Several London boroughs are to test out the impact of further encouraging the take-up of electric cars. Of £40m committed by government to Go Ultra Low initiatives across the UK, £13m will be spent on projects around the capital.
Technologies including rapid charging hubs and charging points on streetlights are promised, while electric car owners will enjoy free access to bus lanes, and free parking spaces where they can recharge.
The government announcement comes as the private sector is wading into the market, too. Chargemaster announced in January that it aims to install up to 200 rapid chargers across London, by the end of 2017.
“I want to see thousands more greener vehicles on our roads and I am proud to back this ambition with £40 million to help the UK become international pioneers of emission cutting technology,” said transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
“The UK is a world leader in the uptake of low emission vehicles and our long-term economic plan is investing £600 million by 2020 to improve air quality, create jobs and achieve our goal of every new car and van in the UK being ultra-low emission by 2040.” In London, the aspiration is that 70,000 ULEVs – ultra low emission vehicles – will be sold by 2020, and close to 250,000 by 2025.
In London, proposals will include more than a dozen Hackney streets being fitted with charging infrastructure including charging from streetlights. And Harrow is to create a low emission zone, with parking and traffic priority for electric cars.
Chargemaster is acting with private sector partners to grow its charging network, which will offer charging free to its charging scheme members, and a pay to use access for any other electric vehicle driver; prices are promised at cheaper than home charging rates. According to Chargemaster chief executive David Martell, there are currently just 12 rapid charging points across the capital. The company has promised to have 50 units installed by the end of 2016, many at supermarkets, petrol stations and public car parks.
Speaking in January, roads minister Andrew Jones noted how electric vehicle sales are accelerating. “ULEV sales are not just growing rapidly, they are rocketing. Plug-in vehicle registrations reached a record high in 2015, as 28,188 new ULEVs arrived on UK roads, more than the past five years’ totals rolled into one.”
One advocate of electric cars is Conservative London mayoral candidate Zak Goldsmith, who in November said he was convinced that electric vehicles will soon see a huge growth in numbers. “Within two or three years there will be no point having bus lanes because everybody is going to be driving these things around,” he told listeners to radio station LBC. He lent his support to electric cars driving in bus lanes.
Goldsmith’s Labour rival Sadiq Khan was more measured: “I want to see more people switching to electric cars, but suggestions we’ll be able to scrap bus lanes soon aren’t grounded in reality.”
This year will also see the substantive launch of the London version of Autolib, a Parisian electric car sharing scheme that is used by around 220,000 drivers there. A demonstration rank of the red cars was installed in Waterloo in the middle of last year, and the brand in London will be BlueCity.
“London should be even more electric vehicle orientated than Paris – it should be the leading city in Europe,” said group director, Cédric Bolloré. “We want to give the citizens of London an easy way to use a non-polluting form of transport. Autolib appeals to public transport customers who occasionally need to use their own car – one Autolib car takes nine cars off the street according to our studies.”
Meanwhile, slow progress is being made in killing off some of London’s most polluting vehicles, its black cabs. From 2018, any new black taxi will have to be capable of running on batteries, while private hire cars will have to meet the same restriction from 2020. A scrappage incentive is promised, to encourage drivers to swap to the new vehicles.
However, Dr Ian Walker and Gus Bosehans from the department of psychology at the University of Bath, argue that it is urban planning which has the answer. In a recent opinion piece in the Guardian, they commented: “Electric vehicles should not be considered a panacea for sustainable transport but rather a possible part of the puzzle. We need to rethink the journeys we make. Many of our urban journeys are short and we should plan cities with that in mind. Perhaps in the future we will continue to drive to the city, but we won’t drive through the city. Let’s turn cities back into a place for human beings to make their short journeys in a physically active way.”
LPA Perspective: There’s a lot going on here – and it could have a major impact on the way people travel around London, and therefore on how the capital’s streets will look and feel in years to come.
In the short term, we may be encumbered with a variety of new street furniture, as the various proponents look to find the most acceptable way to allow electric cars to be recharged. In the medium term, as Walker and Bosehans suggest, we need to be thinking about how our cities are planned. More park and rides? That would solve range anxiety at a stroke.
More electric vehicles must mean less internal combustion engines. Let’s set aside the arguments about how the electricity is generated, at the local level that will mean cleaner air. Which will, in itself, be inclined to encourage more walkers and cyclists.
The initiatives in London sound interesting, and we look forward to seeing more. Let’s just hope they don’t create a new category of personal injury claims, from tripping over charging cables.
But be careful what you wish for. The danger is that electric car incentives can not just displace traditional car purchases, but could encourage public transport users back onto the roads. Norway has deployed some similar tactics to encourage electric car buying, with the result that electric car traffic clogs bus lanes. And according to newspaper reports, there are barely enough of the promised parking spaces in central Oslo to go around. Norway has, however, declared that incentives will not continue at the same level, once electric car sales have breached 50,000.
Set that to one side, and there’s the issue of car sharing. Already, some London authorities bake membership of a car sharing club into section 106 agreements on residential developments. It’s a sensible alternative to allowing residents a personal parking space.
BlueCity – the UK version of Paris’s Autolib – is an electric car sharing service. It will doubtless rival, and possibly edge out, those existing car sharing services using traditional cars with engines. For now, Bolloré’s group is grappling with sorting out the charging network it inherited. Charge points a year ago had a dreadful 60% availability; it’s up to 85% but needs further work.
Track a little further ahead, and those electric shared cars will be driving themselves. In fact, if you purchase a Tesla electric car, it will already do some of the driving for you, at least on simple dual carriageways. But there are plenty of new names, not traditionally car makers, entering this space, including Google and (rumoured) Apple. Which could make the fuss about black taxis, low emissions and Uber all seem an amusing aside, a decade from now.