Azara Blog: Rethinking Personal Mobility: Policy, Technology and Systems Thinking

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Date published: 2009/01/20

Bernie Bulkin (of the so-called Sustainable Development Commission, and many other things) gave a talk today in St Edmund's College as part of a series on "Adaptation to Climate Change". The title of his talk was "Rethinking Personal Mobility: Policy, Technology and Systems Thinking".

Transport is not responsible for that high a percentage of world carbon emissions, but almost all of transport uses oil as the fundamental source of the fuel. Bulkin showed a graph of global energy supply and what happens to it, and the claim is that overall something like 60% of energy is wasted (in the sense of not producing effective work, rather than in the sense of somebody doing something you happen not to like), but with transport it is more like 75%.

He claimed that after the 1973 oil embargo the fuel efficiency of US (and European) vehicles almost doubled, and that the same could happen again now without any technological breakthrough. Well, if so, that is obviously some "low hanging fruit" that the world should be aiming to pick on the path to low emissions.

He said he was interested in a systems approach, and scathingly remarked how poor government was at doing a proper analysis of anything, and often made the situation worse because they have not thought the situation through properly. He mentioned the so-called London congestion charge as an example. This just treated the symptom (crowded roads) rather than the fundamental problem (how and why people get around). So after an initial drop the congestion gets worse again and the government of course increases the tax. (All the time blaming the car driver.) Repeat ad infinitum.

Bulkin claimed that he once had a chat with Alistair Darling (when he was Transport Secretary) about road pricing (the academic middle class solution to all transport problems) and asked whether this would actually reduce carbon emissions. Unbelievably apparently Darling (a) didn't know and (b) didn't care.

Bulkin next talked about biofuels. So, do biofuels have a significant impact on food prices. Well he didn't give a definitive view, but he did point out that from a farmer's point of view, biofuels are useful because it provides a source of diversification of demand. In any case, the biofuels that Bulkin wanted to push are those that come from waste products. So apparently even at the best paper mills in the world, half the tree that comes in does not get converted to paper, but instead ends up as a "black liquor". Bulkin claimed that at around 45 dollars a barrel for oil then it was viable to convert this "waste" product into fuel. (He didn't have time to go into the details.)

He then moved onto the electrification of road transport. He quoted David MacKay's Sustainable Energy - without the hot air as saying that the average UK vehicle currently uses around 80 kwh per 100 km driven and that the average electric vehicle requires only about 15 kwh. Well, it is pretty obvious that cars are going to be electric in a decade or two, so that is an "easy" factor of 5 gain in efficiency. (Needless to say, this will not please many academic middle class people because they are philosophically opposed to cars, except for those that they themselves drive of course.)

One idea that might be plausible is that when there are N million electric cars plugged into the grid then it could be possible to balance out other electricity demand by sucking power from the cars some of the time (when the car's owner decided this was ok, in particular, given the right price) instead of always just charging the car battery. Well, this is a clever enough idea, the question is can it be made to work sensibly. (Never trust academics on this kind of thing. The power engineers would have a better idea.)

He then moved onto high speed rail travel, by which he meant trains that go faster than 350 km/hr. He believed that Britain should build a complete parallel network for these trains. And he produced some figures which purport to show that train travel from London to Paris is six times as efficient as air travel, and that train travel is almost twice as efficient as car travel (with a suitable assumption of load factors). Unfortunately, as always, he was only quoting the direct energy cost and not the (huge) indirect energy cost (mostly down to labour). So these numbers have to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

And he completely left open the question of who is going to pay for this development. For some reason train passengers always think that the rest of society should subsidise their "sustainable" journey (of course since the passenger is not willing to pay the full cost of their journey, it is really not "sustainable"). Bulkin pointed out that most of the benefit of the current train system goes to the middle class and the upper middle class. But one reason is because the service is massively subsidised. If they paid for it then it would be hard to quibble with the outcome (although no doubt someone would).

As a side remark, he noted that passenger numbers had gone up again since privatisation and credited the latter with this.

At the end there were questions. Someone bizarrely tried to blame the current love affair with the car on some law passed in the 1640s. Apparently you cannot be paid to drive someone in your car (unless you are licensed, etc.). Well, the idea that this is why people like driving their car alone is a bizarre academic middle class fantasy.

There were a couple of good questions. Someone pointed out that all this conversion to an electrified road transport system meant there was going to be a large amount of emissions (well, or equivalently, cost) up front and nobody ever talked about how long the payback period was. Bulkin just said that this could be analysed (but funnily enough, not many people talk about it). He even said that one of the problems with analysing these investments where the system was going to be in place decades was that the discount factor meant that any value after (say) 15 years was pretty well ignored. Well, perhaps the discount factor is wrong, one would be stupid not to look at the sensitivity to that. Bulkin mentioned the Victorian infrastructure that Britain was still happy to use. Well of course Britain is still happy to use it. That doesn't mean that the Victorians should have been happy to pay for this over-engineering. (And of course in some sense they didn't. They raped and pillaged their colonies to pay for this stuff.)

And someone pointed out that although rail passenger numbers had increased, rail passenger miles had increased even more, because people were living further and further from their workplace. And high speed rail was bound to make this worse. Bulkin remarked that some MIT study showed that people were willing to put up with a commute of an hour a day. (Well, perhaps that is the case in the US. In the UK many people do more than that one way.) The questioner wanted to know whether it was a good thing that high speed rail would encourage people to live even further from their work, and Bulkin didn't really answer that. Again, if rail passengers actually paid for their journeys then it wouldn't matter that they lived further and further from their workplace, because it should be up to people how to live their lives.

Then the usual academic middle class question one gets in these kinds of talks came up. The questioner wanted to know why Bulkin wasn't going to force people to change their lifestyle, i.e. not drive cars. This is an academic middle class control freak fixation. How dare the peasants drive their cars without the permission of the academic middle class. The peasants should be forced to take buses. Bulkin unfortunately just mumbled a few words and didn't try and take the questioner on. Well he is a member of the Sustainable Development Committee, which is run by these kind of academic middle class control freaks. So perhaps he has some sympathy with this pernicious view.

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