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Miscellaneous

Lessons from My 4 Years of Car (EV) Ownership

My first car. Renault Zoe

I feel like I’ve waited forever to get rid of my car and get out of my finance deal a year early. I decided I wanted to go car free about a year ago and have been counting down the months ever since. And on Tuesday it finally happened.

As you might expect with the car industry, there were a few final hurdles to jump through though. The collection agent was sent to pick the car up with no information whatsoever. He didn’t know it was an EV. He didn’t know what the range was. It was even worse than what I experienced two years prior when my first EV was collected. They did drive it back to base, even if they did break the wing mirror backing it out of the driveway. This time, the guy refused to drive it back to base because it was too far at highway speed, and he had no idea how to charge an EV. Just as in 2016, he told me that his employer provided him with a fuel card, but no charge network card or any training on EVs whatsoever. I suggested he call a flatbed but he said they can’t do that at short notice. Funny how when I had the slightest problem with my Renault Zoe, they sent a flatbed immediately. When I’m handing a car back and I’ve paid it off, it’s impossible.

So once I had waited another whole week with the car just sitting on the driveway, it was finally done. Luckily, I was able to do the whole thing contact free. Leaving everything in the car and communicating from the landing window. I was expecting one guy to come in a truck and take the car after inspecting it, but of course not. That would be too logical. I had a guy inspect it, then had to wait 3 or 4 hours for the flatbed driver to arrive. And then he inspected it again. To check if anything had happened in the last 3 hours of it sitting still presumably.

My second car. Smart EQ ForTwo

He drove it across the road where he parked the truck, loaded it up and secured it in place. And that was it. My 4 years of car ownership done. Well, not quite. Just after he left I got an email telling me I was going to be charged over £50 because the car was dirty. It’s a pandemic! Normally I would have taken it to the car wash at the local garden centre the day before, but obviously I can’t right now. I’ve been staying away from people since March. Mercedes themselves are exempting people if they miss their scheduled services until the end of the year I think because of Covid. Why are the collection company not doing the same thing with stuff like this?

But at least that’s the final hurdle to jump over as a car owner, and now I can relax. Sort of. I don’t feel that huge weight lifting off my shoulders like I was expecting, but perhaps I will do soon. I think I’m more struck by the reality of an empty driveway in a suburban area with neither good public transport nor quality bike infrastructure than I am with relief to be rid of the car. This is how I lived until I was 27, but back then, after my college years I was riddled with crippling anxiety that left me mostly housebound for years. I did very occasionally use the odd train or bus to get around the local area, but in general I cycled anywhere I needed to go in the town.

It was only in 2014 when I got a full-time job that I came to the conclusion that I had to get some other kind of vehicle, in order to make the daily 5 mile commute at 6:30 every morning. In hindsight part of me wishes I had just kept cycling back then, and believed in myself that I could do that distance. It was only years later that I realised I could.

I decided that a scooter would be the cheapest and easiest way to commute, and so I went to my local Yamaha dealer and saw a bike I liked. I actually ordered it before I took my CBT. I can’t remember why. It seems weird considering my lack of confidence at the time. I rode the scooter for two years in all conditions. I’m quite proud of that especially because I never crashed, even though it was close a couple of times when it was particularly icy.

Yamaha Majesty S

I really loved riding my Yamaha Majesty S, but over those couple of years I grew more and more frustrated about the climate and the lack of electric innovation in the motorcycle industry at the time (and still am in 2020), so I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and learn to drive in order to buy an electric car. It also gave me the ability to go on longer trips. Doing an EV road trip to Scotland really appealed to me. So it felt like the right choice at the time to get my licence.

With hindsight, the best thing about driving by far was doing those long road trips. The daily trips for commuting and running errands, while fun with the nimble Smart especially, weren’t really memorable. Often times, they were not remotely enjoyable. In general, the scooter was more fun for daily riding and the car was only really good for longer trips. I think the fact that both cars were sub 100 mile range EVs with slower than average charging speeds made it even more fun to me. Especially back in 2016 when the charging infrastructure was far more sparse than it is now. Now it’s so easy that it’s not challenging any more. Which I guess is another reason to stop owning a car.

Having said that, I definitely want to rent an EV at some point when the pandemic eventually ends (hopefully) and go back to Scotland. And this time go all the way to John O’Groats rather than Inverness, which is where I stopped on both my prior trips. It will be really interesting to see the difference in trip time and charging. It will be a monumental difference compared to what I’m used to. Going from 60-80 miles of range and 45 min stops to 300 miles of range and 30 min stops. It’s a whole different world.

Unfortunately, it’s still way too difficult to rent an EV. All of the large rental companies like Enterprise don’t offer much choice, if anything at all. Places like Turo are better but even there, it’s hard to find EVs if you live outside of a major city. I hope this changes soon. Perhaps it will improve in a big way next year in response to the pandemic.

But really rental and sharing are just a first taste of what’s going to happen with MaaS and RoboTaxis. We know that cycling is amazing for travelling locally and touring, especially when quality infrastructure is provided. But in order to travel around in any other way, you need transport solutions that are convenient and connected together seamlessly. The solutions exist to make it work, so we need to get on with it as a top priority.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be done all in one app, but it does have to be convenient. For example, there shouldn’t be a single train station without docked bike or scooter rentals (preferably both). And then when you combine that with autonomous cars it becomes undeniably more convenient than car ownership itself. Even in awkward, rural locations. But we can’t just assume autonomous cars will come along and fix everything in a year or two. We have to offer other compelling options in the meantime. Both because we can’t afford to wait, and because people will still want choice even when RoboTaxis take over.

When I got my drivers licence as an automatic only version to save myself time and hassle, my colleagues didn’t get it. They probably still don’t but I haven’t talked to them in 6 months to check. There was a young girl doing her driving lessons in order to drive a manual car, and I was baffled that the driving test industry had progressed so little. They are totally unprepared for the changes that are about to happen. That aspect in itself will be fascinating to follow.

As for my own experience; despite all the wasted money, unnecessary stress and the eventual realisation that I never needed a car or scooter, I wouldn’t change anything if I could do it all again. I gained a lot of valuable knowledge and skills that I never thought I could. I became a better cyclist for having the experience of operating those different vehicles. It also gives me more points of reference to compare transport options to in the future. 4 years of car ownership and 6 years of total motor vehicle ownership is an interesting experiment in the grand scheme of things, and it feels like the right time to move on. I’ve talked to people my age who have been driving continuously since they were 17. That’s 16 years already at 33. I can only barely comprehend that. Lifetime car owner was definitely never going to be me.

The next couple of years will be a pain in the ass for sure. Having to go out of my way to avoid diesel buses, coaches, taxis, Ubers, trains etc. But soon enough it should start to be more like plain sailing. It really has to.

Categories
Miscellaneous

The Future of Public Transport Part 1: Why Tesla Hasn’t Made a Bus

Elon Musk recently tweeted that he didn’t believe public transport as it exists today is viable for the future. That’s not due to Covid. He’s always thought that personal public transport is the future. As much as I wish Tesla had made a bus, because it could have made a huge impact by now if they had, I also think he’s correct. Tesla RoboTaxis combined with Boring Company “Loop” systems of tunnels and stations could kill off local traditional offerings. Especially in countries which don’t have very good public transport.

It’s sad when you consider what Tesla could have done by now had they wanted to. But to be fair to them, if the company had gone down the route of making buses back in the Model S early days then they probably wouldn’t have generated the same hype it did and Tesla probably wouldn’t have got to where it is right now.

Luckily we have companies like Proterra whose CEO, former Tesla exec Ryan Popple probably left because he also knew that Tesla wasn’t interested in traditional buses. Companies like Proterra and Arrival will help to keep the bus industry somewhat innovative over the coming years. And combined with EV models from the traditional European makers and the huge Chinese brands that have taken over the industry in the last decade or so should keep buses relevant for a while yet. Yutong and BYD are making a lot of electric buses, but are not really innovating that much in my view. They’re basically making exactly the same buses, just with batteries. And that’s a good thing for the time being. But I don’t think that will be enough in the longer term to persuade people to keep riding the bus when far more advanced mobility solutions come along. And that’s an inevitability.

And this is all before you talk about e-bikes and e-scooters cutting into their ridership. There’s going to be a lot of change in the next decade. I think to keep ridership high, they’re going to have to invest heavily in other aspects of the business like linking in with MaaS, smartcards such as Oyster, and other helpful features to make travelling as seamless as possible for passengers. My local bus company has done it the other way round. They have a pretty decent app with live tracking, digital ticketing and a smartcard for season ticket holders. But no EVs at all. They really need to fix that quickly. But with Covid dragging on forever, they’ll be able to roll out every excuse in the book as to why they can’t ditch diesel. So who knows how this will play out.

In order to talk about trains I need a whole other post. I’ll be talking about Hyperloop and the threat it poses to high speed rail.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Why You Shouldn’t Buy a Cheap Bike

One of the things that frustrates me most as a cycling enthusiast is when people buy cheap, junk bikes because they think bikes are overpriced or they can’t afford one.

So I decided to do a little calculation to compare riding the bus for short journeys (5 miles or less) around town over a year to buying a bicycle, to see which comes out ahead on price (not to mention fun, health benefits etc).

I looked on the Stagecoach bus website for Worthing and found that a Worthing 52 Week Megarider season ticket costs £603 per year. Compared to buying a ticket on the bus or via the app per ride (or even compared to monthly season tickets), it goes without saying that it’s a bargain and I would get it if I was a daily bus passenger.

So if I was to ride a bicycle for all of these short trips around town instead, I could spend about £600 on it. Except you tend to keep a bike for several years at least. So I think it’s fair to say that I could spend around £1800 on bikes and equipment. And after 3 years I could keep it and continue saving, or buy another one if I felt like it.

The money adds up, but why not just buy a cheap new or used bike and save even more? Cheap new bikes generally use worse components which will end up lasting far less time than more expensive ones (up to a point where it becomes mainly about weight). This will mean more maintenance costs for you, higher likelihood of the bike letting you down during a ride, for example with a dropped chain during your commute, which no one wants. When you buy a more expensive bike, the components are more reliable, work better and are longer lasting. And that’s before you get into things like belt drives and internal hub gearing which take the benefits to a whole new level.

Buying second hand can be a good idea if you get lucky, but in my experience, I think you’ll struggle to find a bike in a good enough condition at a low enough price. You often find people selling bikes in the hundreds of pounds when they need a lot of work. To the point where it makes more sense to just buy new. I hope that as cycling matures and more people buy better quality bikes, and actually look after the bikes they own, it will become better. But for now, I would recommend to buy a good quality new one. It’ll pay for itself in the long run. And perhaps even in the short run. If you replace an Oyster season ticket in London with a Brompton you could save thousands every year.

Categories
Miscellaneous

How to Fix the UK Train Network

As I’m only a few months away now from giving back my Smart EQ electric car, my second EV, and my last privately owned car, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to get around in future. I don’t tend to travel very far very often, and cycling works for me to get around most of the time. But when I want to go to Scotland for example, trains are the obvious choice. They’re efficient, they’re fun, and they’re electric in many cases.

As a child I loved trains, and at one point I wanted to be a train driver. Now that I’m rediscovering my love of rail, I suppose it may still be possible, but that’s something to consider in the future. As far as the train network itself, it has many problems, and as someone who hasn’t been paying much attention to it for a long time, I’d like to offer my fresh perspective on what can and should happen in order to bring the British rail network up to the level it should be.

Trains are one of those things that the British invented before they got left behind as other countries surpassed them. If you look at the Japanese or Dutch railway systems now, and then you look at our trains in 2020, you should feel ashamed and embarrassed to be British. I know I do.

One of the main reasons we’ve put ourselves in this position is because of the nostalgia people feel in this country towards those good old days. Most of the people who truly care about trains are the same people who have grown up with and have great attachment to steam and diesel rolling stock. It has prevented us from moving forward and causing this huge resistance to change. But there are other reasons too. Politically, we’ve seen awful government after awful government who haven’t been willing to invest. And because our society has fully embraced the car to the detriment of trains, buses and cycling, our ancient and crumbling train infrastructure has been left to rot. Even keeping it from disintegrating further costs huge amounts of money which is then translated to sky high ticket prices. For a service that doesn’t even come close to justifying this cost. It would surely be cheaper to just rip it all up and basically start again.

Everything about rail travel in this country feels antiquated and long overdue a total overhaul. From the track and stations to ticketing and railcards. We need full electrification, we need contactless payments and Oyster support nationally, new trains, timetables you can rely on. And most importantly, if the prices are to remain high, then the service quality has to match.

In the coming posts, I will go into more detail about each of the topics I’ve outlined here.