Bixi in London: "Boris Bike" Growing Pains

It's been just over two weeks since London opened it's version of the Montreal designed Bixi-bike sharing system.  With 6000 “boris-bikes” on the street (nicknamed after mayor Boris Johnson) it's double the size the Montreal system was when it began. All the same, it is going through the same growing pains.

From comments on the londoncyclist blog it seems like things are off to a relatively good start - with one exception: parking.  There are reports of people having to bike for blocks and then take a cab back to their destination because central docking stations are overflowing. Two geographers at UCL have produced this mash-up of traffic flow over a typical 24 hour period that shows the issue pretty clearly (red = full).

Parking shortages and other early problems in the London system will be familiar to Montrealers.  Malfunctioning docking stations, unexpected overcharges, and minor mechanical problems with some bikes are other common issues.  Londoners also seem uniquely peeved that the commemorative t-shirts given to early adopters are a bit on the tight side. All of these were quickly addressed in Montreal.  (Except for the tight shirts; I think Montrealers like their shirts a bit tight.)  

This year Bixi Montreal responded to complaints about overfull docking stations (similar to those happening in London) with an impressive increase in installed parking spots.  I chatted with Bixi's Bérengère Thériault at the end of last week and she explained to me that the magic number seems to be 100 parking spots for every 60 bikes.  They try to keep that ratio at all the stations as well: 40% of the spots free for parking at any given time.  They've also added another two thousand bikes to the system to ensure availability.

Currently London is running more bikes that Montreal, but with the same number of docking stations.  It's not surprising that they are having some congestion problems.  But I wouldn't expect the problems to last.  As a planner friend of mine noted, you can change the whole configuration of the network more or less overnight - unlike, say, a metro system.  This may be slightly more difficult in London, where the stations are wired to the electrical grid rather than solar powered. (Does anyone know why that is?)

Last week BIXI Montreal logged its two millionth trip and had over 25,000 registered users.  That is more than double the 10,000 users that subscribed by the end of the 2009 season. That rapid growth is made possible by the flexibility of a system that can easily expand and morph to meet the needs of its ridership.  Numbers may also have increased because Montreal has made a concerted effort to tie Bixi into other modes of transportation:  stations are clustered near transit hubs, and transit pass holders receive discounts on both BIXI and the Communauto car sharing network. 

Here's hoping we see similar growth in London – and that people keep mashing up the data.  There is something fascinating about watching a transportation system evolve right in front of your eyes.

Portugal Rocks Renewables: 45% Renewable Electricity by Year's End

For the past 5 years Portugal has been pushing a dramatic shift to renewable energy.  Compared to the standard “20% renewables by 2020” targets that are often brought out at press conferences, its accomplishments are impressive: By the end of the year nearly 45% of its electricity will come from renewable sources. That's up from 17% five years ago.

Elizabeth Rosenthal has written an excellent front page feature in this morning's New York Times on how they managed it.

If you think of it as a recipe, there are three key ingredients of Portugal's success:

  • 1 part opening up of the energy sector to market forces (including the privatization of energy utilities)
  • 1 part technological modernization (in particular the creation of a smart-grid able to handle diverse sources of renewable energy), and
  • 2 parts savvy country-wide energy policy (including guaranteed rates for renewables, and the EU Carbon Trading System).
But like any recipe you also need a chef, in this case Prime Minister José Sócrates who came in on a landslide victory in 2005 and pushed through energy reform.
The current system is a mixture of wind, solar, hydro, small scale decentralized renewables on people's homes (see my last post), and some power still coming from natural gas generators. The Times gives a nice snapshot of the type of “plate-spinning” necessary to keep this kind of system running.  (Not mind you, that a traditional energy grid is simple to run either.)

The financial costs seem to have been relatively minor. The state has not used taxes or debt to fund this transition. The costs are born by the private power producers and come out in the rates paid by consumers. Over the past 5 years, electricity costs have gone up 15%.That's not insignificant, but utilities are asking for similar increases here in North America, without providing any where near the kind of innovation taking place in Portugal.  All the same, voters have been unhappy about rate increases and it seems that this is at least partially responsible for Sócrates narrow victory in 2009.

I've posted short excerpts below, but the full piece is well worth reading.

“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”

Still, aggressive national policies to accelerate renewable energy use are succeeding in Portugal and some other countries, according to a recent report by IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., a leading energy consulting firm. By 2025, the report projected, Ireland, Denmark and Britain will also get 40 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; if power from large-scale hydroelectric dams, an older type of renewable energy, is included, countries like Canada and Brazil join the list.

If the United States is to catch up to countries like Portugal, energy experts say, it must overcome obstacles like a fragmented, outdated energy grid poorly suited to renewable energy; a historic reliance on plentiful and cheap supplies of fossil fuels, especially coal; powerful oil and coal industries that often oppose incentives for renewable development; and energy policy that is heavily influenced by individual states.
The relative costs of an energy transition would inevitably be higher in the United States than in Portugal. But as the expense of renewable power drops, an increasing number of countries see such a shift as worthwhile, said Alex Klein, research director, clean and renewable power generation, at IHS.

“The cost gap will close in the next decade, but what you get right away is an energy supply that is domestically controlled and safer,” Mr. Klein said.

Renewables In Your BackYard: On-line Tools Show Solar & Wind Potential

Is it worth it?  Figuring out if your home, office, or the public pool down the street is suitable for solar or wind power isn't a straightforward process.  Decentralized renewable energy is expanding rapidly and will be a taken for granted part of tomorrow's smart energy systems.  Thankfully a series of on-line tools exists to help you figure out what you and your community's place can be in that future.

There are two basic questions when it comes to renewables:  First, how suitable is your site – how much sun does your roof really get?  Second, how do the costs pencil out and what subsidies and incentives are available to make it more affordable?

In Your Backyard
For Americans,  “In My Backyard” (IMBY) produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is an excellent tool.  Working in googlemaps you pinpoint your roof, draw on the size and location of the solar or wind installation you have in mind and hit “enter”.  The system then uses meterological data, local electricity rates and information on state and federal incentives, to calculate how much power you would produce and how long it will take for your installation to pay for itself at currents rates.  (I confess that there is something strangely addictive about drawing solar panels all over your neighbours' roofs.)  

IMBY doesn't work north of the 49th Parallel, but Canadians (and Americans) can use  SolarRating goes a step further than IMBY, letting you get more accurate estimates by adding the slope of your roof, and trees or other buildings that may shade your panels.  A quick login is necessary at the end to see the report for your location.

Of Desire and Tax Incentives
While costs of solar have come down by more than a quarter since 2002, subsidies and incentives are still key to level the playing field with conventional energy sources.  Incentive programs are being managed by a variety of different government agencies and non-profits.  Cumulatively they can cover up to 80% of costs in some areas, but keeping track of them can be difficult.  In the U.S.  the aptly named DSIRE database, has federal, state and local incentives all sorted by state. 

The route is less direct for Canadians.  This past March the federal government cancelled their ecoEnergy program, effectively halving the amount of available subsidies.  Thankfully, many provinces and municipalities offer their own incentives.  Natural Resources Canada hosts a directory of those programs.  The Canadian Solar Industries Association also offers a good listing of solar incentives. A variety of non-profits, like B.C. and Ontario's Sustainable Energy Association, also offer support that is not listed there.

Canada Trailing
Putting together this information, I was surprised by the difference between what is available North and South of the Canada/US border.  A homeowner in Oregon can qualify for cash rebates and tax credits that can halve the cost of a $40,000 home solar electric system. In Canada, only the Northwest Territories offers direct incentives and they are caped at $5,000 for individuals (although it rises to $50,000 for communities).  Ontario's generous feed-in tariff's also act as an incentive for local renewables (recent events aside).  But in the rest of the country only solar air and water heating systems qualify for rebates, and in most cases they are under $5,000.

Until that imbalance gets addressed, Canadians are going to be trailing their US cousins when it comes to small scale renewables.

(photo CANSIA)


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.