Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Plans for electric vehicles fuel bicyclists' tempers

One would think, at first blush, that environmentally-minded bicyclists would support the development and deployment of non-polluting electric cars -- especially if they knew that the electricity to power the vehicles was being supplied by renewable energy sources like wind.

Not so fast. Bicycle loving residents of Amsterdam are resisting the government's plans to introduce 10,000 electric cars into the city by 2015. Automobiles (be they electric or internal-combusting) crowd their tiny streets, leaving less room for bikes. Bottom line: bicyclists fear that government subsidies and public support for electric vehicles could put a big squeeze on them. (GW)

A pro-bicycle city faces trouble promoting electric cars

Evan Lehmann
December 21, 2009

AMSTERDAM -- Cars in the pinched, medieval streets at the center of this city can quickly clog traffic. The policy has been to find myriad ways to discourage them, clearing the way for more and more bicyclists.

The Dutch have tried stiff fees, a maze of prohibited lanes and other ways of outright discrimination to limit the number of cars in this antique city of arched bridges and canals. It was originally built to cater to boats.

The city's charm campaign was then shifted to bicyclists, but now officials are trying to switch gears and mount an aggressive effort to encourage people to buy new electric cars. That jibes with this country's fight against global warming, but it is also warming the tempers among cyclists. They worry that their traditional right-of-way over cars will be sideswiped by more cars and more parking ramps.

The city council is giving free power to new electric car owners for the next two years and has agreed to pay half of the extra cost of purchasing plug-in vehicles, as compared to cheaper gasoline-powered models. The city might even carve out a reserved parking space with fuel access and front-door approach for new owners. That's a jackpot in this space-squeezed city.

There is electricity in the air here. Amsterdam wants to have 10,000 electric cars in the city by 2015, and four times that number by 2020. In 30 years, every car here is expected to whir quietly on electricity. The city has already installed 19 charging points in the last month. Motorists can fill up and zip off without dropping a dime.

"Now we're going to explode it," said Peter Duijn, who manages the electric car program.

Dikes may have freeways, but not inner cities

There is an underlying context to this climate movement. The Dutch refuse to drown. And they are not hesitant about blaming greenhouse gases for accelerating the rise of sea levels and increasing downpours that cause riverine flooding.

Amsterdam is a low-lying city veined with canals and the Amstel River, which leads to the IJ Bay and on to the North Sea. About 40 percent of the country is below sea level, and in 1933, the IJ was separated from the ocean with a 20-mile dike that transformed the brackish bay into a huge freshwater lake. It was meant to prevent flooding.

The dike also has a freeway running across its top. Trucks and cars race along its sea-sprayed lanes. It's an older piece of the Netherlands' ongoing "Delta Works," a massive infrastructure program spanning decades that's meant to keep the country above water by creating a new coastline. Much of the country's shoreline is now buffered from the sea by man-made walls.

The Dutch don't see another choice. A sprawling belt of the Netherlands, reaching north to Germany and south to Belgium, is at least 1 meter below sea level. Without the coastal walls and an elaborate series of dikes and pumps that push the water out, nearly half of the country would already be underwater.

"We need protection. That's the end," said Pieter Jacobs, a water management official with the Dutch government.

'Afraid' of more cars, even electrics

The promotion of electric cars is seen as a crucial step toward meeting the city's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2025, a level that's twice as ambitious as the plan proposed in the U.S. Senate.

"We think it's high time cities take a position" on climate change, said Marijke Vos, a former member of Parliament who is now Amsterdam's environment alderwoman.

Not everyone is excited about the emergence of cars that plug into the wall like a vacuum cleaner, and the city's emphatic promotion of them. The Netherlands breed bicyclists. The narrow streets of Amsterdam siphon legions of upright riders on heavy black bikes to work, pubs and retail stores. Long ribbons of them dominate roadways, passively demanding subservience from their outnumbered counterparts in cars. Couples sometimes ride side by side, holding hands.

Up to now, they have ruled. There are 180,000 parking spots for cars in Amsterdam, compared to 550,000 bicycles. Last year, 38 percent of transportation "movements" in the city were by bicycle, compared to 37 percent by car. In the city center, cyclists reached a critical mass of 55 percent of movements.

"We are afraid. If you add more parking spaces, you get more cars," said Marjolein de Lange, a member of the cycling union Fietsersbond, which is concerned about the electric car program. "We think the cleanest means of transport is the bike. Definitely."

The city budget has shone on cyclists for years by providing bike lanes that are separated from roads, by building soaring parking ramps that hold thousands of bikes, and with anti-theft initiatives that include free tattooing on cycle frames.

Some cars get tossed in canals

Electric cars are the newcomers. The program is expected to cost in total about $15 million. Its emphasis is on replacing gas-powered cars from city streets. "We don't want more cars," said Duijn, who oversees the program.

The program comes as small changes are visible on Amsterdam's roadways. Dozens of Smart cars, the small and fuel-efficient two-seaters with gasoline engines, have reportedly been thrown into the city's canals this year. Also, more gas-powered scooters are racing along the city's bike lanes, where they are legally allowed to roam.

But these are all interlopers to Ria Hilhorst, the city's cycling official. "I think it [bicycling] is the future way of transport. It's very fast. You can go anywhere. It keeps cities livable and safe."

It's unclear if the electric car program will increase the number of vehicles in Amsterdam. But if it did, that might prompt small changes that cause big headaches -- changes, perhaps, like having to wear bike helmets, something that is not seen now.

"If you want to wear a helmet, you're free to," allowed Govert de With, a stringy cyclist who smells like he might have sweated recently. "But it's not part of the culture. You don't really need to. Biking is safe when there's more bikes."

"It's better if there are no cars," he added.


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