Making Sparks Fly
Recent local news headlines sparked a slew of comments from islanders on social media when the constable of St Helier declared that we should be focussing on improving cycling infrastructure in town rather than, amongst other initiatives, encouraging the use of electric vehicles. Don’t switch off* just yet - this has absolutely nothing to do with the ridiculous suggestion that money be wasted on ‘E’ road signs to encourage hybrid vehicle drivers to try their best to coerce the autonomous digital logic busy deep inside their cars to shy away from putting the internal combustion engine to use.
Sorting through the chaff to seek out the real debate in the comments section, I read about the woes of the elderly, with one commenter asking us to imagine her and her septuagenarian friends cycling home from afternoon tea. Maybe it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment, or maybe she isn’t aware that bus travel for the over-sixties is free, meaning there’d be no need for them to take to two wheels in any case... Who knows? Maybe people simply misunderstood the article, which said that the Constable is of the opinion that public money would be better spent on improving St Helier’s cycling infrastructure rather than ploughing public money into electric buses and providing incentives for electric car ownership. Buses are here to stay, so don’t panic, readers - nobody panic! Not to mention that even a diesel bus filled with passengers has got to produce less carbon emissions than twenty or more cars, as well as reducing congestion.
Let’s put things into perspective. The Government of Jersey is plunging vast cash reserves from the coffers into the island budget to plug the so-called black hole, and while Jersey Electricity have not only been upgrading and expanding their EV (electric vehicle) charging network, with a target of fifty charging points islandwide by the end of this year, they’ve also offered to stump up £150,000 to be spent on encouraging low-emissions-vehicle take-up if the government agree to match it, but electric vehicles aren’t cheap. I’ve done some man-maths, and by taking the mean price of a Tesla Model 3 and a BMW i3 (excluding VAT, including GST) and dividing the £300,000 potential incentive pot by 5% of the mean price of those two popular EVs to essentially offer them to prospective buyers ‘GST free’, even that not inconsequential sum of money would only be enough to cover 177 new vehicles. That’s less than 2.5% of the total number of vehicles registered in 2017, according to data from an FOI request.
Then there are electric buses. London’s electric double-deckers reportedly cost around £350,000 each, and allowing for retirements in the fleet, I’ve estimated that Liberty Bus are operating around fifty vehicles. Let’s just say that you don’t have to be Rachel Riley to run the numbers on that one.
The advantages of using an electric car in Jersey are numerous, notably the availability of clean, de-carbonised energy from tidal and nuclear plants in France as well as our very own Energy Recovery Facility at La Colette (see Gallery issue 162 from May 2019), short journeys to minimise downtime while charging plus an established and growing charging network as well as parking incentives, but there are also a few disadvantages - as with everything in life, there’s a balance to strike. With an almost non-existent second-hand market for EVs and high initial purchase costs, owning one right now just isn’t financially viable for the majority of islanders. Some research also suggests that, during its lifetime, an EV will actually consume more energy than an internal combustion engined vehicle from manufacture to destruction, which is a controversial thought. Also, as far as I’m aware, extra duty has been levied on fuel in Jersey since the abolition of road tax to contribute toward the upkeep of our roads - and that makes total sense. The thirstier, and therefore more environmentally damaging your vehicle is, and the more miles you drive, the more wear you’re causing to both the road network and the atmosphere, and the more money you’re contributing toward offsetting the negative effects of both. However, if one day we’re all driving EVs there’ll be nobody burning petrol, so the money to keep our (already dubiously poor) road surfaces will have to come from elsewhere. Levying a charge on electricity sold at public charging stations would likely only affect those without suitable facilities at home, while also possibly failing to generate the required amount of revenue in the future, but I’m sure there’s a solution.
Fundamentally, we should be driving cars less. No, I haven’t lost my mind. Yes, I’m still very much a petrolhead. Cars are convenient, but personally, being stuck in traffic bottlenecks just isn’t worth the pain, so I usually cycle the fifteen miles to work and back in all weathers. I’d get just as wet, albeit a bit less sweaty, on a motorbike yet filtering through traffic takes just as much time and can be more dangerous when you’re sitting on top of an engine, but I think that inching forward in the car still isn’t worth it, personally.
I’m with Constable Crowcroft on this one; let’s get people cycling.
Firstly, it’s a very cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions in the run up to Jersey’s aim to become carbon neutral. Secondly, it’ll reduce congestion on the roads which is excellent news for the car-driving elderley and disabled who are averse to or unable to use buses - not everybody lives on a bus route, after all. Thirdly, if the uptake is high enough, the knock-on effects of cycling when it comes to the population’s overall health will be hugely beneficial, not only on an individual level but also when it comes to reducing the strain on our health service. This means that funds and time can be redirected to those in greater need of care rather than people who could be suffering illnesses as a side-effect of not being as fit as they could be. With a road network tailored towards cyclists and potentially subsidies for e-bikes, means-tested to ensure that the public money required for such an initiative is used efficiently, of course, there’d be less cars on the road. In turn, this would mean safer roads for cyclists, less wear and tear on the road surfaces and, most importantly, cleaner air for everyone to breathe.
Of course, naysayers will cry that there are no shower or parking facilities where they work, but there are businesses already offering secure bicycle parking, lockers and shower facilities for £75 per month, which is £61 less than a month’s worth of paycards and an even bigger saving on a private parking space. That’s without taking into consideration fuel and servicing costs, which would be reduced by using your car less. Consider also that e-bikes can be purchased with interest-free credit and low monthly payments and you might even be able to save money by cycling to work, taking care of the school run on the way with the help of a child seat or two. Can’t balance all of your food shopping on your handlebars on the commute home? Why not take your car to work the one day you tick the weekly food shop off of your list, or take care of that on Saturday? Let’s face it, half of the island are probably already signed up to Hello Fresh and having their dinner ingredients delivered to their doorstep in any case.
There’s a solution for every complaint that somebody who’d rather sit in traffic for nigh-on a couple of hours every day comes up with to avoid cycling, and having an excuse is fine - that’s their prerogative. But if we, as in humans as a collective entity, want to make an impact we’re all going to have to do our bit, and ultimately Jersey will likely eventually ban the sale of non-EVs after a certain date, as has been mandated in other countries already. For the avoidance of panic, that’s a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars, not a ban on the sale of petrol or diesel fuels. I’m by no means a die-hard environmentalist, but just happen to offset the carbon emissions from my love of hideously inefficient old cars and motorbikes (deal with it, Greta Thunberg) by covering at least 80% of my local road miles clipped-into the pedals of my pushbike. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s mainly because I can’t tolerate the boredom of traffic and live in fear of my car disintegrating if it gets wet, but if you’re not a convert already you should give it a try - it’s actually quite rewarding, whatever the weather.
*Pun very much intended.
As featured in issue 165 of Gallery magazine published 1st August 2019. www.gallery.je
Words and images written and illustrated by Russ Atkinson (not to be reproduced without permission).