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What cities can do to boost the take-up of electric vehicles

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

PSE talks to Poppy Welch, head of Go Ultra Low, about the new funding for eight cities and city-regions to improve their electric vehicle charging infrastructure and encourage take-up of the vehicles, and to Peter Mann, director of transport at Bristol City Council, which together with its neighbours was one of the areas that won funding.

There seems to be a general feeling that the shift to electric vehicles, while slow, is now definitely here – and accelerating. Just under 30,000 electric vehicles were registered in the UK last year, which was double 2014’s tally, and about the same as all five previous years added together. In Europe, we are second only to Norway, and globally the UK is seen alongside places like California and the Netherlands as an innovator. As of January 2016, the total number of ULEVs, or ultra-low emission vehicles, stands at about 46,000. 

Poppy Welch, who heads up the Go Ultra Low campaign – a joint public and private effort to increase the numbers of ULEVs on our roads – told PSE: “Uptake is growing massively. The projection is that by 2020, there will be 100,000 cars (equivalent to 5% of registrations) that are ultra-low emission.” 

In late January, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP announced the winners of the Go Ultra Low City Scheme, which was a competition to give away £40m from a government fund to the places with the most innovative ideas for boosting ULEV take-up. 

There were four big winners: London, Milton Keynes, Bristol and its West of England neighbours, and Nottinghamshire and Derby. Those four areas will share £35m, while the final £5m is being split between Dundee, Oxford, York and councils in the north east. 

Welch said: “The idea is that they can be used as examples for any other city or town around the UK as to how they can effectively implement schemes in their own areas to encourage uptake. 

“It’s been brilliant, and the cities that bid have shown a lot of passion and innovation. They’ve come up with some really interesting and useful ideas to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles.” 

‘Very significant’ funding 

One of the winning areas was the West of England Partnership of Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. 

Director of transport at Bristol City Council, Peter Mann, said the £7m it has won will make a real difference. 

“The biggest hit would be creating these ‘charging stations’, which look like petrol stations but for electric vehicles,” he told PSE. “That’s probably going to have the most impact in terms of its ‘newness’ for society, as you don’t see these at the moment. In the West of England area, the interest in that will be great and will be the most visible addition. 

“We’re expecting to see a lot more registrations for electric vehicles over the course of the five-year funding period – we’re looking to get about 5,000 new registrations per year by 2020-21. That would be an annual registration probably equivalent to the total number of registrations we’ve got in the area at the moment. That is a very significant step up in terms of the overall number of cars on the road that’ll be electric. It builds on the ambition and the very strong momentum created by European Green Capital 2015.” 

Bristol already has more car club spaces than any city outside London, Mann said, plus an out-of-town freight consolidation centre at Avonmouth. Freight loads can be deposited there and broken up, then brought into Bristol and Bath city centres using two electric trucks. The public authorities have been subsidising that project for just over 10 years, with about 100 businesses taking part. 

“It’s something that I think can really take off,” Mann said, especially with new weight restrictions on heavy goods vehicles that have come into force in Bath and are being considered in Bristol. “It means we’ve got one vehicle travelling around the city centre, electrically powered, delivering goods – rather than a number of large 44t trucks coming into the city to drop off a relatively small load and then heading off out again. 

“This could expand and become a more effective operation and indeed have a more beneficial impact on reducing the number of heavy vehicles within the city centre. It could reduce the air pollution we get in central areas of Bristol and Bath particularly, but also other parts of the network.” 

The four councils are also committing, using the new funding, to replace 20-25% of their own fleets with electric vehicles over the next five years. 

“Leading by example is really important,” Mann said. “If we can demonstrate by usage and investment that there is a business case, by reducing running costs and so on, that always chimes well with business. That will hopefully persuade more of them to start investing and converting their vehicle fleets to electric as well.”

GO Ultra Low

Tipping point 

Mann agreed with Welch that visibility is key, and so Bristol, like other council areas, is offering specific perks and discounts for electric vehicle users, such as cheaper or free parking permits for business users of electric vehicles. Residential ULEV owners already get free residents’ parking permits in Bristol, with Bath looking at following suit. Electric vehicles will also get the most convenient spaces at public car parks, and will be able to drive in bus lanes. 

PSE asked whether there were risks with that, especially if some road users do not instantly recognise other cars as electric. Mann acknowledged: “That is an issue for us. We will want to tread quite carefully when we’re making relaxations, because there’s obviously that risk of people thinking ‘that car’s driving in a bus lane, so I will too’, when in fact that [electric] car would be exempt. At the end of the day, I think it’s down to individual drivers to make sure they’re driving in the right place and indeed parking in the right place.” 

Asked about the perceptions of electric vehicles, he said: “Unfortunately, there’s been a little bit of a negative vibe, probably coming out of London, about electric vehicle take-up and so on. I think what this money will do is give us a really big push in this area – to really put electric and ultra-low emission vehicles on the map, and make them more visible.”

A little persuasion 

The £7m – almost all of which is one-off capital funding, with just a sliver of revenue funding – will also be used for a scheme encouraging people to lease a plug-in car for up to four weeks to help them better understand the range of benefits offered by electric vehicles. Mann explained: “We recognise that there’s a lot of people out there who still need persuading that this is a good thing to do, and they’re perhaps concerned about how electric vehicles might perform or feel or handle or whatever. So this is a good initiative to try to get people sitting in them and looking at them and using them and trialling them.” 

Milton Keynes is going down a similar road, with an ‘Electric Vehicle Experience Centre’ to provide advice and short-term vehicles loans, while Hackney is using part of the money that London won to develop car-charging street lighting. Dundee is focusing on commuters, installing charge points in convenient areas for them. 

Welch said: “The technology is improving all the time. For example, the new Nissan Leaf is coming out shortly, with a much improved range. That said, there is easy access to thousands of publicly-accessible charging points, plus the fact that most people who own electric cars do the majority of their charging at home. So, people think it’s difficult, but actually we know from those who already own them that it’s much easier than people think to own an electric vehicle, and the infrastructure is there.” 

There are eight car manufacturers on board with the Go Ultra Low campaign: Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen, Audi, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Renault, and now Kia. Over the next three years, there will be 40 more ULEV models on the market, with all major manufacturers introducing them. “It’s not a flash in the pan,” Welch said. “We’re pleased about the government encouragement and extra funding, and we think things are going in the right direction. This is the future of motoring.”

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