Neighborhood Electric Vehicles Welcomed in San Diego County—But a Plan is Needed

Neighborhood electric vehicles may become more popular in California's second most populous county thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The small zero-emission vehicles are prohibited from crossing streets with speed limits above 35 mph.

4 minute read

September 26, 2018, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


The Villages, Florida

Peter Titmuss / Shutterstock

A July 2011 feature post warned that "dismissing neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) is a mistake," and that "planners can use NEV planning to make more walkable urban centers." Thanks to a bill by Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), we may see if these low-speed, zero-emission vehicles can offer environmentally-friendly mobility options to residents beyond those living in master-planned retirement communities with golf courses.

The bill "[d]efines a neighborhood electric vehicle, also known as a low-speed vehicle, as a motor vehicle that is four-wheeled, can attain a speed of at least 20 but not more than 25 miles per hour, and has a gross vehicle weight rating of less than 3,000 pounds." 

"Driving around in a neighborhood electric vehicle is a good way to run errands in your neighborhood without having to drive in your car," states Bates in her press release thanking Gov Jerry Brown (D) for signing Senate Bill 1151 – Neighborhood electric vehicles: County of San Diego on Sept. 19. She touted the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions** offered by these lower-priced zero-emission vehicles, though a regional plan envisions them as shared vehicles.

Transportation plan needed

Sponsored by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), SB 1151 allows the county and any of its 18 cities to adopt a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle transportation plan by January 1, 2029, in consultation with SANDAG "and any agency having traffic law enforcement responsibilities in an entity included in the plan area," according to the California Association of Councils of Governments. Within two years of adoption, a report on the plan would have to be submitted to the state legislature. 

"The new law allows a city to develop a plan that will provide for safe crossing of the arterials, making a much larger territory accessible via NEV," explained David Grubb, transportation chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, which supported the bill, in an email.

One example is the city of Coronado, where NEV's are very popular. The main street all the way through town cannot be crossed by a NEV, blocking most residents from driving their NEV to the grocery store. Coronado pushed hard to get this legislation, and will soon have a plan that makes the whole city NEV-accessible.

SANDAG notes that the 2019-2050 Regional Plan known as San Diego Forward, "envisions the expansion of publicly-shared NEVs as a way to provide a clean, economical, and convenient transportation alternative for neighborhood trips or connecting to transit."

Much potential, but a poor legislative track record of implementation

SB 1151 has had many predecessors for different regions, but only one jurisdiction has actually had a NEV transportation plan approved by the legislature, according to the Aug. 31 legislative analysis:

Since 2004, the Legislature has passed many similar bills with widespread bipartisan support authorizing NEV transportation plans to be adopted in jurisdictions throughout California, including the cities of Fresno, Jackson, Lincoln, Rocklin, and Sutter Creek, the counties of Amador and Riverside, and a planned community in Orange County. However, only the City of Lincoln has implemented a plan. The City of Lincoln reported that its plan has “generally been successful” and recommended state-wide authorization.

The award-winning plan [pdf] for the fast-growing small city in Placer County was the topic of a February 2007 Western City article, "Lincoln Puts Neighborhood Electric Vehicles on the Road."

A more recent Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) Plan [pdf] was prepared for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (Riverside County) in March 2015. Although there doesn't appear to be corresponding state legislation for the plan, it points to other NEV plans:

A number of local cities and counties in California (Lincoln, Rocklin, Western Riverside County, Rancho Mission Viejo, Coronado, and Playa Vista), have developed NEV Plans with various goals such as reducing reliance on gasoline, reducing vehicle emissions, reducing roadway wear and tear, and creating more sustainable communities. 

NEV posts in Planetizen

**Correspondent's footnote: I was surprised to see Sen. Bates praise the greenhouse gas reductions offered by NEVs considering that she recently voted against some of the most important climate change mitigation bills, including the new renewable portfolio standard, the extension of cap-and-trade, and the extension of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

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