The great architect Le Corbusier spent his life attempting to plan the ideal city: in the 1940s, urban settings were very different to the model that he had in mind, the utmost priority of which was the wellbeing of the city's inhabitants. The megacities of today also seem to have abandoned this aim. How can we retrieve it?
Sustainability advocate Monica Araya, who has over twenty years’ experience in electric mobility and renewable energy, is based between Costa Rica, where she was born, Europe and the United States. She believes that cities should place residents, not vehicles, at the heart of their vision. And, while it might seem illogical, one of the best ways to do this is actually to start with the city’s vehicles, in particular its buses.
Araya, who also founded Costa Rica Limpia, a strategic group that works to promote renewable energies and electric mobility in the country, was the keynote speaker at the thirteenth #EnelFocusOn, the itinerant meeting series organized by our Group to discuss the themes of the future. The focus of this edition, held on 25 January in Santiago (Chile) in the presence of 15 influencers from 12 countries and regions including China, Europe, South and North America, was e-Mobility for public transportation. In other words: how to work with vehicles to save cities.
“Today we want to stimulate the curiosity of those watching us,” announced Araya, referring to the hundreds of thousands of people around the world following the event via streaming. “So I won’t be talking about the future, but about the present, to make it clear that electric mobility is not something still to come, something that might happen in five, ten or fifty years’ time: rather it is already a reality. The electrification of buses is proceeding more rapidly than predicted, much faster than the electrification of private cars. We are in the midst of a genuine transport revolution”.
The revolution of public electric mobility
Echoing Araya’s words was Simone Tripepi, Head of Enel X South America, which has just supplied 102 new electric buses to the city of Santiago. “Revolution may seem like a strong word, but it is what we in Enel have been working towards since the 1980s, when we developed the first electric car. Today, for our Group, moving this revolution forward means creating a massive infrastructure presence on a global level.” This includes, for example, plans for 28,000 new public charging stations for electric cars in Italy by 2022, 8,500 in Spain and 2,300 in Romania by 2023 and more, onto South America. “However, it is a revolution” continued Tripepi, “one that is taking place on public transportation with the people who use it daily, just like the buses of Santiago, which were supplied with two large terminals equipped with rooftop photovoltaic systems, which are able to house and, more importantly, charge 63 and 37 buses respectively at night, and 50 smart bus-stops fitted out with screens to provide passengers with real time information, free Wi-Fi and USB phone charging sockets: all this not only to offer an ever better public service, but also to bring the advantages of e-mobility within touching distance of tens of thousands of people on a daily basis.”
“As far as public electric mobility is concerned, today’s numbers would have been unthinkable only several years ago,” continued Araya in her address. “Thanks to the growing demand, the cost equivalence of an electric bus with a diesel bus, without the support of public funding, will be reached by 2030, by which time the battery will make up only 8% of the total cost, compared to 26% in 2016.”
It is not by chance that London is planning an entire fleet of zero emission buses by 2037 and is already busy converting approximately 5,000 old diesel buses to run on electricity. Meanwhile, China the leading the way worldwide when it comes to acquiring electric buses: in recent years sales have rocketed from a couple of hundred in 2011 to 110,000+ in 2016 and 90,000 in 2017. Each week 9,500 vehicles are added, the equivalent of London’s entire fleet.
“The benefits of electric mobility for the environment are incalculable,” emphasised Araya. “E-buses contribute to reducing pollution much more than cars. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for every 1000 electric buses on the road, about 500 barrels a day of diesel fuel will be displaced from the market. We can expect the demand for sustainable mobility to continue to grow: almost 90% of city dwellers are exposed to pollution levels in excess of the limits established by the World Health Organisation, with tragic consequences for both health and the general quality of life. The decarbonisation trend is unstoppable now: it is estimated that in 2040 55% of all new cars sold will be electric and that e-cars will make up a third of the global vehicle fleet.”
Chile at the forefront of sustainable development
Once again China is driving this epochal transition. However, Santiago, which in 2019 is due to host the United Nations Climate Conference, is emerging today as a leading city in public electric mobility. The new buses delivered by Enel X to the city in December 2018 make Chile the second country in the world, following China, for electric bus fleets. And each of these vehicles, which travel an average of 238 km per day on 3 routes, carrying 1.2 million passengers monthly, is equivalent to 33 less conventional engine cars on the streets of the Chilean capital.
“Electric mobility is here today and we must not, and should not, wait to share it” said Roberto Deambrogio, Enel Director of Communications, in the closing address of the Chilean #EnelFocusOn. “At stake is our tomorrow, our health and that of the planet. The technology is already here and it is continuing to improve at a speed we can’t even imagine. Like photovoltaic technology, where the costs have dropped by 90% in just ten years."
Of course, Araya admits that there are many challenges still to be overcome. Many of these are linked to technology and can be considered as good as solved; it is just a question of time. However, she considers the cultural obstacle to be more challenging. “We need to convince people to abandon their natural resistance to change.”
After all, we know that in 15 years’ time 65% of the world’s population will be living in megacities, therefore it is necessary to take action as soon as possible to ensure life in urban centres is liveable. Electric buses are a step in that direction. They may not be the panacea imagined by Le Corbusier, who accused cities of “tormenting their inhabitants with frenetic mechanical circulation, a chaotic tangle of workplaces and residences”. But at least the air will be breathable once again.