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[Seoul Struggles 10] A hostile city for eco-friendly cars

Electric car owners battle over limited spaces and fight for charging plugs

An electric car charging station at the Seoul Museum of History in Jongno-gu, central Seoul (Yonhap)
An electric car charging station at the Seoul Museum of History in Jongno-gu, central Seoul (Yonhap)
Owning and driving an electric car, as everyone likes to say these days, is a thoughtful choice for an environment-conscious citizen.

Many in Seoul have followed the advice of officials promoting environment-friendly vehicles, and more electric cars than ever can be seen on the city’s streets.

As of January, a total of 23,441 electric vehicles were registered for use in Seoul, a sharp contrast with the 1,498 cars registered at the end of 2016. More electric car options have become available on the market, not to mention tax support and subsidies from the government.

Yet this environment-friendly trend has remained largely unsupported in terms of infrastructure, wreaking real-life problems for Seoul residents.

Finding places to park or charge electric vehicles isn’t so hard in public spaces where investments are being made, but the problem is worse in residential areas, where parking space is limited and available charging stations are hard to find.

“It’s a time-sensitive race for electric car owners to find a charging and parking spot,” said a Tesla owner surnamed Chang, who lives in an apartment complex in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul.

“I have rarely come across any spot to charge my ride while having it parked. At the very best, I will have it parked for just an hour or two and then get a call from someone asking to move the car so he can charge his.”

The apartment complex Chang lives in has just a few charging stations attached to parking slots for electric cars, even though more than 800 households live there. Chang says he knows at least a dozen more electric car owners within the complex, saying they all have the same problem.

“On some days, I had to charge my car at a local community center before parking it by the apartment, and you know, that takes time, and it’s a bother in many cases, especially if the weather is this hot,” he added.

“I just wish there were more chargers near home, but I don’t think this is going to happen until this apartment complex undergoes reconstruction.”

Chang also laments that he often finds nonelectric cars parked at electric car charging stations, and while he wants to call the owners and ask them to park their cars elsewhere, he often parks elsewhere to avoid conflict.

“They must know that these green-colored parking spots are not for them, but they just park their gasoline-powered cars there anyway,” Chang added.

“It’s a small world we live in, and I’m afraid of illogical people, so I just let out a sigh of despair and drive around the parking lot for another spot.”

Experts say South Korea, including its capital, definitely has installed enough electric car charging stations for people who need them, but that improvements need to be made to make sure they are in the right places to meet the demand.

The government has mandated that new buildings with more than 100 parking slots and apartment complexes with more than 500 households built after April 6, 2017, be equipped with electric vehicle charging stations.

But only 2.7 percent of apartment complexes in Seoul fall under those criteria, according to Transport Ministry data. This means the vast majority of electric car drivers, including Chang, still struggle to charge their vehicles.

The lack of charging stations near home has ultimately led residents to battle among themselves, and some electric car owners have resorted to buying their own chargers and connecting them to power outlets in parking lots, even though it could be illegal.

As some electric car owners use their buildings’ electricity supplies to charge their rides, other residents have accused them of theft, saying they should pay additional fees for using so much electricity. Some of these conflicts have led to legal disputes.

“Nobody forced them to buy these electric cars, and they should have researched in advance on how they would charge and park their cars out of their own expenses,” said a 56-year-old resident of an apartment complex in Eunpyeong-gu, northwestern Seoul, surnamed Hwang.

“They can park as they please, but they shouldn’t expect to freely use our common-use electricity for their own welfare. They’re just reckless free-riders.”

The overall shortage of parking spaces has also resulted in general animosity toward electric car owners, with some complaining the government is providing special treatment for them at the expense of other drivers.

The government recently mandated that all new apartment complexes built starting next year dedicate at least 5 percent of their parking spaces to electric car charging stations. Existing apartment complexes and large supermarkets will be required to set aside at least 2 percent of their parking spaces for electric cars.

Fossil fuel car owners could be inconvenienced further by political efforts to expand charging and parking rights for electric car owners. A bill proposed by Rep. Lee Hack-young from the Democratic Party would see drivers of fossil fuel cars fined 100,000 won ($88) if they parked in spots reserved for electric cars.

While the bill aims to provide better parking conditions for eco-friendly car owners, other drivers say it makes life more difficult for them.

“The government is providing more and more for electric car owners, but what about us? What is the government providing for diesel and gasoline-powered car owners?” said a 32-year-old resident of Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, surnamed Kang.

“I would have bought an electric car if conditions were met, but the system at the moment is better catered toward fossil fuel vehicles. It doesn’t make sense that I make a well-informed, realistic decision and then find my share of benefits getting smaller and smaller.”

Experts stress that officials need to better monitor the illegal occupation of electric car charging stations to tackle the conflicts among car owners and provide better parking conditions overall.

Demand is high for electric car owners to charge their cars near their homes, so laws need to be made to allow local governments to fine those occupying charging stations when not charging, they say.

“As more electric cars are supplied, confusion on using charging stations will likewise increase, and the problem of monitoring and solving interference of charging activities will become greater as well,” a study from the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements said in March.

“To improve the circulation rate of electric car charging activities, we should look again at imposing fines for violations occurring at all types of electric car charging stations.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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