Are Trolleybuses a Good Idea in our Extreme Weather Climate?

Trolleybuses seem like a really good idea. They don’t have to carry around big batteries and they never need to stop and charge since they can just run on overhead wires. But do they make sense in our cities now that we live in a dangerous world of extreme weather?

Because the Trolleybuses run on set routes that can’t be changed, what happens if you get localised flooding from extreme rainfall? You can’t just divert the buses around the flood like you could with a battery bus.

Maybe you could fit them with batteries small enough that would allow them to circumvent a flooded area but not too big to increase the weight by a huge amount. There’s also a potential problem with the overhead wires being affected by extreme heat. But that is also a risk for trams and trains so not really relevant here. Although perhaps the way Trolleybus pantographs hold the wires rather than lift up to touch them makes them more resistant to sagging wires than pantographs on trams and trains.

I think we’re going to see a lot of variation in bus drivetrains. We’re already seeing hydrogen buses up in Scotland which are at the moment pretty well suited to the rural routes, and EV buses in city centres. I don’t see new trolleybuses being installed in places that don’t already have them unfortunately, but hopefully I’m wrong about that.

But cities that do have them really need to promote the buses to the people once private cars are finally banned. Let them know that we were right the first time about public transport, and that car ownership was an epic mistake we can recover from.

Will Loop and Hyperloop kill Metros and High Speed Rail?

I started writing the draft for this post last year as a follow-up to this post. At the time, I was quite heavily focused on technological solutions to transport and the climate crisis. Things have changed a lot since then. But before I go into how and why, check out the draft first paragraph I wrote before.

Hyperloop looks to be a serious threat to high speed rail. As a rail fan, this is a somewhat bittersweet realisation. But not only is Hyperloop a threat to rail, the Boring Company Loop system and the Tesla RoboTaxi Network that would operate within it is also a threat to metro systems and commuter rail.

I intended to write about how hyperloop and the boring company loop systems were going to give metro and high speed rail systems a hard time. I don’t want to write these systems off entirely, but now that we’re a year later and the climate crisis is looking like an imminent threat to the functioning of society, these types of solutions can’t be the priority. We have to drastically change the way we live now to be somewhat like full lockdown in terms of living more locally, with empty roads and more cycling. The time just isn’t there to be able to wait for self driving RoboTaxis to come along.

Perhaps the loop system could be great in the future when full autonomy is realised, but so far the Las Vegas Loop has been roundly criticised. Currently it’s being driven manually and quite slowly, so it’s not really doing anything a bus lane couldn’t do much better and more cheaply. And if we just banned private cars as I keep saying, then you’d get rid of the traffic which was the main driving force behind the loop concept to begin with.

With that said, maybe the Boring Company should instead focus on their plans for creating special small tunnels for running utility pipes and cables through. That really does seem like a great idea.

As far as Hyperloop is concerned, I saw a YouTube video that made me think a lot about it. It was on the channel “Adam Something” which I strongly recommend. I’m happy that I was able to still be open minded despite having most of my savings bet on Tesla (that might change soon, we’ll see). The video on Hyperloop compared it to High Speed Rail and maglev trains. Adam pointed out that Hyperloop cost estimates per mile are far lower than maglev, despite Hyperloop being effectively maglev technology plus a vacuum tube. The cost is therefore very likely to be significantly higher, and because of the way the vacuum tube works, you would assume that the maintenance will be a nightmare as well. Especially for really long routes.

From my perspective, if we’re to live more simple and low consumption lives, the most obvious thing to do for long distance transport would be to run more sleeper trains. We need to stop living the fast life and start enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

But for right now, the absolute priority must be to reduce emissions as fast as possible to zero. That doesn’t mean 2030 and it definitely doesn’t mean 2050. It means right now. During the first lockdown, we were told that global emissions dropped by about 13% during that time before climbing back up. If we were to do that on a permanent basis and improve from there, we might actually have a chance.

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.

The Future of Public Transport: 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.