PlaNYC Report Takes a Restrained Approach to Promoting Electric Cars

Electric_Car_London.jpgAn electric car in London. Image: exfordy via Flickr.

Last week, the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability released its newest report, "Exploring Electric Vehicle Adoption in New York City" [PDF]. In a breezy 22 pages, it lays out some strategies to maximize electric vehicle purchases by so-called early adopters in the next five years. 

As a sustainability initiative, the merit of the proposal depends on whether trips in these new electric cars will replace trips powered by internal combustion or trips by foot, bicycle, and transit. According to the report, electric vehicles charged on New York’s grid would emit as little as a quarter as much carbon per mile as conventional automobiles. "Electric cars are cleaner than conventional vehicles," said Natural Resources
Defense Council vehicles analyst Luke Tonachel, "but walking,
biking, and transit are all cleaner still." 

Switching to electric cars also does little or nothing to improve street safety, decrease congestion, or promote good urban design — impacts that also benefit more sustainable modes of transport. Which seems to have been overlooked elsewhere, even in countries with enlightened transportation policies. As Charles Komanoff wrote on Streetsblog in November, Denmark’s roughly $40,000 tax on conventional automobiles doesn’t apply to electric vehicles, and EVs get free parking in downtown Copenhagen — big perks that will lead more people to drive and fewer to bike or use transit. So is New York City planning to subsidize electric cars the same way they’re doing in Denmark?

Thankfully, the PlaNYC report doesn’t recommend using financial incentives to push people toward electric vehicles. "The absence of endorsements for such subsidies is a strong signal that the Bloomberg administration does not intend to follow Denmark’s mistake of subsidizing EVs in ways that would encourage more driving," said Komanoff. "This is very good news."

Instead, the report offers policies that mainly remove barriers for people already willing to pay a premium to own an electric car. The recommendations are pretty mild, like educating potential buyers about electric vehicles and then assisting them in finding or installing charging equipment. (The report also includes some fascinating insights into the psychology of early EV adopters. Because "not only do early adopters want to be the first on their block to own the latest vehicle technology, they would like everyone else on their block to be aware of this fact as well," it suggests recognizing early adopters, perhaps by planting trees in front of their homes.)

The big policy choices will come when or if the city decides to promote electric vehicle usage beyond the small set of early adopters. If electric vehicle production scales up in the next few years, the report suggests that the city should expand its focus to a new set of consumers. The city’s response targeted at those consumers is the one to watch out for.

  • Out of curiosity: GaryG, are you by any chance Mixner by another name? The similarities between you, Mixner, Watson on Human Transit (maybe even Adams, I’m less sure), and Gordy on The Transport Politic, are striking. It’s not just POV – there are lots of pro-highway commenters around, though not that many who fight on emissions. The commenting style is the same (lurk on most threads, stay in for tens of comments on a few threads), the argumentation style is the same, the writing style is the same. You even see a distinct evolution in the response to the FTA links I’m using – it’s as if each commenter has read the threads involving the others but never responded. You see me evolve, too, but I don’t claim to be four different people. It’s not like with, say, me and Cap’n Transit, where we argue different issues, have different debating styles, and aren’t necessarily perfectly familiar with the latest trends in each other’s comment thread debates.

    I don’t mind this, and I’m happy to debate substance, but I just want to know if you’re the same person I’ve argued with on the Austin Contrarian or TTP or wherever.

  • Back on topic:

    Apart from the obvious problem that you cannot simply assume that the fuel-efficiency ratio for autos vs. subway is the same as the emissions ratio

    Um, no. The numbers given in the FTA presentation are emissions in pounds per passenger-mile. They state that for cars they give single-occupancy, i.e. 20.3 mpg. This means the subway gets 114.5 passenger-mpg, and average-occupancy cars get 32. You don’t need the FTA for that, though – you can look up the conversion on the EPA website, and get the same number. And, by the way, if 0.96 pounds/mile corresponded to average occupancy and not minimum occupancy, it’d give an emissions figure of 183 passenger-mpg, not 71.

    At any rate, the important number is emissions. The only reason I’m bringing up mpg is that it’s a more familiar measure, at least to a US audience (European cars routinely report grams CO2/km on posters, and I never know whether that’s efficient or not without looking it up).

    If you want, you can globally replace “X passenger-mpg” with “19.5/X pounds CO2/passenger-mile” in my comments (yes, even for buses – I adjusted the figures to account for diesel’s higher emissions).

    I see nothing in the FTA document you link to stating that buses consume 50% more fuel per mile in New York than in the rest of the U.S.

    Go to page 20 of the PDF (that’s page 11 with the numbering at the bottom of the text). It lists fuel economy for CBDs in general and Manhattan; the Manhattan figures are readily seen to be marginally lower than those the MTA reports for the city overall. Page 39 of the PDF lists carbon emissions.

    I’ve been kind to transit by assuming an average auto occupancy of only 1.6. In fact, the National Household Transportation Survey found that the average occupancy of automobiles in New York City is 1.68.

    Does that include the same mixture of trips taken on the subway? The subway is used predominantly, but not only, by commuters. Leisure trips are a different matter.

    Smeed’s Law does not hold in the United States.

    Except that the paper I linked to asserts that it does, and shows how US data through 1995 fits a Smeed curve pretty well. The fit isn’t perfect and there’s noise in the data, especially around 1980, but it’s there.

  • garyg

    glenn,

    I don’t think small electric vehicles could completely replace mass transit in New York City at the current population level and with the current distribution of people and jobs around the city. But they could replace some of it. Congestion is obviously a huge problem in Manhattan at rush hour, but there are plenty of other times and places in NYC where there is idle road capacity. In any case, I haven’t been arguing for electric cars as a comprehensive solution to the problems of transportation in New York. I’ve been rebutting the claim in Noah Kazis’s post that transit is cleaner than electric vehicles. You can contrive scenarios in which a given trip would be cleaner by transit than by electric car, but in a general sense there’s just no plausible basis for the claim that transit is cleaner.

  • garyg

    Alon Levy,

    And, by the way, if 0.96 pounds/mile corresponded to average occupancy and not minimum occupancy, it’d give an emissions figure of 183 passenger-mpg, not 71.

    But 0.96 pounds/mile does not correspond to average occupancy. You have used the number for minimum occupancy as if it were the number of average occupancy. That’s why your calculation is bogus. Using your own assumptions and data sources, the efficiency of the New York subway is about 71 passenger-mpg, not 114.5 as you falsely claimed. That means that even today’s Toyota Prius is more efficient than the NY subway. And the Nissan Leaf is more efficient by an even greater margin than it would be if your bogus number were correct.

    Go to page 20 of the PDF (that’s page 11 with the numbering at the bottom of the text). It lists fuel economy for CBDs in general and Manhattan;

    Manhattan is not New York City. It’s only one borough of the city. Not even the largest borough. Your claim was that transit buses “consume 50% more fuel per mile in New York than in the rest of the US.” There is nothing in the document you cited that substantiates that claim. It is pure invention on your part.

    Does that include the same mixture of trips taken on the subway? The subway is used predominantly, but not only, by commuters. Leisure trips are a different matter.

    It is the average number of passengers per auto across all auto types and all trip types. You have produced no evidence to support the claim that “the subway is used predominantly … by commuters,” nor have you presented any argument as to why that claim would be relevant to the issue even if it were true.

    Except that the paper I linked to asserts that it does, and shows how US data through 1995 fits a Smeed curve pretty well.

    No, the paper you cited does not assert that it does. As far as I can see, there is no data or statements in the paper you cited referring to fatalities per capita at all. You claimed that Smeed’s Law means that “more cars means more fatalities per capita” and that highway fatalities have been following this “law.” The government data I presented in #35 unambiguously refutes your claim for highway fatalities in the U.S. over at least the past three decades. Fatalities per capita has been declining since at least 1980, even though the number of vehicles, the numbers of VMTs and the population have all increased dramatically.

  • garyg

    Alon Levy,

    They state that for cars they give single-occupancy, i.e. 20.3 mpg. This means the subway gets 114.5 passenger-mpg, and average-occupancy cars get 32. You don’t need the FTA for that, though – you can look up the conversion on the EPA website, and get the same number.

    You still haven’t explained how you calculated your bogus number of “114.5”. As far as I can tell, you got this number by dividing the emissions number for “Private auto (SOV)” by the emissions number for “New York City subway” and then multiplying the result by the fuel efficiency number for “Private auto (SOV).” So that’s 0.96/0.17 * 20.3 = 114.6.

    The reason this is bogus is that you are mixing the minimum occupancy for autos with the average occupancy for the NY subway. It’s apples and oranges. You need to use the average occupancy for autos, not the minimum occupancy. And at average occupancy of 1.6, your data source yields an average emissions for autos of 0.96/1.6 = 0.6 pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile.

    So your calculation for the efficiency of the New York subway in passenger-mpg is 0.6/0.17 * 20.3 = 71.6. Not 114.5.

  • garyg

    ok, so it seems your main beef if Noah accepts a quote from the NRDC at face value that transit (along with the other primary urban transportation modes) are cleaner than cars, even electric ones. Your first point above was:

    Some transit is a lot cleaner than some cars, but on average transit is at best only slightly cleaner than cars. I don’t see how transit is cleaner than electric cars that are four times as efficient as the average existing car.

    The point of this article is that these “four times as efficient” electric cars have almost zero uptake in the market right now and if they did they would steal share from cleaner modes. Even in looking at new car sales, non-hybrid electric isn’t even on the map. Basically, you’re trying to say that a technology that hasn’t even proven itself in the marketplace and probably won’t be competitive because of the large upfront costs (which are probably a reflection of the higher embedded energy costs of electric cars) is a cleaner alternative.

    In addition, you refuse to address a more apples to apples comparison: All electric buses to all electric cars. Conventional buses to conventional cars would be the other apples to apples comparison.

  • sorry – only first paragraph should be in blockquote…

  • garyg

    Glenn,

    You seem to have messed up your blockquote. Only the first paragraph is mine. (The comments system on this blog needs a preview button.) The NRDC statement I was rebutting in the text of mine you quote is as follows: “Electric cars are cleaner than conventional vehicles … but walking, biking, and transit are all cleaner still.” As I have explained, there is no plausible basis for the claim that transit is cleaner than electric cars. The current sales rates of hybrid and electric vehicles is irrelevant to this point. And I haven’t “refused to address” a comparison of “all electric buses to electric cars.” The NRDC quote refers to “transit,” not “all electric buses.”

    If you think electric buses (and I assume you mean electric trolley buses, not electric motor buses) are a realistic alternative to the current NYCT bus fleet, why don’t you call or email NYCT and ask them why they aren’t using them? I suspect the answer will be some combination of practical, political and economic considerations. I seriously doubt that most New Yorkers would be willing to accept the costs to their city in terms of money, disruption and aesthetic loss from stringing overhead power lines along all of the city’s bus routes, or even just the major ones. But that’s just my guess. If you really want to know, ask NYCT.

  • Garyg (or Mixner or whoever you are): the FTA presentation says that on average cars emit 0.96 pounds/mile and get 20.3 mpg. And the EPA has its own pounds to mpg conversion… Passenger numbers have nothing to do with this. So, yes, 0.17 pounds/passenger-mile does mean 114.5 passenger-mpg, not 71. And, again, if 20.3 were the average efficiency of cars per passenger mile and not vehicle mile, then cars would look worse, not better.

    You can’t make assertions about the nature of car commuters and then ask me to refute it. But if you do want evidence for the predominance of commuters on transit, go to the ACS website, see how many people ride transit to work in the five boroughs, and multiple the number by two. You’ll get a very large fraction of daily MTA ridership. Manhattan workers alone are about 50%.

    Well, you can make those assertions, but they’re plain wrong.

    As for bus efficiency, go back to the FTA paper on fuel economy, and look at the numbers given for buses in Manhattan. Then look at the NYTimes link I gave above quoting the MTA on bus efficiency citywide. Manhattan is barely lower – it’s something like 3.9 versus 4 mpg for hybrids and 2.6 versus 2.75 for non-hybrids. And, bear in mind, the comparison in the study is to other CBDs, which are on the more congested streets to begin with.

  • If you think electric buses (and I assume you mean electric trolley buses, not electric motor buses) are a realistic alternative to the current NYCT bus fleet, why don’t you call or email NYCT and ask them why they aren’t using them?

    They used to use electric vehicles, but due to government enticements they replaced them with diesel buses in the 1950s.

    And why don’t you call or email the 97% of the US population that’s not buying hybrid-electric vehicles and asking why the aren’t using them?

  • There’s this senior designer from GM that will tell you that cars don’t fit in the future http://www.earth.columbia.edu/videos/watch/116.

    They are too big; use too much space — not enough space on this planet when you consider India and China — and resources; kill too many people.

    So, ultimately, this migration to eCars is not much more than a glorified “Cash for Clunkers” program.

    With the world’s largest industries deeply entrenched in the automobile industry — insurance, finance, electronics, automobile, advertising, media — the concept is that the automobile industry is “too big to fail” and all the “experts” do not seem to see a clear transition from this highly destructive and wasteful technology; Oh! the jobs that will be lost they rant!

    A clear clean transition does exist and it is quite straight forward and easy and will produce a much better world.

  • Electric trolley buses linked to overhead electric wires are a very mature technology and have widespread use throughout the world. The rolling stock lasts a LONG time. Ever notice how old some of the SF electric buses look? That’s because they are old.

    Let’s see how many electric cars are still on the road in 30 years and how many batteries they’ve gone through.

  • Jason

    I presented an essay on a similar topic at Transportation Research Board last month. I focused on low speed vehicles.

    If you are interested, I’ll leave the PDF up for a while:

    http://people.clemson.edu/~myers8/10-1315.pdf

    (You can always find this document on the 2010 TRB DVD.)

    I believe that there is a lot of room to improve cities through the adoption of these vehicles. In some ways, they are rolling traffic calming. I haven’t read the NYC document, but I couldn’t find the words “taxi” or “cab” in them. I think there is a tremendous potential to use electric low speed vehicles as cabs…if the regulatory system was changed to allow them to charge lower fairs.

  • Giffen

    I’m a little late to the discussion. Catching up on the discussion, I think that garyg successfully defended the proposition that public transit in NYC is not significantly cleaner than electric cars.

    (Just before I’m attacked, let me point out that I do not mention the other problems with electric cars (space, danger), which I think are a bigger issue than pollution.)

  • I’m a little late to the discussion. Catching up on the discussion, I think that garyg successfully defended the proposition that public transit in NYC is not significantly cleaner than electric cars.

    (Just before I’m attacked …)

    Is it an “attack” to point out that you don’t give any justification for your conclusion, and there’s no particular point to your comment other than to support Garyg?

    I happen to think that Glenn and Alon won the argument, but because it’s just an impression, I wouldn’t bother saying it if I didn’t see your comment.

    Even if Garyg is right, what he seems to be suggesting is that the city spend lots of money providing infrastructure for electric cars. This is money that would not be available to spend on transit, thus leading to a decline in transit quality and encouraging people to shift from transit to these electric cars. Because of the multiple benefits of transit outside of fuel efficiency and pollution reduction (which you acknowledge), this would be a disaster.

  • Giffen

    What’s my point?

    Transit advocates should focus on the real problem with electric/hybrid cars — they take up large amounts of public space, they are expensive and thus provide unequal access, they have low effective speed in an urban environment, they isolate the drivers from the consequences of their actions and provide the same hazard to pedestrians as normal cars.

    I think it’s counterproductive to base criticism of them on particle/CO2 emissions when, in fact, that’s the one place where they are rather innocuous.

  • Okay, I agree completely with that point, Giffen.

  • I think that garyg successfully defended the proposition that public transit in NYC is not significantly cleaner than electric cars.

    Did you actually check out the calculations? For the last 5 comments or so, his argument amounted to pulling a factor of 1.6 reduction in transit efficiency out of thin air. Go to the EPA link above, read its mpg-to-emissions conversion, and do you own calculation. 19.4 pounds CO2 per gallon of gasoline divided by 0.17 pounds/passenger-mile equals 114 passenger-mpg.

  • There are so factors that go into measuring the carbon footprint of electric vehicles vs. mass transit apart from fuel consumer per passenger mile, including cost of vehicle production and maintenance as well as environmental impact of electricity production, as Charles points out. And then there are the other uncaptured environemntal costs that personal motor vehicle travel imposes on society, such as injuries and deaths from crashes, public health burden of morbidity and mortality due to drivers who never wlak anywhere, noise (pointed out above) and privatization of transportation infrastructure which undermines the political conditions necessary to achieve good mass transit. Then there are the societal benefits of people interacting face to face with each other in a mass transit context instead of cocooning themselves in padded neurotic personal motor vehicle travel.

    considering the big picture, mass transit wins out over electric cars.

  • Phil

    We are social creatures. Doesn’t it go against our very nature to spend hours a day in isolation, only seeing humanity through a windsheild?

  • garyg

    Alon Levy,

    Did you actually check out the calculations? For the last 5 comments or so, his argument amounted to pulling a factor of 1.6 reduction in transit efficiency out of thin air. Go to the EPA link above, read its mpg-to-emissions conversion, and do you own calculation. 19.4 pounds CO2 per gallon of gasoline divided by 0.17 pounds/passenger-mile equals 114 passenger-mpg

    I’ve explained your error to you repeatedly, but you still don’t seem to understand it. Here is that explanataion yet again, using the EPA data you cite above: 19.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline at 20.3 mpg average automobile fuel economy is 19.4/20.3 = 0.96 pounds of CO2 per mile. That’s per VEHICLE-mile, NOT per passenger-mile. To get the passenger-mile figure, you need to divide the vehicle-mile figure by the average vehicle occupancy, which is 1.6 (actually, for NYC, it’s 1.68, but we’ll err on the side of transit and use the lower number). 0.96/1.6 = 0.6 pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile. So your calculation is (0.6/0.17)*20.3 = 71 passenger-mpg. I don’t know whether you’re incapable of understanding the difference between vehicle-miles and passenger-miles or just pretending to not understand it, but either way your 114 number is simply incorrect.

  • Garyg: no, passenger-miles means that the subway gets 114 and the average car gets 32.

    You’re double-counting that 1.6 factor.

  • Boris

    Sorry if I’m stating the obvious, but garyg is saying that if average vehicle occupancy doubled tomorrow (because of congestion pricing, for example), subway efficiency would fall by half to 30.5 mpg. That makes no sense. I don’t see why AVO and subway efficiency should be interrelated.

  • garyg

    garyg is saying that if average vehicle occupancy doubled tomorrow (because of congestion pricing, for example), subway efficiency would fall by half to 30.5 mpg.

    garyg hasn’t said anything remotely like that.

  • Boris

    Sorry, 36. Doubling occupancy to 3.2:

    0.96/3.2 = 0.3 pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile
    (0.3/0.17)*20.3 = 35.8 passenger-mpg

  • garyg

    Boris,

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. Nowhere have I said or suggested that any change in average vehicle occupancy would reduce the efficiency of the subway.

    You also seem to be confused about the numbers. 0.96 is the amount of CO2, in pounds per vehicle-mile, emitted by the average automobile. Since the average automobile has 1.6 occupants, this works out to 0.96/1.6 = 0.6 pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile. The corresponding figure for the NY subway is 0.17. So the average auto emits 0.6/0.17 = 3.5 times as much CO2 per passenger-mile as the NY subway. If we express this using fuel efficiency in mpg as a proxy for CO2 emissions, this means the NY subway gets the equivalent of 20.3 * 3.5 = 71 passenger-miles per gallon. Not 114 as Alon Levy still falsely claims.

  • Nope. The average auto gets 20.3 vehicle-miles per gallon, and 32 passenger-miles per gallon.

    Seriously. Read the links.

  • Boris

    Um, I’m not sure how to make this any simpler. I thought that the 0.6 in the 0.6/0.17 = 3.5 calculation comes from the 0.96/1.6 = 0.6 calculation. Are they numbers from different sources and just happen to both equal to 0.6?

  • garyg

    Boris,

    I thought that the 0.6 in the 0.6/0.17 = 3.5 calculation comes from the 0.96/1.6 = 0.6 calculation.

    It does. 0.6 is the CO2 emissions, in pounds, per passenger-mile for the average auto at average occupancy. This is about 3.5 times the CO2 emissions, in pounds, for the NY subway at average occupancy (0.6/0.17 = 3.5). I don’t know what part of this you don’t understand.

  • I’m glad you’re no longer repeating the factor-of-1.6 distortion.

  • re: “the PlaNYC report doesn’t recommend using financial incentives to push people toward electric vehicles.”

    Seems that on page 19 tax rebates and parking discounts are listed. I think it is good to incentivize the shift to EVs, and financial carrots are the easiest to persuade people (“what’s in it for me?”). Saints are in the minority. You want the hardly-green people to take note of what the deep-greens are getting as rewards, which is why I think the Danes are smart (http://grushhour.blogspot.com/2009/12/insane-dane-car-give-away.html). The trick is to correctly scale such rewards in monetary value (totally free, is indeed Daned alarming) and to shut them down soon enough.

    Parking-wise, why not paint lines closer to squeeze in more tiny cars and set fines for spilling over the lines. That rewards smaller cars (presummably more likely EVs) without offering discounts AND raises money for the trees promised for early adopters (page 19, third from last).

    And raise street rates while you’re at it…

  • How EVs and road-pricing are connected.

    The Mayor’s report lists a number of early incentives on page 19. Some of these can be delivered and the list can be extended with on-board devices that manage parking (for payment automation, parking finders, loyalty programs and green-rewards), and pay-as-you-drive insurance. So on the uptake side, technology can deliver value to encourage EV purchase, but once penetration starts, how are these vehicles to pay for road use? You can forget taxing electricity at the rates required for road user fees. The answer is some form of road-use charging, and TDP is the best. So if NYC said, “here are a handful of financial incentives, and the easy way to get them is with a road-use meter,” NYC would have those early adopters establish the installed base of road-use meters for road use charging by 2015-2020, as will be needed anyway. Win-Win.

    http://grushhour.blogspot.com/2010/02/how-electric-cars-and-pay-as-you-go-are.html

  • for the record

    garyg = Mixner = Wendell Cox, in one of his many sockpuppetting guises.

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