The day of the Global Climate Strike, September 20th, I participated in a fascinating all day conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s the fourth annual conference put on by the BC Sustainable Energy Association. There are three or four threads I want to pull at, but this one is the Climate Emergency Response plan created by the City of Vancouver, or at least the transportation side and related electrification of transportation elements. Other articles will deal with the larger question of a small green province in an increasingly dark gray sea and the persistence of fossil fuel lobbyists in sustainable enterprises and the greenest of jurisdictions.
The transportation panel was solid, with Joanna Clark, Citywide Transportation Planner, City of Vancouver, Dom Repta, TransLink Senior Sustainability Advisor and David Rehimi, Chargepoint’s western Canada sales person.
Let’s start with the Climate Emergency Response plan. Back in January, Vancouver’s city councilors said that there’s a climate emergency and that bold action was required. This is in line with the global initiative covering many of the most affluent and highest carbon jurisdictions in the world.
“1,039 jurisdictions in 19 countries have declared a climate emergency. Populations covered by jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency amount to 266 million citizens”
That Vancouver, British Columbia is among those cities is unsurprising. It has long had a focus on being a green city and targets for achieving carbon-neutrality. This just kicks it into high gear.
The plan has six big moves and 53 accelerated actions.
1. Walkable complete communities – By 2030, 90% of people live within an easy walk and roll of their daily needs.
2. Safe and convenient active transportation and transit – By 2030, two thirds of trips in Vancouver will be by active transportation and transit.
3. Pollution free cars, trucks and buses – By 2030, 50% of the kilometers driven on Vancouver’s roads will be by zero emissions vehicles.
4. Zero emission space and water heating – By 2025, all new and replacement heating and hot water systems will be zero emissions.
5. Lower carbon construction – By 2030, the embodied emissions from new buildings and construction projects will be reduced by 40% compared to a 2018 baseline.
6. Restored forests and coast – By fall 2020, to develop “negative emission” targets that can be achieved by restoring forest and coastal ecosystems.
Observant readers will notice that the first three are transportation related. Given Vancouver’s tremendous success in achieving high density and British Columbia’s very low carbon electricity at 15 grams of CO2e per kWh (compared to the US average of 455 grams), transportation is a big remaining source of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions, and also something that’s amenable to successful improvement. Clark’s presentation was on this theme.
Vancouver is highly walkable already, but it can become more so. The goal is to have even more density, and more areas with services and work within walking or biking distance. This is about enabling people to not have to get in cars at all for most of their trips. Whether they are popping out to lunch at work or picking up a bag of milk and some eggs on a Saturday morning, they should be able to do on foot or on a small human-powered or electric mobility vehicle. That’s 13% of the targeted reductions, 153,000 tonnes/year.
That has head winds of course. The NIMBYs which plague every density increase in every city in the world are fully present in Vancouver. Perhaps starting every meeting on the subject with Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the UN Climate Summit might shift the needle on that. The mantra is, after all, think globally and act locally, and NIMBYs are stopping local action. Right now, only 45% of citizens, half of the 2030 target, live within easy reach of their daily needs.
Coming in at 141,000 tonnes/year of carbon pollution, or 12% of the targeted reductions, is active transportation and transit. That’s buses, subways, and ferries for the transit side, and biking and micro-mobility — electric bikes, scooters, etc — for the active transportation side. Vancouver’s long efforts on this front, including a contentious but very successful Burrard Bridge bike lane program, have seen active transportation and transit trips rise to 50% of all trips in the city. This is in stark contrast to the sprawling cities of the USA, where only 11% of trips were on foot, and 1% on bicycles, with only 5.1% of workers use transit to commute. Once again, the density-focused urban planning in place for decades has been very successful in allowing people to get out of cars, and that can be leveraged to increase the 50% to 66% by 2030.
The third big move is, of course, pollution-free vehicles. And by that, they mean electrified vehicles. That’s a big hitter at 24% of the targeted reductions, or 283,000 tonnes per year.
Dom Repta of Translink spoke about the bus fleet transformation. They have hundreds of buses today, split between electric trolley buses (I published carbon intensity statistics based on them years ago), CNG, diesel-electric hybrid, diesel, and gas buses. Per Repta, the CNG buses will persist longest, but the rest are targeted for fairly rapid electrification over the next 15 years.
One of the big challenges he faced is something I was talking with Andrew Daga, CEO of Momentum Dynamics Corporation, about a few months ago. His company does induction charging for EVs, with a focus on transit fleets. His insights matched Repta’s. The problems are two-fold. The first is that current bus technology means that fleets have to get about 30% bigger to fulfill the same duty cycle as diesel buses, especially after a few years of reasonable battery degradation. Transit lots were planned for 30% fewer buses and don’t have room to expand. And then there’s the charging problem. There are two paths for charging. The first is at the lot, mostly as overnight charging. That requires significant electrical connection upgrades and those take time. The second is en-route fast charging at various strategic points, but finding chunks of property the size of city buses and then supplying them with sufficient electricity is a challenge.
Daga’s comments to me were in line with that, citing challenges in China, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia. His take is that the problems are “being underreported and misrepresented.” He’s seeing OEM claims of range not being achievable in the real world, with significant resulting problems for transit authorities.
This is compounded by another problem. BC, as with many jurisdictions, has a single monopoly electricity provider, BC Hydro, for most of the province. That means that the new charging infrastructure is all flowing through a single Crown corporation that’s been subject to a fair amount of the typical political pressure to keep rates low over the decades. And that means that it’s not necessarily a fast process to get changes made, especially when there are also massive expansions of electric car charge points at the same time, including from the City’s charging rollout and Chargepoints customers. Last mile upgrades for electric vehicles is non-trivial. It also doesn’t help that BC Hydro doesn’t give Translink the Large General Service rate which is cheapest, but that’s under negotiation as their daily demand is going to go up substantially.
The charging options also mean very different electrical demand profiles. Off-duty charging at lots would have very large peaks, while more distributed charging would be lower. And we are talking MWs of peaks, some coinciding with other demand peaks, so BC Hydro is a key stakeholder in options.
The last point to make is a common challenge for these plans, an individual’s preference for their cars or at least individual four-wheeled vehicles even if provided by a car share service. The organizers used Slido to provide a place for audience questions, and during the Q&A session the questions were visible on the large screen. Two or three were focused on exactly that. One question, even in a climate solutions sessions, asked why cars weren’t more of a priority.
Another asked how all of those electric cars were going to get around. Metro Vancouver consists of a couple of dozen cities and electoral districts with a population of 2.5 million, with multiple river and inlet crossings requiring tunnels and bridges. The outer suburbs are rarely conveniently served by transit for those who want to get into the central business district of Vancouver, with few express transit options. People who can afford it simply drive. And another asked how the roads would be paid for if gasoline taxes went away.
And finally, as I noted in a CleanTechnica piece three years ago, Autonomous Cars Are Likely To Increase Congestion. Regardless of whether individuals or companies own the autonomous vehicles, every point-to-point trip turns into three trips, cars stay on the road after dropping people off downtown instead of being parked, and autonomous vehicles are likely to transit urban intersections much more slowly than human-driven cars, thereby increasing urban congestion even if they reduce highway congestion.
The official plan includes references to mobility pricing to assist with these challenges. After a year of consultation, the report came back with a couple of options earlier this year. The options are charges for congestion points — bridges, tunnels and the downtown core — or a distance-based driving charge. Which one will be selected is to be seen. Will the mobility pricing replace the revenue lost due to gasoline taxes? And does the gasoline tax even cover the cost of roads, as it so rarely does in other jurisdictions.
In all, the transportation segment of the conference was very positive. The plans were clear, detailed and well-aligned with my understanding of leading practices for urban mobility and the innovations in the space. But time is short and these plans are aggressive. Vancouver still lags China on decarbonized transportation in many ways, but is obviously a leader in North America.
Note: In addition to the noted discussions, I’ve reached out to Joanna Clark with additional questions. Should they be forthcoming, the article will be updated.
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