MAILBOX: Electric cars and selective taxation

An article penned by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) John Kane-Berman has stirred debate, with many community members commenting on his views. The topic? Electric vehicles in South Africa. From an environmental perspective, plenty of people believe electric cars are the way forward and you can see why. With no emissions, they require low maintenance and can be charged with sustainable energy (such as solar, for example). The former IRR CEO questions how the switch to electric cars may affect consumers in lower- to middle-income countries, where cars like these are out of reach for many. Below, community member John Stegmann proposes an idea that does away with the need for car ownership completely, providing people with a convenient and perhaps more eco-friendly form of transport.


Henry Ford started it. He manufactured cars, something he did remarkably well.  That’s where his responsibility ended. Customers would come to his factory door to  buy a car and take it away. Where they drove it, where they found fuel was the  owner’s problem. Other car manufacturers followed suit.  

That holds for manufacturers of bicycles, battery-assisted pedelec bicycles and all weather velomobiles. Human power + PV electric assist is the most environmentally friendly and sustainable mode of personal transport for the vast  majority of human pedestrians on Earth.  

We sort of understand that, except that we crave cars and will pay whatever it takes to have them. We’ll tolerate road congestion, road taxes, incredible fuel price hikes, fuel taxes and garaging costs. Even the destruction of all life on the planet if nobody stops us. The only reason why officials sanction subsidies to buy electric cars is because they love driving cars.  

Trains are way more economical than cars. The railroad has the flattest gradients and largest radius bends possible. Steel wheels on steel rails have the lowest rolling resistance, and the carriages slip-stream one another. A freight train crosses the USA from coast to coast on the equivalent of one tank of ‘gas’; but it doesn’t do that yet using 100% renewable electric energy.  

In the late 1950s, I was upset by the detrimental effects of car ownership on Pretoria’s charm as a leafy city. Road widening and parking for cars downtown means giving up the wide sidewalks for road widening from two to four lanes, and pinching even more sidewalk space for parking; pedestrians have to squeeze past dormant cars, breathe fumes and risk injury crossing roads. Cars now dominate. In surrounding urban areas, the veld gives way to housing and associated infrastructure as the population explodes and motorists opt to live in the country and work in the city.  

It made me think. What if there was a mode of travel that citizens found more attractive than owning and operating a private car? And what if that mode preserved the pedestrianised character of the city and peripheral hubs?  

Suppose there was a miniaturised railway; instead of using trains carrying as  many passengers as possible with stations far apart, it was more like a landline telephone service with lots of small two-seater carriages and lots of stations.

Instead of the railway being large with infrequent trains, it was narrow with regular activity, effectively transporting many more individuals per day, taking each of them directly, non-stop, from where they are to where they want to be, in their own time, 24/7/365. No schedules.  

For less than the cost of a garage for your car at home, you could have a station for your private access to the service. You’d travel from there to a friend’s house or apartment block, send kids to school and back home, go to work or shopping. Go out to dinner and a show at night, even if you’re elderly and don’t like driving at night. No need for a driver’s licence. All trips are A-to-B non-stop, and electrically powered. Before you enter the system, it quotes the duration and cost variables for your intended journey. “If you book that trip now, you’ll arrive at your destination within x minutes at a cost of y.” You decide.  

A two- or three-track line could be buried below one car lane width of road. A four-lane road is reduced to three or two lanes, freeing up space for cyclists, pedestrians or gardening. The compact ‘band width’ is achieved by the  carriages no wider than a motorcycle. Instead of the two rails being side by side (unstable), they’d be one above the other and the carriages would have four wheels, rather than two.

More convenient, a lot more affordable, a much better service, more room for  bicyclists, pedestrians and planting, fresh air and highly effective at reducing planet warming. And more.  

Unfortunately, this was far too advanced then. Computers were nowhere ready for it;  neither could people see the need. Is it now too late ?  

John Stegmann 

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