The distance travelled in autos each day by CRD residents continues to grow, but there is a surge in the uptake of all-electric cars.
THE REGION'S LATEST EXAMINATION of how people here currently choose to get from point A to point B as they go about their daily lives has been released by the CRD. And, no surprise, the Origin Destination Travel Survey, based on the participation of 7,159 households last fall, shows that about 84 percent of the total distance travelled by CRD residents takes place in private automobiles. And, in 2017, we collectively drove—or were driven—an additional 50,000 kilometres each day in private autos, compared with 2011.
Victorians’ overwhelming preference to travel by automobile isn’t much different from, say, residents of London, Ontario, the Canadian city closest to ours in population. There, 88 percent of the total distance travelled each day is done in private automobiles. Victoria’s slightly lower level of auto reliance is made up for by a higher rate of transit usage.
One of the most interesting findings in the CRD’s $330,000 survey was a 19-fold increase—since the last survey in 2011—in the number of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) in our region. You read that correctly: a 19-fold increase. My neighbour, who now drives a Nissan Leaf, is part of a growing trend.
My neighbour’s Nissan Leaf. The 2018 version can travel about 150 miles on a full charge.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this trend is that it wasn’t highlighted in any way by the CRD. Why is that intriguing? Think about it. The dominant preference for travel in our region is by private automobile, and that preference is essentially stable. At the same time, there is an accelerating uptake of all-electric private automobiles. Our strong preference to get from A to B in our cars, along with the growth in electric vehicle ownership, suggests an obvious pathway the CRD could encourage to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions. Yet the CRD chose not to highlight this emerging pathway in its own analysis of the survey’s results. Why?
I’ll address that question later. First let me outline why lack of leadership from the CRD on the electrification of regional transportation could slow down the uptake of electric vehicles—the most obvious pathway for reducing transportation emissions.
It’s well known that the shift from gasoline-fuelled automobiles to BEVs is being driven by public policies that assist that shift. Financial incentives to purchase BEVs have made a significant difference in those jurisdictions where the shift to BEVs is advancing—like Norway. In BC, the Province has financial incentives in place—currently up to $5,000 against the purchase price of a BEV. But other incentives make a difference, too, like allowing BEVs to travel in HOV lanes, and free parking. Public charging infrastructure will be required, and unless local governments move quickly and visibly to provide that, they are telegraphing hesitation and doubt to potential early adopters.
That infrastructure needs to be out on the streets, funded with public money. If the 19-fold increase in BEVs measured by the CRD’s latest survey holds up for the next five years, there could be as many as 30,000 BEVs in use by then. That would knock a significant hole in the region’s daily emissions.
If the CRD’s analysis of its survey didn’t promote the surge in electric vehicle use, what did it emphasize? That’s best illustrated in a June 26 article in the Times-Colonist headlined “More people in capital travelling by bus, bike and on foot.” The paper quotes Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, chair of the CRD’s Transportation Committee: “As we see the trend—slowly we’re moving toward more people walking, biking and busing…So I think it’s very positive.”
The most attention-worthy word in Jensen’s statement is “slowly.” After all, the CRD’s survey shows that the distance travelled in autos each day by CRD residents has actually increased since the last survey. In other words, the single largest source of emissions produced locally—travel in fossil-fuel-powered automobiles—is getting larger. Why, when there is an urgent need to reduce emissions, would any politician describe the trend of increasing emissions as “very positive”?
Perhaps the reason is that the CRD’s official transportation plan focuses on increasing the level of “active” modes of transportation, like cycling and walking—and running to catch the bus. As long as some increase in those modes can be detected—no matter how small their contribution is to overall travel—politicians like Jensen can claim that the CRD is meeting its objective. Don’t worry, we’re on it.
Let me push your be-very-worried button for a moment.
Last year, climate scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found a five-percent probability that there will be a three-degree-celsius increase in average global temperature (above the pre-industrial era average) by 2050. That level of increase would lead to what the scientists termed a “high impact” on human and natural systems. They reckoned such a scenario could lead to “catastrophic” effects on human civilization.
Five percent? Why worry? On that question, one of the study’s authors, Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathanb, noted, “When we say a five-percent-probability high-impact event, people may dismiss it as small but it is equivalent to a 1-in-20 chance the plane you are about to board will crash. We would never get on that plane with a 1-in-20 chance of it coming down but we are willing to send our children and grandchildren on that plane.”
Humanity has, sort of, collectively decided not to get on that plane. Canada gave up its boarding pass when it signed on to the Paris climate agreement. As a consequence, the federal government has set a target of 150 megatonnes for total emissions by 2050—just over 30 years from now. But Canada’s transportation sector alone accounts for 173 megatonnes right now. Here’s how hard that’s going to be to meet: Victoria drivers of fossil-fuelled cars would have needed to reduce the total distance they travelled each day by 15 percent since the last CRD travel survey in 2011. Instead, the distance we travelled went up.
Moreover, the CRD’s travel survey misses a significant portion of vehicle use by residents of the region. Commercial truck use and trips made for commercial or business purposes are not included in its survey. Given these undercounts, it’s prudent to assume that the effort and money spent on moving more people toward walking, biking and busing has not significantly impacted regional transportation emissions.
By the way, if you are hoping that increases in fuel efficiency for internal combustion engines will allow us to keep buying gasoline-powered vehicles, consider this: A 2015 study by the University of Michigan showed that between 1991 and 2015, US vehicle fleet fuel economy increased by only 6 percent.
Let’s go back to the question of why the CRD didn’t bother to emphasize that 19-fold increase in the use of BEVs.
I asked John Hicks, the CRD’s transportation planner in charge of the survey, why that shift hadn’t been highlighted. Hicks said, “the number of BEVs themselves are still very small and the 19-fold increase came off of a very low base of only 100 in 2011. It is therefore not possible to identify any concrete trends based on the limited data that we have available.”
Hicks is right about the danger of using small numbers to predict trends, but shouldn’t that apply to changes in the use of, say, bicycles, too. In 2011, CRD residents used bicycles for 1.7 percent of the total distance they travelled each day. By 2017 that had risen to 3.0 percent. That 1.3 percent increase over 6 years is a small number too, about 0.2 percent per year. But that hasn’t prevented Jensen and others from assessing it as a “very positive” trend.
Besides, the CRD needs to pay attention to what’s happening in other progressive places—like Norway—as the number of manufacturers and the driving range of electric vehicles grows, and lower-cost models become available. In the last month for which data is available (April 2018), BEVs accounted for 37 percent of new car sales in Norway. Why is that happening? Norway’s federal transportation plan calls for all new passenger cars and vans sold in 2025 to be zero-emission vehicles.
That’s where we are headed. The CRD can either facilitate that, or dither over whether it’s really happening.
As it turns out, the CRD is waking up. Last June it quietly (no local media covered it) sought public input for its “brand new Electric Vehicle and Electric Bicycle Infrastructure Planning Project.” The survey sought “to better understand regional interest in—and opportunities for—new charging infrastructure across the region.” The CRD’s Nikki Elliott told Focus that nearly 700 responses were received. Results were not available at the time of our inquiry.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.