Do planners dream of electric streets?

The last few years have seen a phenomenal growth in demand for electric vehicles in the UK.  Nearly 50,000 electric and plug in hybrid vehicles were registered between July and September 2017 a considerable achievement, when only 5 years ago it was less than 1,000.

Overall, there are now around 120,000 battery-powered cars on Britain’s roads, and this is expected to grow to 10m by 2035.  From the modest Nissan Leaf, to the futuristic Tesla, the choice of electric vehicles is expanding, and various car manufacturers have announced ambitious plans to develop even more electric vehicles to suit a range of tastes and budgets.

The benefits of moving to electric are clear – as well as lower emissions, they are also cheaper to run costing less than half as much than petrol-powered equivalents.

Out with the old

This means that a future where electric cars are the norm is now on the near horizon.  Indeed, the UK recently committed to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, including hybrid vehicles, by 2040.  The Scottish government have set an even more ambitious target pledging that by 2032 all new vehicles sold in Scotland will be electric. Norway, India and France have also set similar goals.

At the local level, Oxford is set to become the first city centre to ban all non-electric vehicles with certain streets becoming electric-only by 2020, and the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) will come into operation in London next year.

Delivery of EV infrastructure through the planning system

As desirable as a low emission, electric-only city may be, the use of electric vehicles poses a number of challenges for town planning and urban design.

Ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure in place to meet the increased demand for electric vehicle recharging will be a key issue. While there has been a significant growth in the number and geographic spread of EV connectors across the UK since 2011, many more will be required if predicted demand is to be met.

While motorway services and petrol stations will soon be required by law to install charge points for electric cars, simply replacing existing fuel pumps with EV chargers will not provide sufficient capacity, as at present, charging an electric car can take anywhere between 30 minutes to a couple of hours.  Additional charging stations will have to be incorporated into parking spots – either on the road, at home or in car parks.

The planning system is already taking some practical action to address this. Both planning policy and development management provide important delivery mechanisms.

At the national level, in England, the National Planning Policy Framework states that

developments should be located and designed where practical to… incorporate facilities for charging plug-in and other ultra-low emission vehicles”.

In Scotland, high level planning policy also recognises the importance of considering EV charging infrastructure in new developments, with supportive text included in both the Third National Planning Framework and the Scottish Planning Policy 2014. In addition, permitted development rights for off-road charge points came into force in 2014.

At the regional level, some policies require planning authorities to incorporate facilities for charging electric vehicles.  For example, The London Plan states:

developments in all parts of London must… ensure that 1 in 5 spaces provide an electrical charging point to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles”.

Several local authorities also use local plan policies to require electric vehicle provision, and others use their development control powers to require developers to provide electric vehicle charging points.

Some authorities have also taken opportunities to broker EV via non-planning routes, for example, the provision of public recharging point provision through grants.  One such example the On-Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme was set up in 2016, and provides up to 75% of the cost of procuring and installing chargepoints.

Challenges remain

While progress is being made, a number of challenges remain.

As well as increasing the overall number of available charging stations, planners will need to ensure that they are adequately distributed within a city so that there’s always one within reasonable driving range.  Specifying EV charging points on new developments runs the risk of a ‘scattergun’ approach, particularly where developments are concentrated in specific areas.  Local authorities would do well to adopt a strategic and planned approach to EV provision to ensure adequate coverage.  This will be particularly important in rural areas, as electric cars typically have a maximum range of around 150 miles. ’Range anxiety’ is an affliction suffered by many electric car drivers!

While various grants are available for electric car owners to install charging infrastructure at their homes, it is also not yet clear how home EV charging will work in densely populated areas without private parking, such as large blocks of flats. One potential solution may be the use of massive batteries kept in shipping container-style boxes, with up to 50 charging points attached.

The provision of on street EV charging facilities may present a design challenge in historic and/or conservation areas. In London, this has been dealt with by retrofitting existing street lamps with EV infrastructure, even including heritage lamps in Kensington and Chelsea.

There have also been concerns about the ability of the national grid to cope with millions of cars being plugged in to charge every evening.  Encouraging drivers to charge ‘smart’ at off-peak times may be the way forward.

Innovative solutions

Despite these challenges, there are promising signs of progress.  Some noteworthy examples include Elgin-based housebuilder Springfield Properties committing to installing cabling for electric car charging points in all new-build homes as standard, including its new 3,000-home development in Perth.  There are also plans to turn the A9 into an ‘electric highway’ and for a new ‘charging hub’ in the centre of Dundee – which will also be part-powered by the use of solar canopies.

EV technology is an area of fast-paced change and addressing the many challenges that it presents will require planners to adopt similarly innovative and forward-thinking solutions.  With advances being made on contactless under-road EV charging, it may not be long before electric streets charge our cars on the move.  We in the Information Service are excited to see what the future holds, and will be keeping abreast of the latest developments in both policy and practice.


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Why the future of public transport has to be green

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

Ending our use of oil, coal and natural gas by the end of the century? It seems an impossible task, but this week’s G7 Summit closed with the announcement that the leaders of 7 leading industrial nations had agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels. As one of the G7, the UK is part of this long-term commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is also legally-bound, via The Climate Change Act (2008), to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

These national and international targets will only be met however if we all make practical changes to our patterns of energy consumption. Organisations like the Energy Saving Trust Foundation and NESTA have pointed out that providing new technologies is not enough to increase public engagement with alternative energy. Success is dependent on getting real people to use these technologies in everyday situations.

Use of renewable energy in public transport

Earlier this week I attended an event on the use of renewable energy in public transport. Not being a transport specialist, but interested from the point of view of community development and social exclusion, it was a useful introduction to some of the innovative work that is underway in Europe.

Organised to present the results of the REPUTE (Renewable Energy in Public Transport Enterprise) project, the event explored the challenges of ensuring accessible public transport in rural areas. People in rural areas typically travel 50% further than people living in urban areas. Travel which is essential to daily life such as going to school or work, going shopping or getting to doctors and hospitals all requires longer journeys, mostly by car or bus. A lack of integration between different modes of transport also makes travel by car more convenient in rural areas.

Pilot projects showcased at the event included personal travel planning in Fort William; solar-powered real-time bus information signs in the Highlands and Islands region; and electric vehicle rental in rural towns in Portugal.

A new guide written by Oxford Brookes University was also launched at the event and includes lots of examples of community-based transport and energy schemes.

Signs of progress

I picked up on a few heartening signs of a shift in attitudes. Many local authorities are publicly supporting alternative energy use in their fleets and providing charging points. A recent survey showed that Scottish councils in particular are leading the way in the UK in the adoption of electric vehicles, with Dundee placed in the number 1 spot and South Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Fife also in the top 5.

  • Aberdeen now has the largest fleet of hydrogen fuel buses of any authority in Europe.
  • 2 of Edinburgh’s bus routes have switched completely to low carbon hybrid vehicles.
  • There are more electric vehicles in Scottish car clubs than the total in car clubs in the rest of the UK.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, Oslo’s initiative to open up bus lanes to electric vehicles has become a victim of its own success with the announcement in May that the law is being changed. A fifth of new cars bought in Norway in the last 3 years have been electric.

A key aspect of pilot schemes is to introduce the public to new energy solutions in a way that is engaging. For example, visitors to the Brecon Beacons National Park can hire electric cars to travel around the area, turning eco travel into a fun activity in itself. A new ‘poo bus’ which runs in Bristol and is fuelled by bio-waste, is a witty way to spark debate about alternative fuel sources. And in Oxford, the city is transforming into a Living Lab for integrated transport experimentation.

Public transport as eco-transport

The need for a transport system which is cleaner and less-energy dependent is clear – the transport sector is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

However investing in innovative renewable energy technologies at a time of budget constraints, requires government and local authorities to show leadership and vision. More importantly, there won’t be a step change in behaviour and attitudes without imaginative approaches to community engagement. Locally-led projects such as those highlighted by REPUTE’s guide are a great way to do this.


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Plugging in or opting out?

car exhaust

by James Carson

Visitors to the this year’s Geneva Motor Show , which closed on Sunday evening,  may have noticed some signs that the times are changing: half of the space on Renault’s large exhibition stand was dedicated to battery-powered cars; new electric vehicle models were unveiled by BMW, Volkswagen and Kia and Porsche exhibited the Panamera S, a hybrid model able to travel for 20 miles on nothing but battery power.

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