April 2021, 8th to 11th
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Is car-free urban living possible? – Part 3/4

Part 2: Massive electrification (or ‘the theory of improvement’)

There are two advantages to using an electric vehicle in Oslo. For one thing, you don’t need to turn off the air conditioning to save energy! Because in January, when we met Sture Portvik, the city’s ‘Mr Electric’, the thermometer was showing 0°C! Secondly, there’s no need to pay for parking either. We found this out when we arrived at our meeting place at ‘Fortress Charging Garage’. But let’s be serious now. There are many other advantages to ‘electric driving’ in the Norwegian capital, and throughout the country in fact. In some ways, it’s the second rocket stage to the mobility policy: cities are attempting to reduce the number of cars on the road, as we saw in part 1, and in coordination with the State, they are trying to electrify all vehicles – both private and public. This is an energy, ecological and above all, holistic transition.

Transition through incentives

It is a well-known fact that the Norwegian government has been promoting the electrification of personal vehicles for several years now. What is less known is the deadline it has set itself. By 2025, it hopes there will no longer be any combustion-powered vehicles being sold in the country. To achieve this, the public authorities are mainly using taxation: petrol and diesel vehicles pay heavy import duties with the CO2 tax, but electric models are exempt from this tax, along with VAT (at 25%). The result is that it’s cheaper to buy a VW e-Golf (we can confirm it’s one of the country’s best-sellers) than a conventional Golf. A Tesla costs less than an equivalent Audi model. This national policy, taken forward by the Government, is pursued at regional and local levels. Discounts are granted at motorway tolls and trips by ferry + car. In cities, notably in Oslo, it is free to access car parks and charge vehicles. City tolls are much cheaper than for conventional vehicles. And in some areas, cities have even tested opening bus lanes to electric vehicles (before halting this experiment). In short, there is a complete package with great incentives to forsake conventional vehicles. Sales figures are being affected and you have only to look on the road to see that the number of combustion-powered vehicles is fairly low, and even more so in cities.

Built below Akershus Fortress, in a former air raid shelter near the Aker Brygge neighbourhood, this car park is the first of its kind. It is entirely devoted to electric vehicles. It has free access and it is also free to charge your vehicle.

Multimodal transition

I won’t say much more about the automotive policy… It is well-known, even extremely well-known. I’d especially like to talk about the electrification of other modes of travel, notably public transport. The transport organisation authority (#Ruter), besides managing and developing a very efficient offering (we’ll speak about this in part 3), is also committed to the electrification of its whole fleet. Its goal is that by 2028, all the buses in the network will be electric. This is a real challenge when we realise that the network has 1,200 vehicles, but it has got off to a good start as 200 vehicles have already made the switch. And it doesn’t stop at city buses, since Endre Angelvik (Vice President in Mobility Services at Ruter) told us that the electrification also involves intercity coaches. This is a technical challenge as these vehicles travel middle and long distances. Finally, the project also involves the ferry fleet, which is a part of the urban transport system. And there is no derogation for this mode of transport, as all ferries must also be electric by 2028. Ultimately, the switch in the car fleet is linked to an incentive and fiscal policy, but the changeover in the public transport network has an even stronger link to a public policy of innovation, mainly technical. In addition to vehicle developments, a whole new set of infrastructures has to be invented, notably to charge, service and maintain these vehicles. Infrastructures are not always easy to construct when urban space is a precious commodity…

Oslo City Hub, where parcels are waiting patiently to be delivered with zero emission.

Not forgetting the logistics

The Government, and cities, would like to set out a global vision for electrification. And this vision wouldn’t be complete without thinking about goods (which represent 50% of CO2 emissions). In Oslo, it is an excellent idea to have done away with (family) cars in the city centre, but the tricky issue of deliveries obviously still remains … Noticing or hearing diesel trucks parking everywhere in the streets is rather damaging for the city’s image (and the political message). The public authorities are therefore trying to integrate another, colossal, aspect to this transition project. This involves incentives to encourage the fleet of 3.5 tonne vehicles to ‘go green’ (these vehicles are called ‘vans’), as well as heavier vehicles (up to 28 tonnes, termed ‘trucks’). There are also experiments encouraging the use of very small, ‘zero emission’ vehicles such as cargo bikes. How? By reducing the volumes to be moved, increasing the number of vehicles and setting up distribution hubs on the outskirts of cities. This is the example we observed in Filipstad, with DB and DHL

Basic cargo bike or double wagon cargo bike, mini-car, van, etc. All these vehicles are electric and enable letters and parcels to be delivered in Oslo city centre, all with zero emission.

Such a virtuous model?

This electrification policy is remarkable. Even more so when we find out that almost all the country’s electricity (between 96% and 99%) comes from its hydraulic power stations… a green energy source! So, can Norway be faulted at all? Have the Norwegians invented a model that can be copied throughout Europe? It’s possible, but let’s remember that Norway’s example hides some blind spots. The first concerns batteries. Promoting the purchase of electric vehicles will generate a problem for storing and/or recycling the batteries in future years. According to Sture Portvik, the Government is already working on this question by imagining a second life for them. To promote the purchase of electric vehicles is also to leave some part of the population behind, those who cannot afford to change cars and consequently, will continue to drive with combustion-powered vehicles that are taxed more highly by the authorities: a double penalty. Finally, encouraging people to buy electric vehicles for the moment favours the inhabitants of independent houses, as the charging systems have yet largely to be optimised for multi-dwelling units, particularly older ones. Oslo, together with the whole of Norway, will therefore have to address this kind of societal challenge.

Julien de Labaca
Photo/video credits: Julien de Labaca, the ‘Mobility Facilitator’

Discover part 3 of our explorations in new mobility in Oslo: coming soon!