Bright Spark

A changing infrastructure

Car charging point numbers fall behind as plug-in vehicles surge. That was the alarming headline on a recent press release from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – alarming because concerns about the state of the public charging infrastructure are probably one of the biggest obstacles to the adoption of electric cars.

On closer inspection, though, it turns out that the position isn’t quite as dire, because while the SMMT’s calculations are accurate as far as they go, they don’t show the full picture. At the end of 2019, there were eleven plug-in cars on the road for every standard public charging point, but by the end of 2020, there were sixteen, a deterioration of 31% in the ratio of electrified cars to chargers.

The key to understanding the extent of any problem lies in the definition of what constitutes a charging point in the SMMT’s calculations. A ‘standard public charging point’ is one that can charge at up to 22kW. These are the slower chargers that are found in locations such as supermarket car parks and don’t offer much advantage over home charging in terms of speed, so they are probably used mainly for opportunistic top-ups, rather than as the central element of most EV drivers’ charging strategies. The definition doesn’t include the rapid chargers that long distance-drivers rely on to fill up quickly on motorway trips, and of course, most EV charging takes place at home, without recourse to public chargers anyway.

With sales of electrified cars expanding rapidly and the rollout of charging infrastructure also proceeding at a fast pace, of course there is scope for the two things to get out of sync temporarily – but overall, I think the problem is largely self-correcting, and commercial providers will fill the gaps. There are frequent calls for the government to step in and plan or pay for the public charging infrastructure, but this hasn’t really been necessary with our existing network of filling stations for petrol and diesel, where the government has stayed well out of it, except for the planning of early motorway service areas.

I suspect the real infrastructure headache for electrification may be a completely different one that has so far received a lot less attention. Electric scooters aren’t currently a significant part of the transport landscape, but they, alongside electric bikes, buggies, and other types of electrified personal transport will, I think, play a huge part in solving our mobility problems in the future. The economics and the convenience of these forms of travel are compelling; they will be much cheaper than a car to buy, cost only pennies to run, and require only a small patch of parking space.

But while these vehicles, if we can call them that, make a strong case for themselves on the fundamentals, they are a poor match for our current infrastructure. They don’t really seem to belong on the roads, where they are far too vulnerable to mix it safely with cars and trucks, but at the same time, they don’t really belong on the pavement either, unless ridden with extreme consideration for other users, at implausibly low speeds.

The obvious conclusion is that our current road infrastructure will need to be fundamentally recast in order to provide safe segregated routes for electric scooters and similar contraptions. Perhaps the result will look something like the extensive network of cycle routes that is woven into every corner of the Dutch road system, the sort of provision that is currently only seen in a few places in the UK, mainly in new towns such as Stevenage and Milton Keynes. Carving out segregated routes in existing towns will be far harder because this can only be done by taking road space away from cars. Something along these lines has already happened in London with the creation of the Cycleway network, and perhaps where this sort of cycling infrastructure already exists, it could be shared with electric scooters and bikes. On the other hand, I can see the use of electric scooters and their ilk eventually being far more widespread than the current use of push bikes, so perhaps even existing dedicated infrastructure will be overwhelmed and need to be expanded in the future.

Either way, I think that it is this, rather than public EV charging, that poses the big infrastructure challenge for electrification, not least because it can’t be left to the market. In this case, only the government using taxpayers’ money and extensive planning powers will get the job done.

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