For years, driving alone in the carpool lane was a glimmering sign of privilege, limited to owners of flashy new electric cars.
In January, California will extend this benefit to the less affluent. A new state law will enable low-income motorists who purchase secondhand electric vehicles with expired “clean air” stickers — passports into the diamond lanes — to trade them for new stickers that are valid until 2024.
Social justice advocates champion the idea, saying it will expand what was traditionally a rich person’s market, enticing more motorists to choose zero-emission vehicles. The new law applies to people whose household income is 80% of the state median, or lower. Officials at the Department of Motor Vehicles pegged that threshold at $65,777 a year.
“Philosophically, this is really important,” said Joel Levin, executive director of the nonprofit consumer group Plug In America. “There’s a stereotype that electric vehicles are just fancy cars for wealthy people, but we want to make them available to everybody — especially low-income people who drive long distances to work. Used cars are going to be a big part of that story.”
But critics question whether the state should continue offering this perk, which jams traffic in carpool lanes. On some freeways, the crush of plug-in vehicles is slowing down public buses and carpools, putting two environmental strategies in competition. As of August 2018 the DMV had issued 363,309 stickers — mostly in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where many carpool lanes don’t meet the federal standard of moving traffic at 45 mph 90% of the time.
The bill’s author, former state Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, argued that new stickers issued as a result of the law would be offset by other stickers expiring. Yet, if the state is to meet its policy objective of putting more electric vehicles on the road, more will wind up in the carpool lanes.
“These lanes need to function,” said Randy Rentschler, legislative director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which opposed Lara’s bill. Rentschler noted that the purpose of carpool lanes is to move high-occupancy vehicles, not to “incentivize whatever do-gooder behavior we want to incentivize.”
At least one bus rider agreed.
“If you’re riding the bus on Interstate 80 on a weekday, it’s just regular traffic,” said Aswun James, who stepped off an AC Transit 76 bus on a recent Thursday morning. James often takes buses from his home in Richmond to visit friends in Pinole.
Fans of the stickers push back, saying California urgently needs to convert more drivers to electric cars and hybrids. Former Gov. Jerry Brown set a target of 5 million by 2030, a steep climb from 600,000 registered today.
“We know that if we don’t start moving from dirty cars to clean cars, we won’t get there,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, Democrat from San Francisco and owner of an electric Chevy Bolt.
When these vehicles hit the secondary market, lawmakers saw an opportunity to reach a more diverse pool of drivers.
“We want to offer low-income folks the same benefit that was given to people who could afford the technology when it was first introduced,” said Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director at The Greenlining Institute. The Oakland-based nonprofit was among several groups that supported Lara’s bill.
Historically, the state and federal government dangled tax breaks and rebates to induce people to buy electric cars. Most of these rewards went to well-heeled consumers who could afford to try the technology in its infancy, and whose income was high enough to benefit from a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Now, with Teslas and BMW hybrids filling the driveways of California’s most prosperous suburbs, the state’s goals have shifted. Policymakers want to broaden electric car ownership to teachers, house cleaners and janitors. And they want to cap subsidies for the wealthy.
To that end, California set income restrictions for rebates: single taxpayers who earn $150,000 or more gross income are no longer eligible, though they still qualify for carpool lane decals. At the same time, air districts throughout the state began offering scrap-and-replace programs, which enable poor people to swap their old, gas-fueled beater cars for a grant to purchase an electric car or hybrid.
Starting next year, working-class drivers can score the most coveted prize of all: entry to the diamond lanes.
“This is great,” said Randi Lewis, a Vallejo resident who would qualify for the new sticker program. Lewis squeaks by on disability payments and previously drove an old, fuel-belching clunker. In June she received a grant from Bay Area Air Quality Management District to buy a 2013 Ford C-Max hybrid, metallic gray with leather seats. The car had a white spot on its bumper where someone had peeled off the old carpool lane decal.
Besides serving as a social equalizer, the new law could also boost sales of used electric cars. Thus, it drew support from an unlikely ally: the automobile industry. Manufacturers and dealers favor the law because it helps salvage the value of used plug-ins that would be hard to sell without the carpool lane stickers.
In the Bay Area, access to fast-moving carpool lanes is the main allure of an electric vehicle, said Leo Beas, operations manager at Rose Motorcars in Castro Valley. For customers with long commutes, the ability to coast along a freeway outweighs other incentives, like saving money on fuel and repairs.
More than half the customers who walk into Rose Motorcars seek a carpool lane decal, Beas said.
He can empathize.
“When I drive to our sister location in Modesto, it can take two or three hours if I leave anytime after 1 p.m.,” he said. “When you’re stuck on Interstate 580 during that commute, and you look over to see cars flying by in the carpool lane — it can be tempting.”
Many people succumb to temptation. Roughly a quarter of carpool lane drivers are actually single motorists in gas-powered cars who are cheating the system, according to studies by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Such figures rankle the electric-car evangelists, who argue that clean-air vehicles are unfairly blamed for crowding the lanes.
Still, state officials want to thin out traffic any way they can. They’ve given clean-air stickers rolling expiration dates to limit the number of people taking advantage of them. The red decals that were doled out in 2018 will become worthless in 2022, while the purple decals released in 2019 will lose their value in 2023. Green and white decals issued before 2017 are already defunct, making those vehicles suitable for resale to a low-income buyer.
For those who participate, the advantages could multiply, Beas said.
“When you’re driving a plug-in, there’s no oil change, no spark plugs, no fuel pumps to worry about — you’re spending a lot less money on maintenance, and then you can drive for Uber or Lyft on the side,” he said. “This is going to be a game-changer.”