Clarence Dold has been a proud owner of a used Nissan Leaf electric car since 2016. Back when he was commuting to San Mateo from his home in Santa Rosa, being able to slide into the carpool lane and cruise past cars sitting idly in traffic was an added bonus to the smaller climate footprint of his electric vehicle. But as of Jan. 1, Dold and nearly 215,000 zero- and low-emission car owners in the state of California are set to lose their clean-air carpool status. That group is composed of electric and hybrid vehicles.
The state Legislature last year passed a measure that will no longer recognize the white and green carpool decals on clean-air vehicles purchased before 2017. Only vehicles purchased since then will qualify for the new passes, which are red. Those qualifying owners will have to apply to the state for the new passes.
Dold, who learned of the new law only weeks ago, said he felt the change unfairly treats drivers who have long invested in low-emission vehicles.
“What upsets me is that I thought I was going to get to use the decal for three years, and had I waited even just a few months, I would have qualified for the extension,” Dold said.
The new law is an attempt to address the overcrowding of carpool lanes — a result partly of California’s bid to spur the wider adoption of cleaner-burning vehicles 13 years ago by first offering owners of hybrid cars unrestricted access to carpool lanes. Caltrans documented the problem two years ago, pointing partly to increased carpool traffic stemming from clean-air decals.
California has the largest share of low- and zero-emission vehicles in the nation by far.
As of October 2017, 337,483 electric cars had been sold in the state, according to a report by Next 10, a San Francisco organization that works with leaders to target key issues in the state. Last year alone, California drivers bought over half of the 152,288 electric vehicles sold in the U.S., Next 10 reported.
Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, which works with local organizations and legislators to provide better transit opportunities in Northern California, said the new carpool law was necessary.
“We needed to do something, and this compromise has winners, and the obvious losers are the ones with permits from before 2017,” Cohen said. “But by doing that, it is allowing Caltrans to keep the program going and allowing new cars into the system.”
But California’s traffic problems need more ambitious solutions, including investments that expand use of public transportation, Cohen said. He also called for a stronger crackdown on carpool cheaters.
The Caltrans report from 2016 discovered that a large contributor to crowding in carpool lanes stemmed from an increase in cars with decals, as well as an influx in single drivers weaving in and out to bypass traffic.
Carpool lanes are steadily losing their effectiveness as more drivers, legally and not, use them in the hopes of skirting traffic, Caltrans found. Over 1,300 lane-miles of the state’s carpool system were monitored for the study. It showed that carpool sections are flowing at 45 mph only 30 percent of the time, rendering the lanes ineffective in most parts of the state.
How does California stack up in clean-air vehicles?
215,000: Number of pre-2017 hybrid and electric vehicles in state set to lose carpool status come Jan. 1.
152,288: Number of electric vehicles bought in United States since 2017; 51 percent were in California.
337,843: Number of electric vehicles sold in California.*
683,890: Number of electric vehicles sold in United States.*
SOURCES: State of California, Next 10
*As of October 2017