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.

Putting Parking in its Place

There is less than a month left until the consultation on options to reduce pavement parking in England closes. In my blog last month, I argued for option 3, which would, by default, ban pavement parking unless action were taken to allow it; such action being marking permitted parking bays partially on the pavement.

If Option 3 is implemented, it will be a massive improvement in the management of our public highways and streetscapes here in England. However, for me it is not an end point, but should be just the beginning.

It’s not that I’m against parking. I’m against parking as a free-for-all. Free in terms of price, but more importantly in terms of space. The default in many places is park where you like, how you like, when you like, whatever type of vehicle you like. The result is often an untidy, obstructive mess. People are parking in public in such a shameful way, fig leaves are definitely required.

It’s a pet peeve whether I’m walking or driving. You know what I mean. I’ve probably made you think of dozens of examples of poor parking just by using the phrase.

People park across the kerb or too far from the kerb. People park too close to your car, making it impossible to get out, or too far from the next car over, making it impossible for you to get in. People park too close to the junction or where pedestrians cross, blocking visibility for everyone.

Near the shops, cars are left cluttering up the street when there’s a perfectly good car park around the corner. Or they’re left into the night or overnight among the houses of strangers just because there’s a railway station down the road.

Then there’s the caravan that detracts from the view out your window, the commercial vehicle that is left with its rear end in the road, the SUV that occupies either two normal spaces or the parent and child space at the supermarket even if there is no sign of any children.

I could go on, as I’m sure you can tell. I know regulation and enforcement aren’t popular, but we’re dealing with the limited resource of public space. Bays should be marked so people know where and how to park. I’d appreciate those lines helping me line my car up neatly. In some cases, there should also be signs with instructions about when or how long or who can park.

And if there are no signs nor markings, there should be no parking. Yellow lines simply are not attractive. And too many assumptions are made if there are no yellow lines. The Highway Code prohibits parking within 10 meters of a junction, but how often have you seen that enforced? Obstruction is still a criminal offense, but people block driveways and entrances without even noticing. Never mind obstruction of pedestrians as discussed in my previous blog.

Marked parking bays don’t guarantee good parking. Yet there is a good chance they’d reduce bad parking. They would certainly make it more obvious where parking is or is not allowed. Obstructive, inconsiderate parking should become the exception, rather than the rule. That’s how I propose putting parking in its place.

An Unnecessary Obstruction

The Department for Transport (DfT) in England is currently consulting on three options that will reduce the amount of parking that occurs on ‘the pavement’ (or ‘sidewalk’ or ‘footway’ alongside a carriageway). The aim is to address the obstruction that vehicles cause when they park where people are trying to walk.

The ubiquitous habit of parking on the pavement in the UK has evolved due in part to infrastructure design, in part to outdated legislation, and in part to misguided priorities.

First, many residential streets in the UK are narrow and many houses have no off-street parking, or insufficient space. Some of this is down to history, with neighbourhoods built before mass car ownership. However, there are also many more recent developments, where narrow, winding streets and cul-de-sacs were in fashion and developers did not predict that cars would get so much bigger or that households would have so many of them.

Secondly, although the Traffic Management Act 2004 offered a much-needed update to parking management and enforcement in the country after 20 years of neglecting the issue, it did not make the process of introducing parking restrictions any less bureaucratic, and it did not directly address the prevalence of pavement parking. It allowed local governments to take over responsibilities for creating and enforcing parking restrictions from the police, but only by writing and advertising Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) with precise measurements and correct signs and road markings.

The default is that parking is permitted, even if it is on the pavement. That is why the DfT proposes Option 1: streamlining and digitising the TRO process. This would help authorities pass more TROs to prohibit parking where it is a problem, whether on the pavement or not. However, I would argue that it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the profligate habit of pavement parking seen in your average residential neighbourhood.

Why? Because the third reason parking on the pavement is so widespread is down to cultural norms: it is quite simply assumed and expected in most places that the private space a household has available for parking should not limit the number of vehicles it owns, so long as there is some unrestricted public space on-street nearby. If that street is not wide enough for traffic to travel safely between cars parked fully on the street, then the cars park partially on the pavement. There is absolutely no consideration as to whether pedestrians can travel safely on the pavement or are forced to walk around into traffic.

Thus the DfT suggests Option 2, where consideration should be given as to whether pedestrians, including those in wheelchairs or pushing children in buggies, are being obstructed by the cars parked on the pavement. In such cases, Option 2 suggests, local authorities could issue a parking ticket to the car causing the obstruction without the need for signs or road markings.

But there is a catch – parking enforcement must have some way of showing that the vehicle was not just on the pavement, but causing an ‘unnecessary obstruction’ by being there. The consultation suggests that this could be demonstrated at least in part by an exercise in measurement, as the amount of obstruction depends upon both the width of the pavement and the width of the vehicle, and how much the two overlap.

Yet how to define, let alone demonstrate the ‘unnecessary’ bit? The document undermines its own arguments by suggesting that an obstruction to the pavement may be necessary if there is not sufficient carriageway for vehicles to pass on the road. In other words, parking is necessary, driving is necessary, and only if both of these can happen safely is walking on the pavement safely a necessity.

Thus, we turn to Option 3. Ban parking on the pavement. Make pavement parking enforceable by default, unless a TRO, with all its bureaucracy, signs and road markings, streamlined or not, is officially designated to allow it. Make local authorities and local communities decide if they really want to give up their sidewalks to SUVs. If they do, they can, but only after some actual consideration.

The counterargument is that too many cars will no longer have a place to park, too many exceptions will have to be made. That is the argument of those who think parking has more rights to the pavement than pedestrians, who assume parked cars are a necessary obstruction – if they think about it at all.

In my view, Option 3 is the only one worth considering. Surely if we really thought about the pavement parking we encounter when walking around our own neighbourhoods, we would conclude that it is almost always an unnecessary obstruction we’d all be much happier without.

A Future of Transport Equity?

I’ve been thinking about transport equity this month. I don’t mean transport poverty, although I’ve read some interesting literature on that too recently. But transport poverty is now and transport equity, or rather inequity, is what we are building into the future of mobility through our investment and policy decisions.

Three areas where we might be steering towards future transport inequity have been on my mind.

The first is electric vehicles. Many see a transition to electric vehicles as the solution to a low-carbon future. Yet my current research explores how mass adoption of plug-in electric vehicles might be delivered when at least a third of car drivers have no ability to park and charge their vehicles at their homes. Many of these people, who may be living in flats or small terraces or rented accommodation without private parking are unlikely to be able to afford the purchase price of battery electric vehicles anyway. Yet even if costs come down and the second-hand market grows, their lack of driveways and garages mean they would still fail to benefit from the ultra-low refuelling costs of slow-charging overnight using home electricity. There are solutions, and we are researching their social sustainability, but it is hard to see how state subsidies for private electric vehicle purchase will lead us to an equitable future of mobility. (Never mind the implications for congestion, urban environments, lithium mining…)

The second transport, or, more accurately, access equity issue that I’ve been mulling over is online access. Online access was a big part of my doctoral research, and as I defended my thesis this month, the external examiner acknowledged that I’d mentioned the equity aspect of online access, but questioned whether I addressed it directly enough. Indeed, the more I think about my analysis of the potential resilience and sustainability of telecommuting as an option to access work activities during transport disruption, the more I realise that it is an option for far too few, and those few tend to be among the more privileged. It does not have to be that way. Changes in government and corporate policy to promote computer skills and allow remote and autonomous working could enable telecommuting to be available to many more sectors of society. But there must also be investment in infrastructure that delivers both availability and quality online access to all – and I’m not sure the current preoccupation with 5G allows that.

Finally, it’s been hard to ignore recent headlines on HS2. Whatever you think about the political agenda or ballooning budget, a new high speed rail service will mainly serve relatively wealthy commuters, as, like telecommuting, rail commuters tend to be found among those with higher incomes. Especially if they’re travelling to benefit from London’s already bloated job market. One can’t help but agree with those who suggest the money might better be spent on local transport, reduced rail fares, or any number of other things. Unless there’s plenty in the coffers for both HS2 and the rest of the wish list, you’d be hard pressed to argue that this is socially-progressive infrastructure investment.

In conclusion, I am not against high-speed rail, 5G or other advanced information and communication technologies, nor electric vehicles and charging systems. Yet if this is all that policy is promoting or institutional actors are investing in, it will leave large portions of society behind and create the transport and access poverty of the future. Instead, I’m advocating for a bit more attention to transport equity when planning the future of mobility and accessibility.

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.