Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

World class cities and the development of new transportation technologies: Paris and electric cars

This weekend I was flipping through the news channels and because Fox "News" (I think it was Fox, but now I can't find the story) was doing a story on Ecotality, I watched the piece.

See, in bike sharing, most of the RFPs ask questions about whether or not the system can be be integrated with charging stations for electric vehicles (the system my firm now sells can be integrated with electric vehicle charging by the way), so I spent a bit of time learning about the various plans to increase the number of places where cars can get electric charges, the Department of Energy program in association with Ecotality to deploy public car charging stations, etc.

Anyway, the Fox story was somewhat negative about the time that has been taken thus far, and how an ambitious schedule to deploy thousands of public car charging stations hasn't been met. Similar kinds of print stories include "Charging stations open, but few vehicles sold to use them" from the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

This Huffington Post story, "ECOtality Builds Electric Vehicle Chargers, Infrastructure," explains more about the company and what they are intending to do.

Now I think that there are real issues with one-for-one replacement of gasoline vehicles with electric vehicles. People believe that we will be able to maintain an autocentric way of life in the U.S., even if gasoline is more costly or less available, in part by the use of other technologies.

But electric vehicles require expensive batteries, the batteries require expensive materials available only from countries like Bolivia and China, they wear out and have to be replaced, and most electricity is produced by burning coal, which has all the Greenhouse Gas Emissions problems of oil.

Not to mention that converting to electric batteries has to change how some people can drive, because a full tank of gas has a much longer range than a battery charge (not to mention that a gas fill up takes a couple minutes and a battery charge fill up takes hours), eliminating the ability to make long trips, because the battery range isn't that long.

Now sure there is the Better Place electric car infrastructure ideas of Shai Agassi, but in my opinion (then again I am not one of the big time financiers pumping money into the company) it seems unlikely to be able to scale up and out, although there are some interesting ideas in the approach. See "Shai Agassi Has an EV Vision, Can He Make America a Better Place?" from Fast Company Magazine.
The Better Place idea of an integrated electric car infrastructure and service system. From the Wired Magazine article, "Shai Agassi’s Audacious Plan to Put Electric Cars on the Road."

If you study the diffusion of innovation (see Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers), in response to the Fox News story about Ecotality, I'd argue that it takes time to introduce new technologies, and it takes time to develop the critical mass of users and support services to make using the new, in this case mobility, technology, practical. (In fact, biking as transportation has some of the same issues.)

With the auto industry, it took about 30 years to truly scale up, and in that time a network of roads had to be created, a system of garages/repair facilities, gas stations, a dealer network, places to stay if you traveled (motels), road maps, etc. in order to be able to get around beyond your immediate neighborhood. Relatedly, the technology of the automobile had to be improved so that you didn't need to be a mechanic yourself in order to keep it running.

It takes a lot more than the couple years that Ecotality has been installing charging stations.
Autolib electric car sharing vehicle, Paris
A Bluecar departs from the Autolib electric car pick-up station in Place de Catalogne, Paris, France, 02 October 2011, during the first test day in Paris metropolitan area. 60 Bluecars are used for test purposes. The service will be inaugurated next 05 December with 250 cars, their number increasing to 2000 at the end of June 2012. EPA/HORACIO VILLALOBOS

World Class cities don't just "take" they "give"

On Sunday, Paris launched the first phase of their autolib’ electric vehicle car sharing program. See "Paris launches electric car-sharing plan" from the Los Angeles Times and "Paris Tests Short-Term Rentals of Electric Cars" from the New York Times.

From the NYT article:

If Parisians can share bicycles, why not cars, too?

Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, and the billionaire investor Vincent Bolloré think they will. To that end they have begun an ambitious new electric-vehicle partnership called Autolib, extending the city’s effort to reimagine urban mobility and improve air quality with alternatives to exhaust-spewing cars.

On Sunday, Autolib rolled out 66 ultracompact Bluecars at charging stations for a two-month trial period to help familiarize the public with the system and work out the bugs before it fully goes live. Officials hope to have 3,000 of the zero-emission, four-seater Bluecars on the streets and 1,000 charging stations in Paris and surrounding cities by the end of 2012.

The bet is that urbanites needing occasional access to a car will opt out of ownership in exchange for the convenience of an easy, occasional rental, without the hassles of paying for gasoline, insurance, taxes and maintenance.

A few years ago I saw Charles Landry, the author-urban vitality theorist-practitioner, give a couple presentations on creative cities, and I was really struck by one of his points, that true world class cities are the cities that give to the world by being innovative and creative and passing what they learn on to others.

Paris' introduction of bike sharing is a perfect example.

Paris was by no means the first city to do bike sharing. But when they did it, they launched it with a bang--with 20,000 bicycles and hundreds of stations--by comparison this was a vast scale compared to all the previous installations in Europe--and it became a world-wide phenomenon as a result, one that other cities, like London, New York City, Montreal, Chicago, etc., wanted to get in on.

But there are a couple lessons in the Velib system launch that seem to elude most bike sharing practitioners in other places:

1. Velib launched on a huge scale, with an intense number of stations and bikes
2. Therefore developing a critical mass of users and a usable system from the first day
3. Helped of course by urban density of population and buildings
4. Complemented by a great transit system
5. With a design forward system and defined brand image and position.

With regard to electric vehicles, the Velib lessons are relevant, and the relative lack of deployment of electric vehicles in the U.S. is an illustration of a different kind of approach, one that takes a lot longer and is more likely to fail because it isn't focused on achieving critical mass.

I talk about what I call action planning.
Slide, action planning as systems integration

Action planning is basically what Paris did with Velib and is now doing with Autolib, although focused also on a point not defined yet in action planning, but should be, and that is on achieving critical mass.

Contrast Autolib with the deployment of electric vehicles in the U.S. Rather than focus on making electric vehicles a practical and deep option in a particular region, and growing from there, they are being deployed willy nilly all over the country, and at a metropolitan scale, are nowhere near being able to achieve critical mass.

With regard to brand image, design, and integrated program delivery systems, look at the difference with Autolib. The cars are well marked, promote the concept, and by the end of next year they intend to have deployed 3,000 electric vehicles and 1,000 charging stations in Paris and the suburbs.

That's about scale and critical mass.

Again, it's an example of how to launch new mobility technologies successfully.

It's also an example of a visionary mayor and a world class city "giving of itself to the world."

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