At the Sun City Lincoln Hills retirement community, the preferred mode of transportation isn’t a pickup truck, luxury sedan or Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
It’s a NEV, which stands for neighborhood electric vehicle.
NEVs are small and appear identical to golf carts, but they carry some safety features of cars, including seat belts, signal lights and rearview mirrors. In recent years, NEVs have gained a following in Lincoln Hills, a sprawling community of 11,000 people spread over 3,000 acres.
The convenience, ease of use and sheer coolness factor are driving the popularity of the environmentally friendly vehicles, NEV enthusiasts say.
“Rather than get into a car and start polluting the air, I can just crawl into this and go,” said Daniel Gilliam, president of the Low-speed vehicle/Neighborhood electric vehicle group at Sun City, during a recent ride-along.
NEVs do not emit greenhouse gases, relying completely on a rechargeable battery for power. They plug into a standard wall outlet and typically run about 30 miles on each charge, hitting a maximum speed of 25 mph.
Gilliam estimates that there are about 1,000 NEVs and golf carts in operation in Lincoln, with the bulk of the ownership in Sun City. On a recent morning, dozens of NEVs and golf carts were parked in front of the community’s lodge.
Local businesses are beginning to cater to NEVs by striping parking spots and installing charging stations. Lincoln has 21 miles of NEV lanes that are striped and shared with bicycles, according to the city’s construction manager, Ray Leftwich. Another 8.25 miles are available for NEV access, but are not marked. State regulations allow NEVs to operate on any roadway with a speed limit of up to 35 mph, which essentially means the entire city is within reach.
“You can get around the city, but it may not be the same route that you take in your motor vehicle,” Leftwich said.
Asked how long it would take to circle the city, he said, “The maximum speed is 25 mph. It wouldn’t be very fast, but that’s not the intent of it.”
Golf carts are permitted only within the Sun City community because they lack certain safety features and drive at a slower speed.
Officials plan to increase the amount of designated NEV lanes. A $1 million streetscape project next summer on downtown’s Lincoln Boulevard is expected to add 1.2 miles of lanes, on top of traffic signal and sidewalk upgrades.
Like cars, NEVs must be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and operators need a driver’s license. Gilliam, 80, a retired traffic engineer with California State Parks, said the small cost of running a NEV was particularly attractive to him. Insurance runs about $100 annually, and each mile costs roughly 3 cents’ worth of electricity, he said. Gilliam has put almost 7,000 miles on his NEV, a Tomberlin model from 2012 upgraded with 14-inch wheels.
Ryan Kugel is the owner of Electrik Motorsports in Rocklin, a dealer of NEVs and golf carts. Krugel said he has sold between 500 and 700 vehicles to Sun City residents since opening shop in 2007. Prices range from $3,000 for a used one to $20,000 for a customized new model.
“There’s a huge fun factor to it,” he said. “It’s an open-air vehicle … They’re quiet. Once you drive them, it’s like having a convertible.”
NEVs are expected to obey the same laws as cars, including following traffic signals and heeding stop signs. So far, they have been accident-free.
“We don’t have anyone on staff who knows of an accident involving (NEVs or golf carts),” said Lincoln Police Chief Rex Marks.
But Marks and other officers have pulled people over.
“Most of the time, it’s not related to a traffic violation,” he said. “They’re on roadways that are not permitted access.