Feature: How accessible is charging an electric car?

Katie Alexander explores the accessibility and safety issues surrounding the current EV charging network in the UK, and investigates how we can make EVs a viable mode of transport for all. 

If the UK is going to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, it’s crucial we move away from petrol and diesel vehicles. 

In 2019, the Government recorded that 27% of the UK’s total emissions came from the transport industry. Of this, 91% came from road transport vehicles such as cars, vans, and buses. Considering these figures, it’s obvious that to reach net zero in time something must change within the transport sector. 

Of course, the cleanest methods of travelling would be walking, cycling, and taking public transport. However, it’s clear that as a population we’re not quite ready to give up ownership of domestic vehicles. Electric vehicles (EVs) are one of the most viable sources of eco-friendly transport we have, but there are some accessibility concerns with their use.   

While some EV drivers can simply charge their vehicles at home, this is not always possible. The London Assembly Environment Committee suggests roughly a third of UK drivers do not have access to off-street parking, jumping to 60% in London. Those who cannot charge an EV at home are left to use the public charging network. 

Unfortunately, a big proportion of the UK’s infrastructure has been designed without accessibility and inclusivity in mind. Motability is one of the many disability charities in the UK who have conducted research into the accessibility of EV charging infrastructure.  

The charity’s research estimates that there could be 1.35 million disabled drivers or passengers who are reliant on public charging infrastructure by 2035, yet many of them may not be able to use it. 

Is the UK ready for everyone to drive electric? 

The EV market in the UK has been growing rapidly, even with the ongoing issues caused by the pandemic. Pure EVs are the most sought after vehicles in the UK currently, with figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showing sales of EVs increasing dramatically month on month. 

Although it is possible to charge an EV without off-street parking, it can be difficult. EV drivers who cannot charge their vehicles at home are forced to make use of charge points available to them on the UK public network, or at work if they’re provided. 

When we look at the UK public network, we unfortunately find an array of issues that could put anyone off buying an EV. According to ZapMap, the UK’s leading app for EV drivers, there are over 30,000 charge points available on the UK public network.  

But how many of them cater for those with accessibility issues? Emilia Platoni, Partnerships Manager at Motability, said ‘While the transition to EVs is still a few years away, the infrastructure needed for people to charge their cars is being planned and created now. It’s vital that this is done with accessibility in mind, which will benefit not only disabled people but make EV charging easier for everyone. 

What accessibility issues could EV motorists be met with?  

As the Government accelerates its plans to ensure the UK has a successful public charging network, there are concerns that little thought has been made of individuals who have a disability or accessibility needs. 

Those using public EV charging stations with a disability may face a wide range of issues. EV chargers are often fitted with high curbs and heavy cables. Sometimes there are even bollards in front, which are put in place to protect the charge point.  

Steven, who drives a Nissan Leaf and struggles with his mobility, tells Air Quality News that publicly charging his EV can be challenging, especially if he has not used that charging station before. ‘Thankfully, I charge at home most of the time but when I use the public network it is really difficult. There isn’t a lot of space to move around. It would be better if there was more space like you get in a parent and child space.’ 

Moreover, Steven highlights how he had never encountered some of these issues prior to driving an EV. ‘I don’t understand why it is so much harder to charge than it would be to go to a petrol garage,’ he says.  

It’s not just physical barriers either. All EV charging spots should be clearly labelled and identified, because if charge points are not visible and recognisable, some motorists may struggle to understand where they can charge their EV.  

It’s also important to note that EV drivers could face a range of different payment systems while charging their vehicle in public. There is currently not a universal design for charge points. Therefore, motorists may need to download appropriate apps prior to arriving before they can charge their vehicle. 

While these may seem like minor inconveniences, they can make it near impossible to charge an EV for someone will accessibility needs. It’s also important to note that all these barriers are not found at a conventional fuel station, so it would be perfectly reasonable for companies to design EV chargers without these barriers. 

Figures from Motability suggest that because of their home parking situation, 50% of disabled drivers are unlikely to be able to charge an EV at home. With one in five people in the UK living with a disability, this is a huge group of individuals who could find it nearly impossible to switch to an EV. 

Safety while charging an EV 

There are also potential safety issues with the UK’s current network of charge points. While there are now lots of EV charge points across the UK, unfortunately some of these are in secluded, dark and unlit areas.  

Last year, TV presenter Maddie Moate made the switch to an EV and bought a pure electric Kia e-Niro. After owning her EV for a few months and using it regularly to travel up and down the country, Maddie highlights how impractical the public network can be. Not only does she highlight the ongoing issues of reliability with the public network, but also that she can sometimes feel unsafe while charging her EV. 

Caroline, who owns the all-electric Mercedes EQC, echoed Maddie’s concerns. She expressed that she would not feel comfortable being on her own in most places that she has had to charge her vehicle in the past.  

When you charge an EV on the go you could be waiting for 30-45 minutes for a suitable amount of charge. This could mean waiting on your own in a dark and dingy car park without streetlights.  

Caroline went on to say that she regularly plans her journeys using ZapMap to ‘avoid the chargers that are in the middle of nowhere’. While Caroline understands that convenience is an important factor to installing charge points, at this point in time she does not think owning an EV is as accessible as owning a conventional vehicle. 

As the Government pushes to make EVs a mainstream form of transport, there should be more consideration of the accessibility, availability and safety of EV charge points. 

How can we make charging an EV more accessible? 

It’s clear there are ongoing accessibility issues for EV users who rely on the UK’s public charging network, but how do we change that? The first step is challenging the fact that there is no guidance or legislation involved when designing and installing EV infrastructure.  

Motability, in partnership with the Government, is sponsoring the British Standards Institution (BSI) to design a national standard for accessible EV charging. This would be a world first, if it were introduced, and would be available to those designing new EV charge points. 

Emilia Platoni argues: ‘In the absence of legislation, stakeholders ranging from councils to supermarkets, manufacturers to installers, all have a part to play in making public charging points accessible. This is why having a standard for accessible charging is so important. It creates an expectation that EV charging should be made accessible as well as providing clarity on how to create that in practice.’ 

Designability specialise in human-centred design practices and will work alongside Motability to create innovative EV chargers that are accessible to all. They are already developing user-friendly charging prototypes that will be tested with disabled individuals across the UK this summer. 

Ben Carey, Marketing and Communications Officer at Designability, says: ‘With careful consideration, all of these barriers to accessibility can be overcome. By doing so we not only ensure EV charging is accessible to disabled people, but it also improves access for all.’ 

While the Government is keen to promote all-electric driving, it’s important to consider that a big investment has already been made into public EV infrastructure without thought of inclusivity. This is a real issue for many disabled individuals living in the UK and will only get worse as new petrol and diesel vehicles are banned in 2030.  

Governments, local authorities and providers need to consider the accessibility of EV charge points sooner rather than later in order to avoid splurging money on EV chargers that cannot be used by many drivers. 

This article first appeared in the May issue of Air Quality News – view it in full here


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