Looking forward to an electric 2022

The outlook for 2022 is uncertain, but one thing my household is looking forward to is switching from a conventional fossil-fuel powered vehicle to our first fully-battery-electric family car. As a one-car family on three-year contracts, we couldn’t find an affordable car with enough space and range for our needs in the summer of 2019, but this time we’ve ordered early so can still be certain to have the new vehicle before our contract runs out.

Our situation is not unique. Electric Vehicles (EV) make up less than 1% of the vehicles we see today on the UK’s roads, but almost 10% of new cars purchased in the past year have been battery electric. The transition is taking off. And once you have an EV on order, you soon start seeing other EV everywhere. Teslas are easy to spot, but it’s surprising how many other cars have little green squares on their registration plates.

I’ve started noticing the cars more recently, but I’d been taking note of EV charging stations or points for about two years now – ever since I started researching public charging options for residents who cannot charge at home.

I know from my research that the vast majority of private electric cars in the UK at the moment will usually be charged on someone’s driveway at their home. We certainly intend to do most of our charging at home on our driveway. Yet before we moved a little over a year ago, we would have struggled to find somewhere to charge an EV – another reason we put off buying one.

An estimated 25-30% of households in England park their cars on-street. But these are not the only type of household who may not be able to charge from home. Car parks, communal parking areas, private laybys and garage blocks are all forms of off-street residential parking, but installing a charger or even an electricity connection may not be straightforward.

Our situation before we moved was a case in point. We lived on an estate with communal car parking areas, no allocated spaces, and garages around the corner that were not supplied with electricity. We spoke to the estate managers before we chose our last car, and they said they’d think about installing EV charging in the future… but it was low on their priority list at the time.

Without an option to charge at home, switching to an electric car may seem impossible or at least challenging for residents of our former estate, as well as those who live in other more modern estates of flats, townhouses, maisonettes, and on the many historic terraced streets in cities, towns, and villages around the country.

So I have been on the lookout for public charging, and seen hubs at motorway services and in EV hotspots like Milton Keynes. I have seen them start to proliferate in ones and twos in supermarket car parks too – one was even installed at our local supermarket a couple of months ago.

But there doesn’t appear to be much strategic thinking behind the installation of most local public charging infrastructure to provide for residents without home charging. So our research asked: How much and where do these households need public charging? Should it be on-street or in car parks? What sort of service should this charging infrastructure provide? How can it offer flexibility both to the operator and the users? What will give households who can’t charge at home the confidence to switch to an electric car?

We are ready to present our findings and their policy implications in a webinar in February 2022, where we will also release a series of policy briefings to mark the end of this particular project. It’s another milestone to look forward to in what may be an uncertain year, but also promises to be, both personally and professionally, electric.

A lever to shift poor parking practices?

About a year ago, the consultation (and my blog recommendation) on options to end pavement parking in England closed. Since then, there has been no news on whether any options are to be taken forward or anything done at all.

It’s not a surprise. Parking is transport’s poor relation. It attracts less considered attention than walking, which by the way certainly deserves more attention. Walking is my favourite, most chosen mode, which is why I am so keen on a ban on pavement parking, but it is still a mode that you choose. Parking is just what happens when you stop driving.

Even if circumstances limit the alternatives people feel they have, they still can be said to actively choose to drive, to have a car, and therefore they must park it somewhere. And if they decide their best option for a house is one that does not have a driveway, then they park on the street or in a shared parking area or a layby or a car park. And if there is not enough room to park sensibly in these places, then they park wherever they can find room. Such as on the pavement.

This is why the Social Practices perspective is such a perfect fit for the act of parking. As an academic concept, social practices are viewed independently from the individual who performs them. Practices are routines made up of material things (the space, the vehicle), skills (to park), and meanings (e.g. convenience, entitlement) which can be bundled with other practices, such as driving or domestic activities. They are social in that they are so recognisable and accepted that they become something that people do because that’s how it’s done. People park on the pavement or otherwise clutter the public realm because it is socially acceptable and routine. But although routine, social practices can change.

Unfortunately, despite all the talk of driving less and switching to electric-powered cars to combat climate change, there’s very little discussion of reducing vehicle ownership. Or reducing parking space. Or even banning pavement parking.

But my research suggests that the switch to electric is changing the social practice of parking anyway, although in more subtle ways than policy interventions into parking itself. Recharging an electric car usually happens whilst parking, but adds to the practice new things (e.g. charge point and plug), skills (e.g. programming the charger), and meanings (e.g. balancing price to speed of charge).

It also adds a new social dimension. And where most social interactions around parking alone have been negative, some of those around the hybrid practice of parking and charging offer positive feedback. Early adopters of electric cars may compete for charging infrastructure, but our research suggests they also form social networks to help find and share charging.

Current electric car drivers also often find themselves attracting attention from neighbours and colleagues. Whilst, depending upon the scenario, this attention can be the usual complaints about space or pavement clutter, our research also suggests a genuine desire to learn about electric cars and the practicalities of charging them.

Will these changes, as they gain momentum alongside the mass adoption of electric-powered cars, be enough to rid our pavements and public realm of the scourge of poor parking practices? Probably not. I’d still like to see a ban on pavement parking. And more attention to reducing vehicle ownership, not just vehicle mileage. But researching how parking and charging practices combine does give a glimpse into how parking practices can change, and where there are opportunities to leverage that change in the transition to electric vehicles.