Neighborhood Electric Vehicles

Many see neighborhood electric vehicles as little more than overgrown toys or overpriced golf cars, but a new study has shown that NEVs may have a worthwhile role in planned communities.

The study examined a pilot NEV program at Heritage Village in Otay Ranch, one of the largest master planned communities in the country in the Southern California city of Chula Vista, near San Diego.

Giving a strong endorsement to the use of NEVs, the study data, collected and analyzed by the Green Car Institute, found nine out of 10 trips taken with NEVs were ones that otherwise would have been taken by car and truck. Thus a nearly pollution-free form of transportation took the place of one that does pollute.

"We strongly believe that alternative and clean-fuel vehicles of all types have a place in our nation's transportation system," said Green Car Institute president Ron Cogan. "NEVs are a potentially ideal answer to short-duration, around-town transportation needs where low-speed vehicles are a good fit."

One of the primary goals of the 60-day program was to analyze how NEVs fit in a real-world environment as daily transportation vehicles for 28 participants who live and work within the "village" of Otay Ranch. Over the study's duration, most participants drove their GEM-brand NEVs daily, keeping track of how they used these vehicles for work and play. Of particular interest in the data collection was how these vehicles offset the use of other modes of transportation.

The Otay Ranch study showed that, given a choice of travel modes for short trips, participants chose a NEV over their private cars 90 percent of the time. Study results also showed that of the trips taken in NEVs, some 53 percent were for purposes defined as "business" or "delivery," meaning trips of necessity. Some 33 percent of the trips taken were classified as "leisure," while 14 percent were designated "other."

"The study results are important because they quantify the value of the NEV as a viable transportation and land use tool," says Erik Amerikaner, Green Car Institute executive director. "NEVs can help shape the way cities and communities grow by increasing individual mobility while decreasing traffic congestion and air pollution."

The "trips of necessity" are only one part of the story, though. Chula Vista city planner Rich Whipple pointed out that "the other part of the equation is that 33 percent of the GEM trips were 'leisure' trips, meaning a whole lot of trips were taken just for fun."

"This program in Chula Vista has shown us on a small scale what could possibly be accomplished on a large scale, should communities embrace NEVs as an integral part of the transportation mix," added Cogan.

He pointed out that the use of neighborhood electric vehicles, which emit zero localized emissions, could have a dramatic effect on cold-start emissions in areas when large numbers of these vehicles are driven.

The Otay Ranch NEV program reinforces the development's goal of providing an environmentally sensitive and sustainable urban design, reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, and showing the NEV's practical use in a modern planned community.

A key aim of the project was to help the City of Chula Vista and the developers of Otay Ranch plan the community's transportation infrastructure from the "inside out," that is, from the user's perspective, as opposed to the standard perspective coming from professional planners or traffic engineers.

For further information, contact the Green Car Institute, 805.541.2308, or visit the Institute's Web site.

Cleveland-based automotive writer Luigi Fraschini has written extensively on environmental issues involving cars and trucks.