Round Round Get Around

By Nick • Energy • 26 May 2012

We rollin', We lovin'

When it comes to getting from place to place I live what would generally be considered a fairly ‘green’ life. Since I moved to Switzerland 4 years ago my day-to-day mobility needs are, for the vast majority of the time, met by bike, tram, and train. I could probably count the number of times I’ve been in car so far this year without running out of fingers. Ok, I just did and wasn’t even off the first hand.

Does this make me Green?

If only it were so easy. While I don’t spend that much time in planes, they screw up ambitions of ‘green-ness’ REAL quick… and while I’ve improved I still do and will probably continue to cover a hell of a lot of distance in them. Further, not everywhere has a rich rail infrastructure to draw on – it’s expensive to deploy from scratch and sometimes isn’t as efficient as you might expect.

Vehicle Speed and Fuel Efficiency in kWh/100km.person

I stole the chart above from David Mackay’s excellent ‘Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air’. I don’t feel bad about it, because he stole it from someone else I’m sure… I’ve seen it many times and you might have before too. What it aims to compare is two critical parameters for transport solutions – operating energy efficiency and speed. It doesn’t show another critical variable – cost – but I can live without that for now. You’ll notice that, right up the top, we have the Earthrace EcoBoat. What a crock[1].

For a good sustainable future we want solutions that are close to the x axis of that chart – on the order of a few kWh/100km.p and a decent mix of fast/convenient/economic. We need to get away from fossil fuels, and if we’re going to use liquid fuels we need to find a way that doesn’t involve massive disruption of food production and soil depletion. For now we have a couple of good tools (bikes!) but also a number of holes, especially at higher speeds.

I want to be live a sustainable lifestyle! How am I doing?

The bike is clean – no debate there. Bikes are amazing. Electric trains and streetcars(/trams) are potentially quite ‘low emission’ too, at least if you get the electricity from a clean source. But they’re not outlandishly efficient in a kWh/ sense (especially if they’re not loaded close to capacity), with a ballpark value for normal loadings of around 8kWh/100km.person. A Nissan Leaf EV, with two people in it, manages 7.5kWh/100km.person. Both a lot better than a typical combustion engined vehicle which, if it was extrodinarily efficient, might manage 15kWh/100km.p with two occupants but considering a more typical vehicle (8L/100km) and passenger mix (1.2persons average) would come in at around 65kWh/100km.p. Pretty weak.

Of course, efficiency isn’t all that matters – with todays expectations of ease of travel we also care a lot about speed on long trips (like, for my highly personal and troubling example, when I want to travel from Europe back to visit my family in New Zealand… a trip of around 20,000km each way). Even ignoring oceans, mountains, and dodgy political areas and assuming I could do an ambitious 200km/day on my bike that would take up 200 days of my year for the return trip just to travel. I need something fast, or I won’t go, and I’m not prepared to not go just yet. Planes are the answer and considering the benefits they bring in terms of direct travel and speed the price in efficiency is surprisingly small with the full 747 shown coming in around 40kWh/100km.p and the new boeing 787 Dreamliner purportedly managing 24kWh/100km.p! (The newer model 747′s are actually closer to 33kwh/100km.p; this chart is drawing on older numbers).

Putting these numbers into some context reveals uncomfortable truths though, especially for the average commuter… and especially especially for air travellers.

Remember the lofty goal I set for myself of a 2kW life in FirstStep? At the time of writing I was blowing through 25% of my total power budget (500W) with even my pretty efficient commute… to say nothing of the 9kW of Air Travel. Even if I only made the round trip to NZ once every two years (as I do now) and I did it all in an Airbus A380 (at around 30kWh/100km.p), the 40,000km trip still works out to 700W of my 2kW budget… so combined with my commute I’m at 1.3kW without eating, living anywhere, heating my house, having any other stuff, or making any contribution to social infrastructure.


I need better transport options, and if the world is going to be a nice place in 50 years I’m not the only one.

I was going to make a table to go in here offering my classification of ‘transport categories’, but I’ve decided it would be a weak and incomplete effort. Rather than introduce artificial precision, I’ll be pretty loose.

  • Walking: I’m not a huge fan of walking, so for me walking means ‘pretty close’. If I’m walking it’s because other options were limited or because I think I’ll get there in less than 15 minutes… so around 1km.
  • Short: Anything up to around 10km… certainly the sweet spot of day to day life. Even 5km gets me to most of Zurich (the inner circle below) and is less than 15min by bike without making any effort at all.
  • Medium: Distances where I don’t want to bike anymore. It might be anything from 20km up to 100km. Usually I’m on a train in Switzerland; in NZ I would have been in the car.
  • MediumYawn: A long medium. Typically still train/car – up to around 500km.
  • Long: More than 1000km. Now pretty seriously thinking about taking a plane unless there’s a good high speed rail connection.
  • ReallyLong: More than 5000km – A plane is the only reasonable option most of the time, even without the typically considerable geographical constraints.

The home zone

This is the first in a series of posts about what I see as the best options for the future to address these various requirements (and why, and what needs to be done to move them ahead).

First, but probably not in this one, I’ll talk about Evacuated Tube Transport. I’ve recently started talking a bit with ET3 founder Daryl Oster about this and bought a license through their scheme (for about the price of a dinner for two in Zurich) to try to contribute something from time to time. ETT/ET3 is a possible solution to address, in my view, the requirement for MediumYawn and beyond. It has the potential to be extremely fast and energy efficient, with the downside that it requires fairly high demand to be economic (lots of trips)… and of course it doesn’t exist yet. I like the idea though – even if it goes well this is going to be a long term thing, but in 30 years people could travel from NZ to Europe in 3 hours rather than 30, and use ten times less energy in the process.

I’ll then look at the short distance options, and especially how to extend what I consider ‘short’ a little. The focus here will be on bikes – the limitations and how they can be addressed… especially with my latest favourite thing: Electric assist bikes. Electric assist bikes are awesome. Zurich is a nice city for biking around – it’s not as good as Amsterdam, but still thumbs up. Last weekend I was in London, and it reminded me what a not good city was like. The bike sharing system is brilliant. The lack of dedicated bike paths, narrow roads, and streets crowded with busses are not. My home town of Christchurch was flattened by a big Earthquake around one year ago and, with the rebuild now under discussion, I really hope a major emphasis is placed on making the city not simply ‘bike friendly’ but ‘bike focussed’. Bikes are the ultimate clean and energy efficient ride (even if you boost them with an electric motor) – they’re dirt cheap (which is why there are so many e-bikes in china) and take up a tiny amount of space for parking compared to cars. You can also put a lot more people down a street on them than in a car, and when the inevitable collisions with pedestrians occur it tends to be scrapes and maybe breaks, rather than death as with cars. Build Christchurch for bikes! And everywhere else.

Finally, I’ll discuss some options for ‘middle’. I don’t think bikes are it, and neither are trains a particularly good solution considering the requirement to serve many end points at short notice and with minimal delay. There’s also a need for freight etc. ET3, as a new-infrastructure system, is also somewhat train-like in limitation on approaches/departures – maybe it eventually makes it’s way into neighborhood commuter systems but I see its strengths much more for long distances at high speed. My favourite solution for middle distance commuting is small electric vehicles operating on a sharing scheme, probably with autonomous driving capabilities (no longer the exclusive realm of sci-fi with successful demonstration in normal use by Google, and favourable legislation on the table in California). The Renault Twizy is a great example of a possible platform, as is the GM EN-V (props to Renault for actually making their version commercially available, unlike GM). These vehicles are cheap, quick, agile, compact, have decent range, and get by with small batteries.

Look forward to hearing people’s thoughts! Hopefully it won’t take me too long to frame mine.


[1]I shouldn’t make fun of this for a number of reasons, including:

- It was a pretty cool boat, and broke the road the world power boat record after a lot of hard work and commitment by those involved.

- It’s builder, Peter Bethune, got into the project with the best of intentions and, I suspect, does actually care quite a lot about being ‘eco friendly’.

- It was sunk during an anti-whaling protest… and I am pretty anti-whaling.

I will anyway though, for some other good reasons:
- For all his good intentions, Peter Bethune sent a bad message with the project. Earthrace was an incredibly inefficient vehicle, even more so than most ships, with the only ‘green’ claim was that it ran on ‘bio-diesel’. Current ‘bio-fuels’ are, for the most part, even less sustainable and environmentally friendly than regular fossil fuel. Maybe someday someone acheives something amazing with arid cropland and algae and closed cycle reactors, but for now it’s a total con and it allows (or allowed – most people agree it’s bullshit now) fossil fuel companies an easy way to argue against electric vehicles etc. Earthrace was NOT eco.
- The anti-whaling protest was being carried out in immensely irresponsible fashion by ‘eco’terrorist organisation ‘Sea Shepherd’. They are violent, dangerous, ineffective, and inevitably put other far better organisations in a bad light. Finally, the sinking was entirely the fault of the Earthrace crew (they were hit by the whaling ship while they were driving back and forth under its bow while trailing a rope trying to tangle its propellors). There was a lot of finger pointing and hand wringing at the time about how ‘The whaling captain swerved’. Whatever. True or not, if you are on the open ocean in a power boat that can do 70 knots, and you get hit by a whaling vessel that can do about 20 knots WHILE you’re trying to tangle its propellors with a rope then you’ve really got no one to blame but yourself.

Comments are closed.