Not for the first, or last, time I was stuck in traffic on my own road for 20 minutes earlier this week. It was the end of what would normally be a 10-minute car journey to pick up my daughter from nursery. It was 28 degrees outside, and the traffic was gridlocked. We were only a couple of minutes walk from home.
As I sat there, Cat Stevens singing an incongruous “Morning Has Broken” on the stereo while drivers honked their horns and swore over the swelter and traffic fumes, I noticed for the first time a shiny black plug-in charging point for electric vehicles on the roadside. Fantastic, I thought, that my council is introducing this, and so close to my home. Perhaps one day we will all be driving electric cars, I mused wistfully, as two drivers ahead of me began an expletive-ridden argument about whose side of the road the other was veering into. We would still be in a jam, but there would be no choking fumes. The heat of the city would seem a little more bearable.
I then noticed that there is no parking space next to the charging-point, only white diagonal lines, as it is next to a busy junction. So you could plug in your car there, but receive a parking ticket along with your newly charged battery.
This farcical muddle symbolises the wider confusion about electric, and hybrid electric, vehicles. When it came into office in 2010, the “greenest government ever” promised to boost the use of low and zero emission vehicles. But take-up is a painful slow crawl. Latest figures show that, of 28m cars on our roads, just 3,597 (0.01 per cent) are electric, and a further 121,687 are hybrids. It seems beyond wildly optimistic that the government’s prediction of 1.7m low-emission vehicles by 2020 will be met. George Osborne has said explicitly and repeatedly the economy must come before the environment, so “green taxes” have bitten the dust.
In London, Boris Johnson, the bicycling Mayor who loves trumpeting his environmental credentials, has, incomprehensibly, ended the congestion charge exemption for hybrid cars – although current owners have three years to change vehicle. I can see that this rule change might force some to switch to fully electric cars, which carry no congestion charge, but won’t many simply go back to petrol engines?
Many – myself included – will be horrified that I am driving 10 minutes to nursery every morning and evening in a city like London. I have many excuses, which I realise aren’t really good enough, but here they are: I used to cycle to nursery, until my bike was stolen. I could get the bus, but it comes every 20 minutes. In part, it is inertia – it is so much easier, especially if I’m running late, to put my daughter in her child seat and put on a Cat Stevens CD.
I need to change my habits, and so do the rest of us. But to do this, we need a little more encouragement. The environmental case for electric cars should be strong – yesterday, two studies spelt out the health risks of pollution, mainly from traffic fumes. One, looking at the long-term effects of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter across Europe, found increased risk of lung cancer. A second, by Edinburgh University, linked pollution to heart failure.
So what is the government and industry doing to help us? The perceptions about low and zero emission vehicles are often wrong – new models can reach the same speeds as traditional cars. They can go for up to 100 miles before recharging, which covers 90 per cent of journeys.
Overwhelmingly, the greatest barrier is cost. Zero emission cars are tax-free, and in many areas carry no parking costs. But the expense of buying a new electric or hybrid is beyond many families – £25,000 for a Nissan LEAF, for example. In 2010, the last government introduced a “plug-in grant” of 25 per cent, up to £5,000, to reduce the cost of buying low emission cars. This has been continued under the Coalition, and more people apply every month – 920 grants were given out in the last quarter. Yet it only applies to new cars. You can buy a “Smart” car for a little more than £6,000, but there’s no room in the back, and you can’t use a plug-in grant to buy it because these models don’t go beyond 60mph, the minimum for the handout.
Second-hand electric cars are pretty rare, because the battery lasts around seven years. It would cost several thousand pounds for a new battery, so why would anyone bother?
The Government is trying further measures to improve the situation for consumers – and at least it has a green-friendly minister, Norman Baker, in charge. They are funding 75 per cent of the cost for charging points – which is crucial, particularly in urban areas, where fewer than half of households have off-street parking. Yet since February there have been fewer than 300 applications for this grant.
It is clear that incremental, little-publicised measures are not enough to change the habits of me and millions of other drivers. The Campaign for Better Transport has called for a “feebates” system, where people are given an extra rebate when they buy electric, funded by those who stick with “gas guzzlers”. It is clear that something revolutionary is needed to get us out of the slow lane.