LEIPZIG, GERMANY — Some of the stories you find covering events like the World Transport Forum are expected — a rigorous discussion of how best to move goods with a minimum carbon profile — but others are unexpected, like the big displays of cargo bikes. Yes, Europe is moving the mail (and delivering pizza) by pedal power. Who knew?
I've been in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, for three days. Scars of the communist years are still evident in the form of forlorn office and apartment blocks that still haven't found new owners, but it's become a modern German city. A bicycle tour with share cycles was fun — our guide told us, if I have this right, that after our use the bikes were going to Bratislava to help out at the Eurovision Song Contest.
The conference was big, and truly international. The electric car future was much discussed. For instance, Henri Poupart-Lafarge of French giant Alstom Transport noted that 80 percent of rail travel in Europe is already electrified (in contrast to the diesel-powered U.S.) "The metro [subway system] is a microgrid," he said, and one that could be employed to charge EVs with the right infrastructure.
Patrick O'Doherty of the Irish utility ESB said that the government had set a challenging mandate of 40 percent renewable energy by 2020, with 10 percent electric vehicles.
Mitsuhiko Yamashita, a Nissan vice president, offered some statistics for the electric Leaf. It's sold 11,000 in the U.S., 13,000 in Japan and just 3,000 in Europe, a fact Yamashita attributed to a late start selling there. Still, you have to wonder why EVs are not better received here. For instance, according to Sergio Monteiro, a transport minister in Portugal, the government has installed 1,300 charging spots in 25 cities, and also lopped 5,000 euros off the 35,000-euro purchase price of the cars with subsidies. But only 200 EVs have been sold, 60 of them to public officials.
Monteiro said that EVs are still too expensive, and the government could have done a better job explaining the advantages of the technology. Yes, but that still doesn't explain why the copious subsidies offered by the Danish government haven't led to more take-up there. But Yamashita said sales are going great in Norway.
Whether Germany will also embrace electric cars remains to be seen. The country has all the elements: green consciousness, high gas prices, relatively short travel distances. But it also has that great transit network, making cars less necessary, and high purchase prices. I keep stealing a glance at those cargo bikes, thinking that they're at least part of the solution for highly industrialized Germany. A low-tech solution to a complex problem.
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