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.
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.
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.
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?
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