David Pogue’s March 19 column for The New York Times reports on Better Place, an innovative approach to electric cars. We have noted before how cars are popular due to their comfort, convenience and utility. Even if oil prices jump back over $100, urban planners should not assume that the car itself will begin to vanish.
David Pogue: Explain how this is different from all the failed electric car programs that have come before.
Shai Agassi: Most of the car efforts were done from within the car, and assuming that there is no infrastructure change at all. It’s as if people were trying to build cars, but skipping over the gas station.
We started from the infrastructure. We came up with an electric car that would have two features that nobody had before. 1) The battery is removable. So if you wanted to go a long distance, you could switch your battery instead of waiting for it to charge for a very long time.
And 2) It was cheaper than gasoline car, not more expensive. Because you didn’t buy the battery. You paid just for the miles and for the car.
DP: So what will you guys make? What will you do?
SA: We sell miles, the way that AT&T sells you minutes. They buy bandwidth and they translate into minutes. We buy batteries and clean electrons–we only buy electrons that come from renewable sources–and we translate that into miles.
DP: What are we talking about here? What’s the infrastructure you’re building?
SA: We have two pieces of infrastructure. 1) Charge spots. And they will be everywhere, like parking meters, only instead of taking money from you when you park, they give you electrons. And they will be at home, they’ll be at work, they’ll be at downtown and retail centers. As if you have a magic contract with Chevron or Exxon that every time you stop your car and go away, they fill it up.
Now, that gives us the ability to drive most of our drives, sort of a 100-mile radius. And that’s most of the drives we do. But we also take care of the exceptional drive. You want to go from Boston to New York. And so on the way, we have what we call switch stations: lanes inside gas stations. You go into the switch station, your depleted battery comes out, a full battery comes in, and you keep driving. It takes you about two, three minutes–less than filling with gasoline–and you can keep on going…
“Sprawl and Congestion—is Light Rail and Transit-Oriented Development
The allure of the automobile is compelling, and crafting a sensible
transportation policy requires an acknowledgement of the wonderful
attributes of the car:
The motor vehicle has enriched our
lives in countless ways. It has provided the easy connectivity that
enables modern, highly interdependent, urban societies to thrive. It
has eliminated rural isolation. It has enabled workers to choose
employers rather than accept whatever employment opportunities are
within walking or transit distance of their homes. The personal truck
allowed craftspeople and artisans to carry their tools with them and
enter the middle class by becoming independent contractors. The motor
vehicle has enabled people to live outside urban centers and still
participate in mainstream society.
The car is an amazing piece
of technology that has greatly extended our range of choice as to where
to live, work, shop, and play. No other form of transport can compete
with the automobile in terms of door-to-door mobility, freedom to time
one’s arrivals and exits, protection from inclement weather, and
comfort, security, and privacy while in transit.
Energy-Efficient Personal Vehicles of the Near Future
These vehicles won’t resolve all the issues surrounding sprawl and
growth, but they may well address some important problems more
effectively–and with greater consumer satisfaction–than
“transit-oriented development” and throwing more money at rail and bus
Rapid and welcome innovations in transport underscore
one of the difficulties of urban planning: unpredictable changes in
technology. Major, hard-to-reverse sacrifices–such as paving over
in-town greenspace in the name of densification–become harder to
justify when more palatable and flexible solutions are in the offing. A
good urban plan, with few exceptions, is one that is cautious, humble,
gradual, broad-minded, respectful of citizens’ preferences, and
NY Times Magazine: “The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)”
Even with $5-per-gallon gasoline, the number of cars per capita in
Europe has been growing faster than in America in recent decades, while
the percentage of commuters using mass transit has been falling. As the
suburbs expand, Europe’s cities have been losing people, too. Paris is
a great place to visit, but in the past half-century it has lost
one-quarter of its population…
Intellectuals’ distaste for the car and suburbia, and their fondness
for rail travel and cities, are an odd inverse of the old aristocratic
attitudes. The suburbs were quite fashionable when only the upper
classes could afford to live there…
young and the childless, are moving back to cities, and once again
there are private developers ready to meet their desires, which now run
toward lofts and historic town houses with modern kitchens. But for
most middle-class families, the ideal of city life conflicts with the
reality of their own lives. Even if they’re willing to do without a
yard, how can they afford to live in a decent neighborhood within easy
commute of their jobs? How will they go shopping on a rainy day with a
child in tow?
LA Weekly: “What’s Smart About Smart Growth?” (5/30/07)
caption:] 11.7 m.p.h.: Average speed of L.A. buses. Yet City Hall pols
hope buses will somehow handle the human crush once their plans for
multistory living take hold…
[Sharon] Tohline decided to do her part and hop on the bus. Now, she has a commute that consumes three hours each day…
[Pasadena resident Barbara Hamilton] can’t imagine living in the
apartments — at $2,030 for a one-bedroom — built above the railroad
tracks. “They say the windows insulate them from the noise,” she
declares. “But wouldn’t you want to open the windows now and then?”
Randal O’Toole: “Dense Thinkers” (Reason Magazine, January 1999)
“decline” of cities that officials worry so much about is due to the
fact that cars, telephones, and electricity make it possible for people
to live in lower densities–and most choose to do so…
Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Scott proposes guidelines to reduce the potential harm from plans. These include:
Take small steps. In an experimental approach to
social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our
interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer
wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then
plan the next small move…
Favor reversibility. Prefer
interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be
mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.
Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect,
given our great ignorance about how they interact…
Plan on surprises.
Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen…
In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for
accommodating changes in family structures or living styles…
Plan on human inventiveness.
Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the
project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to
improve on the design… (p.345)