While the City of Reykjavík is still planning to go ahead with Borgarlínan, a proposed capital area Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, one group of opponents has proposed another suggestion: giving an electric car to each current regular passenger of the bus system.
Iceland has one of the highest rates of passengers cars per capita in the world, with 717 cars per 1,000 inhabitants as of 2016. Congestion is especially prominent in the greater Reykjavík area, and the Borgarlínan proposal aims to reduce car congestion significantly by offering a BRT system that is fast, clean, and runs frequently.
Cars for everyone!
As the number of car owners in Iceland shows, however, car culture is strong, and feelings are divided amongst capital area residents on whether or not they want the BRT system.
A special interest group calling itself “Transport For All” (“Samgöngur fyrir alla”) has proposed a novel counterproposal: an electric car for every bus rider. They contend that this would be both cleaner and cheaper than building a new BRT system.
Kjarninn has pointed out a number of problems with this proposal.
Is it cheaper though?
First off, how is a “regular bus passenger” defined? According to data from Strætó, the capital area bus service company, some 17,500 individuals in January and February 2020 took at least two trips on the bus during the most active days. However, a poll from Zenter showed that some 15.4% of all capital area residents said they take the bus at least once a week, totally about 35,000 people.
As the cheapest electric car available for sale in Iceland goes for 3.7 million ISK, it would cost 52 billion ISK to buy 17,500 cars, and 105 billion ISK to buy 35,000. The estimated cost of Borgarlínan in 2018, by contrast, was 80 billion ISK.
Is it cleaner?
There is also the question of how all these new cars would affect existing traffic. If each car is about four metres long, if 17,500 cars were lined up end to end with about two metres between them, they would stretch to some 105 kilometres. If it were 35,000 cars, they would stretch 210 kilometres. Added to the existing fleet of petrol-burning cars, slowing traffic and thereby increasing their emissions, it is difficult to imagine that added thousands of new cars to the current fleet would reduce air pollution.
Locally, these cars would by themselves produce fewer emissions than petrol-burning cars. This is because these emissions are dependent on how electricity is produced in any given region where electric cars are driven. As Iceland’s electricity comes from geothermal and hydropower sources, producing the electricity for these cars would likely not increase emissions.
However, there is the question of lithium, the main component of an electric car battery. Lithium mining is a highly polluting industry, and electric cars already account for some 60% of the global lithium-ion battery market. At the same time, global demand for lithium increases by some 9% each year.
There are other factors that are also not accounted for in the electric car proposal. It pre-supposes that those who take the bus do so because they cannot afford to buy a car, for example. There are, however, a great many people who cannot drive for various reasons: disability, loss of license due to previous traffic offenses, the inability to drive, the cost of getting a license, insurance and maintenance, or even the simple personal choice to not want to drive a car.
As such, the proposal to replace a BRT system with a fleet of thousands of electric cars still has a lot to answer for.
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