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Screaming Headlines, Free Parking, EVs, and Yes, Lithium

August 12, 2019

Peter Guest

Once again, it’s that time of year when the press is full of stories about how much we collectively spend buying parking time from our municipalities. The reporting, as always, is heavily biased towards shock and horror. Witness the Daily Express whose front page screams £1bn PARKING CHARGES KILLING OFF OUR SHOPS. 


The basic premise is Local Authorities are evil because they charge for a service, with the implication that the money enriches the people who run the council. Not true, UK law requires that parking surpluses (that’s surpluses, not profits) are used to improve transport infrastructure and/or other services. Once again, rather than publish chapter and verse where the money actually goes, local authorities just witter on about generalities. 


By the way, the old chestnut about killing the town center? Not true, never has been true. Indeed, a few years ago a “campaigner” for the high street persuaded the government (the same one that thought that the Scottish independence and Brexit referenda were good ideas) to adopt her plan for a revitalized high street with free parking. Towns that tried it went downhill even more quickly, and more shops closed. About the same time, I worked on a study for the London Councils that showed that, among other things, town centers with parking charges actually outperformed the shopping mall down the road with free parking. 


The press runs the story, with variations every year, and I wish that just once the Councils would get their collective act together and tell the real story. The agenda is, of course, that Municipal parking should be, must be, free, which would be the kiss of death to most commercial parking operators. And, as the great Shoup has reminded us “There’s no such thing as Free Parking”. 


What the great man didn’t go on to say is that, if a city decides not to charge for its parking, then drivers are receiving a direct subsidy from local taxpayers. So, the little old lady on a pension, without a car, gets to pay for the out-of-town guy in the BMW to park.


Smoke and Mirrors


We have a pollution problem in our towns and cities, caused by road traffic; and it’s past time that we fixed it. The automotive industry is ambivalent at best and, with a few honorable exceptions, only started to work on this
when threatened with legislation that could kill their business. 


At the moment world governments seem to be fixated on electric vehicles, totally ignoring such basic issues as: can an EV do the job well enough to replace more than a small proportion of the current vehicle fleet? And are they actually as green as claimed when looking at the bigger picture? And is it physically possible to make the change? 


The first of these questions is, I think, a qualified yes, most of the time. Most cars drive a relatively short distance each day and spend over 23 hours parked so, most of the time, there is not a problem. But those four words, “most of the time” are the elephant in the room. While I drive 20 miles to work and then home again the EV is fine but, come the weekend when I drive 150 miles to visit someone and then home again four hours later it just won’t hack it so, do I have two cars or what?


Greenness? EVs are massively oversold on this, concentrating only on the curbside pollution, and even then, the story is far from unambiguous. Those of you who bother to read my pearls of wisdom regularly may remember that a little while ago I reported some work from Edinburgh University that showed that EVs are more polluting than their ICE equivalents at the curbside. And that’s not considering factors such as power generation and end of life issues with all those deadly lead batteries.


Feasibility? The British government particularly is dealing with this by putting their fingers in their ears and singing loudly. We don’t have the national grid capacity to accommodate more than a small proportion of the slated number of vehicles they desire. 


The same problem exists at the point of delivery. Only a tiny fraction of homes has the capacity in its internal wiring to install a half-way decent charging point, and the idea of a future where rows of Victorian terraces have leads trailing out of their windows and across the sidewalk to charge cars at the curb outside is risible. 


However, a recent report from Bloomberg casts a more sinister light on the dash to electric vehicles, suggesting that, once again we in the first world are pursuing an ideal that would improve our lives at the cost of the livelihood, and indeed even the lives, of people living elsewhere.


Yours and Mines 


The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that, by 2030, there could be nearly 125 million electric vehicles worldwide. But to achieve this the battery industry will need to dramatically increase supplies of Lithium, by a factor of about 40. At a domestic level the arguments are persuasive - in the U.S.A. Fossil-fuel vehicles emit an average of 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other hazardous gases for every gallon of gas consumed. That’s about one fifth of the national total.


However, to achieve this, others’ lives will get worse, much worse, as mining for lithium is already wreaking havoc where it’s mined. 


Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats, and holes are drilled to pump the brine to the surface to extract lithium carbonate. Bloomberg describes how lithium mining is irreversibly destroying the local environment of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. The process uses large amounts of water, depleting the supply for locals and destroying meadowland once used by local shepherds.


Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist said “We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining. The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.” Lithium mining causes water pollution, potentially poisoning communities. 


Further, the lithium carbonate extraction process harms the soil, and can cause air pollution. There are also concerns around how to recycle it. Friends of the Earth notes that lithium recycling is fraught, as the metal is “toxic, highly reactive and flammable, meaning that it tends to be incinerated or ends up in landfill due to very low collection rates and flawed waste legislation.” 


So, before assuming that the future is electric, perhaps we should just be sure that our bright new, clean future is real, and that it’s not being built at the expense of our neighbors.


Planes and Automobiles


And finally, and this is true, I am not making it up, London Heathrow Airport’s planned expansion has been put at risk because, once the new runway is built, atmospheric pollution levels will exceed legal limits and the local council will immediately close them down. 


Heathrow management’s cunning plan to counter this is to surcharge drivers in diesel cars to stop them coming. A customer disincentive, I missed that chapter in the “How to market your Product” book, silly me. And I thought that the problem was all those aircraft.



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