As California Runs Out of Green HOV-Lane Stickers, We Suggest It Shouldn’t Issue Any More

For some Californians, the state’s HOV-lane access decal program — which grants drivers of eligible cars single-occupant access to the many hundreds of miles of carpool lanes across the state — has been the primary motivating factor in making the switch from an internal-combustion engine vehicle to a battery electric or plug-in hybrid car. Slashing commute times by as much as an hour in some parts of the state, owning a car with a white or green HOV-lane access decal can save you a lot of time and money — as well as increase the resale value of your car when selling it on.

Is it time for CARB to Leave total HOV-lane decals at 85,000?

Is it time for CARB to Leave total HOV-lane decals at 85,000?

Officially as the Clean Air Vehicle Decal Program the HOV-lane access program has operated for many years, issuing an unlimited number of white HOV-lane access stickers to zero emission electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars as well as CNG-fuelled cars. When the program first began, the California Air Resources Board offered owners of eligible hybrid cars yellow decals for their cars, granting them access to HOV lanes. That part of the program came to an end in 2011, booting hybrid cars from HOV-lanes in preference for so-called Transitional Zero Emission Vehicles (TZEV): plug-in hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid and range-extended cars like the Chevrolet Volt.

Cars like the Chevrolet Volt are eligible for the Green HOV-lane access decal program in California

Cars like the Chevrolet Volt are eligible for the Green HOV-lane access decal program in California

Unlike its unlimited white decal program, the state of California initially limited the number of green HOV-lane decals it would issue to just 40,000 applicants. That number was raised in July 2014 to 55,000 decals and again in January 2015 to 70,000 decals. More recently amidst continued demand for plug-in cars, the number was raised again to a maximum of 85,000 decals.

But on December 18th the California Air Resources Board confirmed the state Department for Motor vehicles had issued all 85,000 decals it was allowed to under current clean air legislation. Until the limit is raised by a legislative measure, the DMV says it will continue to accept applications from owners of eligible TZEV cars but will not issue any more.

Here at Transport Evolved, we’ve seen plenty of people already call for the state of California to expeditiously increase the number of green HOV-lane stickers available. But while we’re always keen to see more electric and plug-in hybrid cars on the road, we think the time has come to leave the current 85,000 vehicle limit where it is.

And here’s why.

Firstly, the Green HOV-lane access program has reached the same number of issued decals as the now-expired yellow HOV-lane access program. In order to continue the shift towards completely zero emission vehicles — CARB’s ultimate goal to improve air quality within the state — it makes sense to now focus on incentivising zero emission vehicles (and the white, unlimited-in number stickers) rather than extending the green ones further.

Secondly, since the Green HOV-lane access program launched, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of zero emission vehicles on the market. With the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X now offering longer-distance capabilities and the new 2016 Nissan LEAF SV and SL offering 107 miles per charge on the EPA test cycle, electric cars are now travelling further per charge than they once did. Add in the upcoming 200+ mile Chevrolet Bolt EV (due to launch towards the end of 2016) and we’d argue that the stepping stone offered by plug-in hybrids is no-longer needed by many.

With a wider range of all-electric cars now than there once were, more Californians should be able to find an electric car that meets their needs.

With a wider range of all-electric cars now than there once were, more Californians should be able to find an electric car that meets their needs.

Then there’s charging infrastructure improvement. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number and reliability of electric car charging stations, particularly in electric-car friendly areas like California. With increased options for charging and improved reliability, those who previously may have opted for a plug-in hybrid for the security of a gasoline range-extended may no-longer actually need to make use of one on a regular basis. Since the goal is to move cars to zero emissions, it yet again highlights why the Green HOV-lane sicker limit should remain at 85,000 cars.

Finally, there’s the matter of abuse in the system. With the Green HOV-lane sticker program, we heard of Californians buying the Plug-in Prius — a car with less than 10 miles of limited all-electric range — specifically to take advantage of the HOV-lane perk. With no intention to ever plug-in, these HOV-lane applicants simply spent a little extra money at the dealership in order to cut a few minutes off their daily commute.

Admittedly, these drivers are the exception rather than the rule — but it still shows how both automakers and car buyers have used the TZEV classification as a way to avoid developing or buying electric vehicles. Moreover, the zero emission vehicles covered by the white decal program — which have only one fuel source — can’t be abused in this way.

Here at Transport Evolved, we’ll admit it’s always better to see people in plug-in hybrids and range-extended cars than it is purely gasoline or diesel-powered ones. But if the aim of CARB’s HOV-lane access program is to encourage the development of ever-greener cars with ever-lower emissions, isn’t it time to stop handing out those little Green decals?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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  • Dennis Pascual

    As a Californian driving a “White Sticker” BEV, I can tell you that the HOV lanes are already quite full in Southern California in many routes.

    My first position is to let the limit expire.

    However, if we want to allow more green stickers, I wrote a post on my blog against the expansion of green stickers for PHEV (California Assembly Bill 2013) in May 2014 for PHEV with all electric range less than 60 miles. If PHEV is a transitional technology, let’s “up the bar” for PHEV manufacturers to provide for PHEVs that can handle 150%, if not 200% of the “average” commute. For that matter, it’s been over a year and a half, let’s give it to PHEVs that can handle 80 miles of all electric range (force BMW to improve its i3 REX from 70 miles to 80 miles for all electric.)

    • In the same way a Prius plug-in with 10 miles of EV range can be purchased and never plugged is, so can an 80 mile EV range PHEV. The abusers and dodgers will continue to take advantage.

      I agree with Nikki, retain the white stickers only.

      • David Galvan

        A person purchasing an 80 mile EV range PHEV (like a BMW i3 Rex) has paid a premium in MSRP for that electric capability. In addition, never plugging it in and relying on gasoline would sharply increase their cost to fuel the vehicle.

        I bet the number of people who are both forward-looking enough to purchase an EV, and simultaneously foolish enough not to take advantage of the low-fueling-cost to charge it, especially after paying a premium compared to an ICE for that very capability, is pretty small, and not worth worrying about as a significant number of abusers.

  • George B

    Good and thoughtful article! That said, based on my personal observation, the number of carpool lane violators greatly exceeds the volume of stickered vehicles you would encounter in the HOV lane. I believe that enforcement is more of an issue than a few folks buying a Prius Plug-in and not charging up. The PIP sales volume has dwindled to levels where they are almost immaterial when it comes to carpool lanes. From the stickered vehicles, you can see the LEAF, the Volt and the Model S. In that order Those are the most frequent users of the carpool lane in the Bay Area. In my observation at least.

  • David Galvan

    I say keep the green stickers coming, but require a minimum battery capacity of something like 15 kWh. This would continue to incentivize good-faith efforts like the Chevy Volt, without enabling “compliance PHEVs” like the plugin-Prius.

  • David Galvan

    The Green Sticker program should be continued.

    Sticker HOV lane access is most valuable to long-distance commuters, for whom it can save tens of minutes each way. (It is less valuable for short-distance commuters, for whom it might only save a few minutes each way.)

    Also, long-distance commuters are far less likely to consider 100% BEVs because they are less likely to meet their range needs. But they are more likely to consider PHEVs.

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Continuing the green sticker program for cars with some minimum battery capacity (say, 15 kWh) will increase the number of electric-only miles driven. And isn’t that the point of this program?

  • David Galvan

    from the article:

    “. . . it makes sense to now focus on incentivising zero emission vehicles (and the white, unlimited-in number stickers) rather than extending the green ones further.”

    The availability of white stickers is unlimited, and completely unaffected by the availability (or lack thereof) of green stickers.

    This is not an “either/or” situation. i.e., stopping the distribution of green stickers will in no way serve to further incentivize purchase of 100% BEVs. They are as incentivized as this program can make them.