Are electric vehicles a threat to cities? Conference report

By Emma Griffin, vice-chair, London Living Streets

Cowcross_lowresThere’s a sense of giddiness in current plans for electric vehicles. Government’s Road to Zero strategy talks excitedly about an “electric vehicle revolution”, “all new cars and vans [being] effectively zero emission by 2040”, a “massive roll-out of infrastructure” and the “biggest technology advancement to hit UK roads since the invention of the combustion engine”.

These aspirations were put under closer scrutiny at a conference organised by London Living Streets and Urban Design Group on October 11.

Keynote speaker, professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London and government advisor on air quality, explained that “zero emissions” was a misnomer for electric vehicles, given that brakes, tyres, road wear and road dust also contribute to particulate pollution. Reducing air pollution is not a case of switching to electric vehicles, but reducing the number of cars on roads.

Attendees were shown countless examples of ugly, obtrusive EV charge points that make life even more difficult for people in wheelchairs, with buggies and visual impairments. Are we bending over backwards to love EVs by installing infrastructure that harms our public realm, fails to reduce car journeys and could soon be out of date, asked Alan Hayes, founder of Really Good Ideas and member of the Engineering Energy for the Future project group at Institution of Civil Engineers?

Are car manufacturers using the “green” credentials of EVs to encourage sales and lure us into another era of car domination? In reality, these vehicles will have a catastrophic impact on resource use and environmental degradation, argued Susie Morrow, chair of Wandsworth Living Streets.

Electric vehicles will also do nothing to reduce road danger or reallocate road space to ensure safer, healthier streets where children can play and more people walk and cycle. Switching cars to electric might reduce some air pollution, but many more lives can be saved and improved if London prioritises active forms of travel.

London Living Street’s conclusion was that London’s delivery plan for electric vehicle infrastructure must be aligned with the Mayor of London’s Transport Strategy. If planned carefully, EV infrastructure can both support Healthy Streets that are free of pavement clutter and influence driving behaviour to reduce the number of cars on roads.

Electric Vehicles 2018-10-11 Conference ReportSource: Urban Design Group 

Solutions and innovations 

The event also explored solutions. London Living Streets advocates a hierarchy of locations for EV charging infrastructure. A more detailed briefing document will follow.

  1. First and foremost, charge points should be located off streets in car parks.

City of London is the first local authority to propose off-street EV charging as a priority in its draft Transport Strategy, published this month. Where on-street locations are essential, the strategy asks that charge points are installed in the carriageway, rather than the pavement.

Julian O’Kelly, head of technology, innovation and research at British Parking Association explored innovations for EV charging in car parks, including vehicle-to-grid technology; conductive charging; EV charging robots; and the Parking Energy model where cabling is separated from chargers and charging is offered as a service. Currently car park operators are reluctant to invest in technology due to high costs and uncertainty, but O’Kelly expects this to change within a few years.

London Living Streets would like car park operators to go a step further and provide EVs as a service via car clubs. A car club operated from a car park could offer a wider variety of cars and extras such as car seats that would appeal to families. Such a model requires a change in behaviour, yes, but low car ownership across London shows this is already possible. Residents in Central and Inner London simply do not need to own their cars anymore. The advent of EV, with decisions to take infrastructure off streets, should be a catalyst for a switch to car sharing.

Fred Le Ballois, project manager at Source London and Bluecity car sharing firm, told the audience that one car club vehicle removes 10 on the road.

But if car clubs were operated from off-street locations, they could free even more carriageway space. This space could be reallocated for cycle lanes, seating, greenery and safer crossings. Car clubs also facilitate active travel by prompting users to justify the need for each car journey.

Charlotte Thiery Weetman, programme manager for Electric Mobility at Cenex gave details about the InclusivEV project that is testing the business case for electric car clubs in low-income neighbourhoods. Projects like this are crucial in proving the wider appeal and benefits of car sharing. The three-year project will test 90 cars in three European locations in Solihull, UK; Modena, Italy; and Valencia, Spain

2. Where on-street locations are essential, charge points must be installed in the carriageway.

Susan Claris, transport planner at Arup, shared her concept of the ReCharge Parklet, that provides EV charging facilities within a micro-park known as a ‘parklet’. The appeal of this concept is that it frees pavement space, improves the overall appearance of the street, and appeals to the wider community — not just EV owners — with its greenery, seating and other facilities such as e-bike charging, mobile phone charging and Wi-Fi.

Plans for EV infrastructure, including carriageway installations, must be made with consideration of future cycle schemes, warned Simon Munk, from London Cycling Campaign. This is especially important on London’s strategic routes set out in TfL’s Strategic Cycling Analysis.

3. The pavement is the last resort, ideally on lamp posts or if a 2.5 metre clear width remains

Pavements should only be considered for separate charge points and feeder pillars if 2.5 metres of clear space is left for social, family and utility walking. This basic minimum provision is recommended in iWalk: Innovations in Inclusive Walking, a research project by Bristol City Council and University of Bristol (2007).

Lamppost charging has been presented as one solution for clutter-free pavement installations. Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) has recently completed a successful trial of EVCPs on lampposts. Gary Noble, chief engineer at RBKC told the audience these installations have proved more flexible and easy to install than standalone charge points.

Trailing cables from lamp post chargers do, however, present a trip hazard, particularly to those with sight loss.

Indeed councils were criticised for not doing enough to take into account the needs of people with disabilities.

Karishma Shah, London campaigns officer at Royal National Institute of Blind People pointed out that equality impact assessments for EVCPs were not carried out often enough and the Equality Act 2010 should be used in a more robust way to improve equal rights in the public realm.

Mr Ali, of the key precedent Ali vs Newham 2012, was in the audience to share his experiences. This case clarified the meaning of “due regard” under the Equality Act, proving that it is not a mere tick-box exercise, but a robust inquiry before arriving at a decision. Councils were advised that failure to take account of the Equality Act could result in a judicial review.

Currently, streetscape guidance — both from TfL and boroughs — includes very little detail on EVCPs. Faith Martin, principal technical specialist at TfL told the audience that it is in the process of updating its Streetscape Guidance and will encourage boroughs to include TfL’s principles in theirs.

Presentations available to download:

Session 1

Session 2

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