Urban governments most strongly impact emissions by influencing the behavior of local residents and businesses through building codes and incentives, public transit and urban planning. Buying increasingly affordable electric vehicles gives cities an additional opportunity to cut climate-warming emissions by reducing the amount of fossil fuels their vehicles consume.

Historically, cities and transit agencies turned to natural gas as an alternative fuel for fleet vehicles and buses. However, our previous research showed that natural gas does not provide significant emissions savings compared with gasoline cars or diesel buses.

Electric vehicles, however, can bring about clear-cut reductions in carbon emissions.

The electric vehicle market

U.S. cities own few of the 540,000 electric cars on the road nationwide as of 2016. The nation’s two largest cities, New York City and Los Angeles, operate 1,000 and 200 electric cars, respectively.

That could soon change. Thirty cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, are seeking bulk-rate deals on electric vehicles. They’ve asked manufacturers to submit bids to supply up to 114,000 electric vehicles, ranging from police cruisers to trash haulers, at a total cost of roughly $10bn.

This surge in electric vehicle sales could make them more affordable not just for cities but for the rest of us too. That’s because emerging technologies typically get cheaper as production increases. A study by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute estimates that electric car batteries prices fall by 6 to 9 per cent every time production doubles.

Some analysts forecast that as soon as 2025, electric cars will become cheaper than gasoline-powered cars. In some cases, they are already cheaper to own and operate over the vehicle’s lifetime, our research has shown. If cities help ramp up demand for electric cars faster than anticipated, this transition could happen even faster.

Municipal fleets

City-owned fleets are in some ways ideal candidates for electric-powered transportation. Cities operate large numbers of vehicles in densely populated areas, where emissions most endanger human health.

Local driving by municipal employees is well-suited for electric cars. For example, the Nissan Leaf now has a range of as much as 107 miles, and the Chevy Bolt can travel 238 miles without recharging.

Meanwhile, electric models of pickup trucks, dump trucks, buses and police cruisers are becoming increasingly available.


Houston’s vehicles

We studied vehicle options available to Houston, which operates a fleet of about 12,000 vehicles, in 2015. Those options included two gasoline-powered Toyota sedans (the Corolla and the Prius), the natural gas-powered Honda Civic, the plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius and the fully electric Nissan Leaf. Since all these sedans seat five passengers, they are interchangeable.

Because Houston in 2015 bought 75 percent of its electricity from wind farms (it now draws even more of its power from wind and solar sources), we calculated that the fully electric Leaf would have reduced life cycle greenhouse gas emissions by 87 per cent relative to the gasoline-powered Corolla over seven years. About half of those benefits would have been lost if the Leaf was charged from the fossil-heavy grid elsewhere in Texas.

Financially, the savings on fuel and maintenance would have more than offset the $12,000 premium for buying a Leaf instead of a Corolla. We estimated that Houston would have saved about 4 cents per mile while operating the Leafs, as long as enough charging stations were available. That’s even before counting any savings from bulk purchases or federal tax credits.

Charging stations

One significant problem holding back demand for electric vehicles is the shortage of charging stations. Greater availability of charging stations assures cities and consumers that full electrics like the Nissan Leaf can complete their trips, and lets plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt operate mostly in electric mode.

That’s why cities like Pittsburgh have obtained state grants to build their own, while utilities in Seattle and Kansas City are building charging stations to jump-start demand for electric cars.

The ConversationElectric municipal fleets won’t by themselves propel cities all the way to their Paris-based pledges. But by speeding the adoption of charging stations and cleaner cars, they could help curb emissions – while saving money for urban taxpayers and improving public health.

Daniel Cohan is associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.

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

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.