Dance, Dance Revolution
On May 8, something almost miraculous happened in a tiny country in the Caucasus.
It was the same country that Conan O’Brien, Kim Kardashian, and the late Anthony Bourdain all visited over the last few years.
In this small, post Soviet country, inflicted with over two decades of economic hardship and political corruption with failed efforts at protest and reform, the world saw something amazing: a population that went out en mass in protest, blockaded the streets for weeks, and danced their way to a peaceful revolution!
“…when the people in the country of 3 million were not blocking highways, going on strike and waving the tricolor Armenian flag, they were engaged in an activity altogether unassociated with revolution: dancing…
With folk music blasting from the stereos of parked cars, groups of protesters would break off from the crowds to link arms and cavort in concentric circles.” – Washington Post
And on May 8th, this county got what it was clamoring for: a popular dissenting figure as a new prime minister.
Armenia definitely earned this break.
Despite the amazing sights, the beautiful landscapes, amazing food, and rich heritage that was portrayed on The Tonight Show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and Parts Unknown, Armenia has had it rough.
This tiny, land-locked country sits between two hostile neighbors with economies orders of magnitude larger than it: the economic and military powerhouse Turkey and the oil-rich and militarized Azerbaijan. It faces a now two-decade-long blockade by these neighbors along most of its borders it due to an unresolved conflict. Its trade is confined to whatever can be trucked in from the north and south: Georgia and Iran. It has massive political corruption with enormously wealthy oligarchs pulling the strings. It has to play an uncomfortable geopolitcal tightrope walk, making sure not to lean too far in or out of US and Russian spheres of influence. Most of its energy comes from Russia, whose troops guard the borders against Turkey. Oh and it faces an 18.9% unemployment rate.
After the euphoria of a popular uprising and a new Prime Minister subsides, Armenia will also need an economic break, a lot of creativity, and geopolitical leverage if it is to survive and thrive.
ECONOMIC LOW-HANGING FRUIT
There is an entire industry/sector that is a drag on the entire world’s economy, the wellbeing of its cities and citizens, the health of the entire planet: the personal automobile.
The use of the car as a primary mode of transportation is one of the worst ideas of the 21st century:
- Cars are really expensive
- They are very inefficient, weighing 4-6000 pounds yet carry only a few hundred pounds.
- They pollute and choke our cities
- They are deadly, killing 1 million people every year
- They are extremely low bandwidth and clog up the streets
- They hog precious urban real estate just to be stored
- They cause stress in traffic
- They take a huge toll on human happiness
- They severely effect neighborhood vibrancy
- And require extraordinarily expensive infrastructure to support their weight
As of yet, no country has taken a bold, yet extremely strategic move of eliminating cars as an urban transportation option.
Some cities have starting to banning them. Many make driving inconvenient and make other modes like walking, biking, and public transit very easy.
But many modern cities and their streets are quite literally built around personal car ownership. Big auto and big oil are enormously influential. And human habit can be very difficult to change.
Yet in a small county like Armenia, eliminating the car in cities could actually be relatively easy.
Armenian cities and towns are quite geographically small. Most of their neighborhoods and streets were designed pre-automobile, and most urban trips are under 3 miles. This would make alternatives such as walking, biking, and public transportation easy substitutes. And as we will see below, this also makes it really easy to replace the car with a new class of vehicle.
The economic and geopolitical benefits of eliminating the car would be hard to overstate, and therefor is truly low-hanging fruit for economic stimulus:
- Eliminate a major economic extractive sector: Cars are a major economically extractive sector. First, cars are expensive and are foreign produced goods. The bulk of the millions used to purchase cars simply leaves the country. Second, cars require an exorbitant amount of oil and/or natural gas, none of which is produced locally. Those dollars (or in this case, drams) also just leave the country. Third, car infrastructure is enormously expensive due to the sheer weight of automobiles and the harsh Armenian winters that quickly wear roads down. Much of the road building and maintenance industry, money, and raw materials could instead be spent rebuilding dilapidated Soviet-era buildings. Fourth, cars require precious urban real estate for parking yet offer no additional value to that space. Therefore, the private automobile-industrial machine is truly gigantic extractive sector of Armenia’s economy and retiring cars would put an end to this wasteful spending and remove an large, yet invisible drag on the economy.
- Richer country, wealthier citizens: With a major extractive industries removed, both the government and the citizens have more disposable income to reinvest in other, more productive and more local areas of the economy, generating a positive cycle of local investment and spending.
- Energy independence: With the elimination of cars, which require enormous amount of fossil fuel, Armenia could find itself quite close to energy independence. It already exports electricity. It is starting to dabble in solar. Cutting cars could mean cutting foreign oil/gas for good!
- Geopolitical leverage: Russia is no stranger to using it’s dirty energy to manipulate its client states. Merely the threat of shutting off gas to Ukraine caused quite large geopolitical shock-waves just a few years ago. In Armenia’s case, Russia famously restricted the diameter of an Armenia/Iran pipeline to keep Armenia dependent on Russian natural gas. By eliminating urban cars, Armenia would benefit from a massive reduction in the need for oil and natural gas. This would would remove a giant point of leverage that Russia currently has on this landlocked and economically blockaded country.
BICYCLE 2.0: LITTLE ELECTRIC VEHICLES
Over the past few years the humble bicycle, scooter, and skateboard have begun evolving.
First, they acquired the power of the electric motor and battery. This gave them the biggest benefit of cars: power. This translates to ease of use, drastically less sweating/panting, uphill boosts, longer range. So most of the upside of cars without the weight, size, inefficiency, emissions, traffic, safety issues, and sprawl issues.
But the fun didn’t stop there! The bicycle, scooter, and skateboard have begun diversifying in form factor.
This diversification has seeing an entire ecosystem of new, light, green, efficient, affordable, and easy to ride vehicles from electric unicycles, to electric folding bikes, to electric bicycle-cars hybrids, skateboard-scooter hybrids, to electric cargo bikes, to motorcycle-bikes, and on and on.
By essentially stealing the best part of the car, the engine/motor, and slicing up its bloated form factor into an ecosystem of different types of rides, little EVs give us all the benefits of cars with almost none of their negative side effects.
And with stunning results.
Little electric vehicles (green) simply blow cars away in every category when compared with cars (purple).
Little electric vehicles have all but eliminated the mobility trade-off of today’s conventional modes of transportation.
They retain the benefits of cars without their unwanted consequences and have the benefits of cycling/walking without their inconveniences:
APPLIED TO OUR CASE STUDY
Cars are mean to go highway speeds, traverse long distances, and carry a lot of cargo. But almost all urban trips require the opposite. Slower speeds, short distances, carrying one or two people.
Thus, little electric vehicles are perfectly suited to replace the car, especially in the relatively small cities and towns of Armenia.
And thanks to the diversity in form factors and capabilities, there is a little electric vehicles for nearly any use case:
- For kids and teens: scooters and skateboards
- For commuting: bicycles and full sized Vespa-like scooters
- For public transportation: foldable scooters that can be used to get to a bus or metro stop, folded, and carried on
- For running errands and groceries: cargo bikes, scooters with baskets
- For the elderly and for winter months: bike/car hybrids or human pods that don’t require balance and have a protective shell for weather protection
What would ditching the car and adopting little electric vehicles mean for Armenia?
Both rich and not-so-rich cities have demonstrated the benefits of walk/bike/bus urban mobility. From Copenhagen to Bogota, the gains are substantial and very clear:
- Richer cities
- Richer, healthier, happier citizens
- Cut pollution, cleaner air
- Help eliminate traffic
- Reduce car crash injuries and deaths
- Far fewer carbon emissions
- Decreased oil and energy use
- Drastically cut energy use
- Free up wasted urban space used for car storage
- Encourage active mobility which is great for health, increase quality of life
- Create more desirable neighborhoods and streets
- Good for the local economy
- Good for tourism
Beyond these already substantial gains, Armenia could gain even more by such a transition:
- A new economic sector: Compared to cars, these little electric vehicles are much, much simpler to produce and require way fewer raw materials. Armenia already has a mining sector. Armenia already has a burgeoning technology sector. Furthermore, Armenia has emerging hardware manufacturing capabilities and quite developed engineering talent. So Armenia could start designing and manufacturing these vehicles for its own domestic consumption, sparking an entirely new tech and manufacturing sector.
- A large new export sector: Adoption of LEVs in Armenia could become a giant case study/promotional marketing for this new sector and Armenian could find itself producing these vehicles of the future for the rest of the world, sparking a large new export sector. Such new sectors are great for job creation and GDP growth.
- The unique energy independence and geopolitical benefits we described above: Perhaps the best part of the strategy of replacing cars with little electric vehicles is the fact that no one really takes these things seriously yet. So such a move wouldn’t really register on Putin’s radar, making this a very stealthy energy independence scheme for Armenia.
IDEAS FOR SUCH A TRANSITION
Here are just a few ideas for such a transition:
Yalla: The Armenia Bird or Lime
There are firms like Rocket Internet copy successful Silicon Valley models like Uber, Airbnb, and Zappos and launch them in international markets before the Silicon Valley companies can gain a foothold. GG, the Uber of the Caucasus, is such an example.
Dockless electric bike and electric scooter sharing companies like Bird and Lime have figured out how to eliminate the bottlenecks that were previously holding back the adoption of lightweight electric vehicles.
Through a competitive grant or seed investment, Armenia could catalyze the create the GG of little electric vehicles and become the regional leader for this new ultra-disruptive mobility technology, capitalizing on all of the benefits little EVs provide citizens and cities by launch its own e-scooter/e-bike sharing service before Bird, Lime, and other can reach the Caucasus or even the Middle East. And can it then innovate in the space by actually fostering an little EV manufacturing sector and/or introducing new form factors into the sharing space (such as protected human pods for harsh winter mobility).
Armenia can utilize the burgeoning technology, design, and startup talent to create the GG of little electric vehicles, helping Armenia rapidly transition away from cars and also capitalize on this new market by becoming the dominant player in the wider region.
Little Electric Vehicle Subsidies
While California, the United States, and many other government agencies subsidize electric vehicles to encourage adoption, many have argued just how much easier, better, more affordable it would be to simply subsidize electric bikes and other such little electric vehicles.
Electric cars cost tens of thousands of dollars. A traditional EV subsidy takes thousands of dollars per car to make any sort of difference in a consumers’ purchase decision. By contrast, little electric vehicles cost thousands and some even cost hundreds. A government subsidy could drastically cut its cost and quickly increase adoption with significantly less funds.
We’re learning a lot about what happens when a cities without proper biking infrastructure sees an influx of little electric vehicles like scooters. The ensuing “chaos” is vastly overblown, but some of the issues are real and the perceived chaos can cause a backlash resulting in a lot of complaints and political roadblocks to mass adoption.
One such painful example is the way Los Angeles ignored is own 2010 bike plan and is now dealing with the self-inflicted wound arising from having such inflexible, car-centric streets.
Armenia could proactively create a network of protected bike lanes, which would help adoption of little electric vehicles as well as traditional bikes.
Public Information Campaign
The effectiveness of government led initiatives often comes down to approach and psychology.
Simpleminded policies that attempt to use monetary carrots or sticks on citizens often can result in backlash. However, as the bans for plastic bags in supermarkets and for single use items has shown, people are quite understanding and supportive of an initiative when they understatement the reasons and are given enough time to get used to change.
Mixing little electric vehicles on Armenia’s current small, car-filled streets might cause issues. To head off such issues, the government could lay out a public information campaign to explain the benefits of the planned transition. Most people would probably end up supporting such a move if they understand that it would have large-scale positive benefits for themselves, their neighborhood, their country, and their children’s future.
It might even create advocacy among the population that would help move such a transition forward.
HEED THE VOICE OF WILLIAM SAROYAN
After it’s done dancing and celebrating, Armenia should definitely get electric cycling and scooting.
After all, its most famous and internationally recognized author, William Saroyan, was himself a cyclist and had the highest praise for the humble two wheeler as the “the noblest invention of mankind.”
Armenia would be wise to heed his advice while having as much fun getting around town as it did dancing on the streets, instead of continuing to be stuck in glass/metal cages.