Gareth Huw Davies

Environment Blog

Could "Boris Bikes" concept extend to electric cars in London?

The Autolib, built by French company Bolloré

Here is is a story from history – or  August 9, 2007, to be precise.


“Ken Livingstone has ordered a feasibility study into a scheme which would see travellers hiring and dropping off bikes from street corners. The Mayor of London has been inspired by a scheme that was introduced in Paris just weeks ago.” – BBC News website.


Ken’s successor Boris Johnson pushed the scheme through, and the capital is now very familiar with “Boris Bikes.” (Who on earth ever calls them Barclays Bikes?)


So when Mayor Boris sees another Parisien initiative – the world’s first municipal electric vehicle (EV) hire scheme –  and declares he wants it in London, you might as well just start counting down the years. There is a sort of inevitability that we will be  picking up  electric “Boris Cars”  (so could it be “Ken Cars”?) by, let’s say, 2014.


But first the French scheme needs to negotiate an impasse or two.  The plan for a fleet of 3,000 lithium battery-powered Autolib cars,  to be available later this year from 1,000 self-service hire points throughout Paris, has been set back while an appeal from mainstream car rental companies who claim the project has received unfair municipal support is heard.


If the appeal is rejected, the scheme will go ahead. With a hefty 250 km  (156 m) range, enough to be drive from London to Cardiff, and  a full recharge taking around four hours, the Autolib, built by French company Bolloré, to a design by Italian partner Pininfarina, sounds like a step change in electric vehicle development. Manufacturer of vehicle, roughly the size of a Mini, with a top speed of 130km/h (81m/h), has already begun in Turin.


The price is attractive, just €12 a month, with additional charges of €5 for the first half an hour of use, €4 for the next, and €6 for each subsequent 30-minute slot.


The hirer will use a credit card to pick up a car from a docking station and leave it in a spare place at another station when finished. Each car will have a radio, a GPS route-finding system and an onboard computer to direct the driver to empty docking spaces.


But would this electric car, or any other in a Boris-type hiring scheme be right for London, if he pressed ahead with it in a second term (or his enthusiasm forced whoever else might be elected mayor to follow suit)? Driving in Central London is often snail-paced at the moment, and is likely to remain so with Crossrail construction continuing until 2018. Do drivers who only want a short trip with a 20 or 25 min drive really want to be clammed up in traffic and forced to pay for an extension of their hire?  While traffic menaces cyclists, it rarely holds them up.


A hire car network will also be much more expensive than a bike hire scheme. Is the London Assembly and the London council taxpayer really ready for that expense, when buses are abundant and the underground runs reasonably well?


But the case for such a scheme, at least on a small scale, may become irresistible and in the suburbs, if it works out in Paris. Don’t be surprised if it’s someone’s pledge in the 2012 mayoral elections.


And why stop in London?  US cities, for example, where the traffic runs more freely in the grid system, could be early adopters. I see Palm Springs in California as a good candidate, a series of “cities” spread out  over about 10 miles, where public transport is thin and a car is almost obligatory. And one of the biggest wind farms in the US on the city limits, providing plenty of Co2 free power.