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Dick Sorabji: Electric cars are a classic test of big city government

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The combustion engine is on the way out and electric vehicles will soon transform the 20th century’s most fundamental sector – the motor industry.

Change is driven by new technology, but city government is the other essential half of the equation. And London is becoming a world leader in that change.

By 2020 electric motors will be as cheap and effective as their 20th century rivals. The industry is preparing to change every stage in the supply chain from factory to repair shop.

At the same time electric cars need charging points to support them, and global cities are the platform for this infrastructure. 40% of the world’s electric vehicles are owned by the residents of 20 global cities.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research, a consultancy, lists London joint-second amongst world cities equipped for the move to electric vehicles, behind Oslo and level with Amsterdam.

Change is urgent. Bad air quality is hastening the deaths of 9,400 Londoners each year, and fuel engines are half the problem. The mayor is bringing in an ultra-low emission zone, has regulated for new black cabs to be electric and plans to extend this to hire cars from 2020.

Today London has 13,000 privately owned plug-in electric vehicles, forecast to reach 70,000 by 2020. The 32 boroughs and Transport for London are collaborating through their Go Ultra Low partnership to roll out charging points to support these vehicles.

Seven companies have been selected to deliver the technology in a competitive framework. The partnership has already installed 2,000 points, and the boroughs will deliver another 1,150 by 2020.

New solutions are rapidly changing the business model for the infrastructure. Lamp posts can now be converted into standalone chargers. However, black cabs and city centre commercial vehicles need to be able to recharge in minutes, not hours. The partnership will install 150 rapid charge points by Christmas, with another 150 by 2020.

Success will depend on balancing three competing demands.

It is important to roll out charge points fast enough to meet driver demand. The technology installed must also be up to date, or it will not be used. And third, electric infrastructure must not be installed carelessly, making pavements and shopping streets unsafe for pedestrians, or bad for business.

Balancing these pressures is a classic test of big city government. Pan-London assessments of demand and pan-London regulation rely on the city scale analysis that Transport for London offers.

Yet public support and safety on streets is only possible when boroughs use their local knowledge to convert broad strategy into specific solutions. If London government gets it right, then by 2020 we may be able to overtake Oslo as the world’s leading electric car city.

Dick Sorabji, corporate director for public policy and affairs, London Councils

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