Happy Electric New Year

In December 2021, as we set out on our annual New Year’s trip to see friends and family, I thought my household was on its last long-distance drive in a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. We had ordered an electric vehicle (EV) in late September and it was supposed to arrive in February. So we had a home charger installed in February, but then no EV.

Three notifications of delay later, and we were facing not only ever-rising petrol prices, but having to service and refinance our family car, as the contract would expire before the new car would be delivered. So after some reassessment, negotiation, and in light of the second-hand car shortages, we managed to secure an 18-month old, ex-demo, but more expensive vehicle make and model for similar monthly payments. It had less range, but a lot nicer finish – and a few bells and whistles we probably never would have ordered!

So I cannot report on a fully electric 2022, but we have had six months of all-EV driving – and parking and charging.

How’s it gone?

Our solar panels kept us topped up for free over the summer, and we only had to charge elsewhere on a single journey to see family. We found a rapid charge point in a retail park a little over halfway there, and had all the energy we needed in the time it took us to pick up a few groceries. Slow charging from an outdoor plug at a relatives’ home was an easy option, and we discovered that another relation had a pre-installed home charger in their recently bought new-build.

A little road trip in October half term was even more satisfactory. We benefitted from VIP parking (and got a charge) at Harry Potter Studios (an attraction I recommend). We then had a couple nights in a holiday cottage in Norfolk, where the EV-owning owners let us use their charger and pay for the electricity with our bill. They were also more than happy to talk about their EV experiences – I was interested to learn they had installed a home charger at an elderly parent’s home to minimise range anxiety when on caring duties.

With Autumn rain, our neighbour’s house blocking the low winter sun and my other half’s daily commute, our EV was ever more rarely chargeable by solar, but we appreciated our smart home charger even more. We could programme our car to charge in the middle of the night and track the energy use in our home. It was useful when our smart meter was on the blink, and more recently helped us benefit from the government’s energy saving scheme.

Our travel patterns over the last six months haven’t change much. We drive for the same sorts of journeys as before, and I walk as much as ever. We’re still a one-car family that occasionally struggles with logistics. We enjoy knowing that our family car is more environmentally friendly, cheaper to run, gets us out of regular journeys to the petrol station, and makes spaceship sounds under 10mph.

On the other hand, on longer journeys in the winter, you have to worry not only about finding a charger, but also finding one that’s operational and available. And if someone else is plugged into the same rapid charger at the same time as you, your EV will charge at half speed or less, result in longer-than-planned stops with antsy children or running the battery down further and feeling range anxiety.

More charging infrastructure would help – and it has been surprising to realise which places have more or less available – but we’ve realised it’s not just about planning ahead, but also planning in a different way than for refuelling.

With an EV, plan to keep topped up, rather than waiting until you’re on a quarter charge (and that includes when charging at home!). Think about how many charge-points are available at a given location, not just where they are. Think about where you can charge when on longer journeys whilst stopped for a meal, rather than simply along a route. Supermarkets might be better bets than motorway services, and you never know whose home might have a charger you can use.

Which leads me to my final point – if EVs are to maximise their potential to drive forward a more sustainable future, EV drivers must come together to share advice, charging, and even vehicles. The more we do so, the more we will be able to wish each other a Happy Electric New Year.

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.

A New Plan for Parking?

I started a new job, with a new research project last week. I’m working for the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford with public and private sector partners to investigate the potential of ‘Park and Charge’ business models. Ostensibly, therefore, it is about electric vehicles and the role they must play in achieving future, carbon-free mobility.

But I’m much more excited about the parking bit of the brief.

Basically, the premise is ‘that at least 30% of households in the UK lack access to off-street charging or home charging’, or, in other words, lack private, off-street parking for their own safe, plug-in connection. These people may be in terraces or flats or homes with only on-street parking or communal parking without allocated spaces. They may or may not already use a car, but either way, if they want to buy into the electric car revolution, they need an alternative ‘home-charging’ solution. My initial research suggests that home charging availability is one of the biggest barriers to electric car adoption, even as cost comes down and range / performance / battery life goes up.

The proposal? Develop a ‘park and charge’ business model for ‘home’ charging points in public car parks. The key point is that this is a plan for not just charging, but managing and pricing parking space.

Let me take a step back to explain why I think this is exciting. As a young, transport planning consultant 15 years ago, my job included helping local governments ‘decriminalise’, manage, and value their parking. Legislation had been passed to enable local authorities outside London to decide to take responsibility for on-street parking enforcement from the police, even issue and collect fines. However, they could not enforce anything unless they also published Traffic Regulation Orders and installed all the appropriate signs and lines that accompany them. The discretion to decide if someone had left their car in a dangerous or obstructive position was still a police matter. As police officers usually have better things to do, anywhere with no lines and signs remain a free-for-all. So any parking management had to be designed, agreed, and implemented.

What did this mean? I spent a lot of time walking the streets, measuring the lengths and widths available for parking, confirming adjacent land uses, and writing detailed descriptions of which bays would be designated for residents permit parking or limited waiting or pay and display or shared use. And where there should be yellow lines and no parking. Many of these streets were narrow, with housing that had no possibility of off-street parking. Some areas were quite wealthy and households had two or more vehicles on street. Some streets were located near employment or the local train station. There was a lot of competition for parking and a lot of complaints about what was fair and equitable as we designed residents’ parking schemes.

Yet last year I met someone from one of the towns where I had worked who said how much their parents and their parents’ neighbours loved having the residents’ parking. They pay for a permit. They are not guaranteed a space. But managed space is still better than a free-for-all, and attitudes have changed about the value that space has, even for parking cars.

To bring it back to today, climate change targets mean that it is necessary to not only accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, but also to reduce the number of private vehicles on our roads. Managing parking and planning where space should be given to cars as well as to which type of cars (electric, shared…) means addressing both these challenges. So the Park and Charge research project could be a parking space in the right direction.