Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The Commuter Cars Tango electric car is taken for a test drive on the "The EcoXperience" indoor test drive track at the 2010 North American International Auto Show. Mark Blinch/Reuters (MARK BLINCH/MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
The Commuter Cars Tango electric car is taken for a test drive on the "The EcoXperience" indoor test drive track at the 2010 North American International Auto Show. Mark Blinch/Reuters (MARK BLINCH/MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Reguly in Europe

E-cars? How about producing streetcars? Add to ...

The blood transfusion from taxpayer donors is working. The auto industry is slowly reviving. Customers are trickling back into showrooms. Auto shows in Europe and North America are stuffed with new models, the most tantalizing of which are hybrids and all-electric cars. Almost every manufacturer, from GM to Renault, has electric cars on the drawing board, in the concept stage or close to production.

Cars powered by batteries will secure the industry's future, finishing off a recovery story started by the government bailouts. And what's good for the auto industry is good for the economy, the environment, cities and small furry animals. There will be less noise, less smog, less carbon dioxide output. All hail the electric car!

Not everyone is buying the story. Remarkably, some of the non-believers are auto experts who spent entire careers engineering cars and promoting and celebrating the concept of "personal mobility" - defined as a cushy cabin on four wheels - as if it were a birthright.

One doubter is Jan-Welm Bierman, an engineer and professor at the automotive institute of Germany's RWTH Aachen University. At last fall's Stuttgart Auto Show, Mr. Bierman was a panelist at a seminar called "The Future of the Automobile." While his colleagues touted the benefits of electric vehicles, he broke ranks. Hold on, he said: "What cities need is public transport or they will drown in vehicles."

The audience went silent for a moment (I was there). Trying to sell the idea of public transportation at an auto show is like trying to sell knickers at a nudist camp. But Mr. Bierman had a point. Electric cars might be better for the environment (assuming fleets of coal-fired generating plants don't have to be built to supply power to recharge millions of cars). They are not better for cities.

Big cities everywhere are choking on cars. More cars require more roads, more gas stations, more parking lots. In Toronto, front yards give way to parking pads. In European suburbs, green space gives way to highways and malls. In city centres, such as Rome's (where I live), parked cars clutter sidewalks and historic piazzas to the point that it's difficult to walk. True, electric cars are generally smaller than normal cars, but consider this. New electric cars, because of their relatively short ranges, will not replace internal-combustion cars; they will be additions to them. The number of cars on the road will increase as one-car families double up.

The big cities that work best - London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Tokyo, to name a few - are the ones with superb electric public transportation systems, notably subways. Cars may be tolerated (if you pay the extortionate congestions and parking charges) in their centres, but many commuters now consider them more a liability than an asset. In London and Paris, families that can afford cars are doing without because of the expense and hassle factor. Bangkok, which made the mistake of turning its canals into roads, now has a SkyTrain - an elevated tram - that is proving hugely popular. But some mega-cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are embracing the car instead of public transportation. In a few years, they will regret it.

Which brings us to the auto bailouts. Yes, GM and Chrysler had to be saved because the loss of jobs and engineering talent would have hit the U.S. Midwest and Southern Ontario economies like a daisy cutter bomb. But the U.S. and Canadian governments paid scant attention, and gave relatively little money, to public transportation in their economic salvation programs. The overriding goal was to keep the auto makers alive, even if they were making dinosaurs such as fuel-slurping SUVs.

GM was bailed out even though it carries much of the responsibility for ridding U.S. cities of the once-ubiquitous streetcar, like the ones still trundling along in Toronto. In 1936, GM formed a holding company that was financed by GM, Firestone Tire, Phillips Petroleum, Standard Oil of California and two bus parts suppliers. The company was called National City Lines and its goal - achieved brilliantly, sadly - was to buy electric transit systems, ditch the streetcars (or trams or trolleys, as they were often called) and replace them with buses.

Once the electric transit systems were ripped up, cities became captive clients of GM's bus division. By 1936, the U.S. had some 40,000 streetcars. By the mid-1950s, only 5,000 or so remained. There are even fewer today, though a couple of cities, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, are trying to bring them back.

For its streetcar-killing sins, GM should be encouraged - make that ordered - to develop electric streetcar products and systems to revive public transportation in the United States. Imagine if abandoned auto plants were turned into streetcar and train factories, and the jobs they would create. That scenario isn't fantasy: During the Second World War, Detroit's car plants became tank and aircraft factories overnight.

GM should, of course, develop electric cars. But they are not what big, crowded cities need. Cities need electric public transportation, unless their ambition is to become massive parking lots.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular