SNOW HILL – Parked along Green Street here are the pickup trucks, vans and SUVs – a Chevy Blazer, a Ford Expedition an Oldsmobile Silhouette – that you might expect to find in the commercial hub of a rural Eastern Shore community like Snow Hill.
But there arenÕt many compact cars to be seen here, and not a single hybrid – those part gas-driven, part electric-powered cars so beloved of environmentalists and the economy minded. Some people in Snow Hill aren’t even sure what a hybrid car looks like.
“I think I’ve heard of them,” said William G. Cropper, who lives a few miles outside of Snow Hill. “Do they look different than regular cars? I think they have them in California, but I don’t know if I’ve seen any around here.”
Cropper probably hasn’t seen one for a very good reason. Hybrids are few and far between in Snow Hill, and even more scarce in the nearby towns and communities on the Lower Shore.
Take a three hour drive across the state to Montgomery County, and it’s a different story. There, environmentally conscious drivers who can afford to spend a few extra thousand dollars on a car are enamored of the hybrid.
In Takoma Park, the community often known sarcastically as “the People’s Republic of Takoma Park” for its left-leaning politics, there are 387 registered hybrid cars, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. That comes to one for every 45 people.
In wealthy Potomac, near Rockville, there are 270 hybrids registered in one ZIP code, the most of any ZIP code in the state.
“There is a lot of dispensable capital in this area,” said Edward Cornfeld, the owner of a white Toyota Prius hybrid parked in the lot of a Giant supermarket near Rockville. “Also, there is a high percentage of college graduates, a high percentage of Democrats and a lot of people around here realize that the situation in the Middle East isn’t going to get any better.”
A Capital News Service analysis of the registration of hybrid vehicles in Maryland by ZIP code confirms Cornfeld’s thesis.
Of the five ZIP codes with the most registered hybrids, four are in affluent, highly-educated, politically active Montgomery County – two in Bethesda, one in Rockville and one in Takoma Park. If the ZIP codes are grouped by community, six of the top 10 in Maryland are in Montgomery County, along with Columbia, Annapolis, Frederick and Ellicott City.
There are 815 hybrids registered in the six ZIP codes designated for Rockville – one for every 58 people in the community that might fairly be called the hybrid capital of Maryland.
In the 27 ZIP codes designated as Baltimore mailing addresses, by way of comparison, there are 1,523 hybrids. In the Baltimore area, the largest concentrations of hybrids are in Catonsville, North Baltimore, Pikesville and Mount Washington. That number may be about to rise, however. In October, the city announced that hybrids will be given a break in 15 city parking garages that might save their owners as much as $85 a month.
By contrast, the list of ZIP codes with only one or two hybrids reads like a recitation of the rural communities of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland. More than a hundred Maryland ZIP codes – communities with names like Cavetown and Fairplay, Mardela Springs and Accident, Bivalve and Fruitland – and yes, Snow Hill – have fewer than four and most likely only one or two registered hybrids.
“This is a country area,” said Snow Hill resident Larry Wilkinson, who drives a Chevy pickup for its utility and said he isnÕt interested in a hybrid right now. “People donÕt really understand what hybrids are. They’re still into pickups and muscle cars.”
There are only two registered hybrids in Snow Hill, a town with a population of about 2,500.
Judging by the CNS statistics on hybrid registration, the popularity of hybrids in the Washington suburbs is much more the norm in Maryland. The state has more than 12,000 registered hybrid cars.
Data from 2004 show that California has the most hybrid cars, followed by Virginia, Washington, Florida and Maryland according to R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Mich. – based firm that collects and interprets automotive data.
While Maryland was fifth on the list of hybrid registrations, it is 19th in terms of population.
Mike Tidwell, spokesman for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an environmental group which supports hybrid cars in Maryland, said that should not be a surprise.
“The richness of the Chesapeake Bay makes Marylanders sensitive to issues of clean air and water,” Tidwell said. “The affluence of the state and the emphasis on education are also factors which make it less surprising that Maryland has so many hybrid cars.”
The IRS allows hybrid vehicles to qualify for a one-time “Clean Fuels” tax deduction of up to $2,000. This deduction applies to hybrids bought in 2004 and 2005, but it’s scheduled to disappear in 2006. Maryland provides other incentives for buying hybrid cars including exemption from motor vehicle emissions testing requirements.
But it was clear in a series of interviews around the state that most hybrid owners were motivated by concern for the environment and high gas prices.
“We have a lot of folks living in the area who are aware of their impact on the environment,” said Rockville’s mayor, Larry Giammo. “Another part of it may be that many of our residents commute significant distances and hybrids tend to get good gas mileage so they help people save money.”
Giammo’s counterpart in Snow Hill, Mayor Stephen Mathews, said part of the reason hybrid cars aren’t popular there is that they haven’t been marketed to residents of the Eastern Shore.
“I think the problem with the hybrid down here is that they haven’t been advertising it,” he said. “I haven’t seen any commercials for them on the local stations.”
Although he hasn’t seen many hybrid cars in the area, Mathews, who drives an old Mercedes along with his police car, said he would consider buying one in the future.
But for auto dealers lucky enough to sell hybrids, whether it is the Eastern Shore or Montgomery County, demand is such that they move off the lot virtually as soon as they come in.
At Pohanka Autos, a car dealership in Salisbury that sells both Toyotas and Hondas, there is not a single hybrid to be had – all have been sold.
Salesman Walter Davidson said that Pohanka sells the Honda Civic and Accord hybrids and the Toyota Prius and Highlander hybrids, and there is a wait list of about three weeks to buy one. He said that while the dealership sells about 17 a month, it makes sense that not as many would be sold here as in congested areas outside Washington.
“The hybrids are great for city traffic because they get the best fuel economy in the city,” he said. “It makes sense for people sitting on beltways, but we’re more open here and there isn’t as much light to light traffic, so they aren’t as needed.”
With the sales from Honda and Toyota dealerships in Rockville combined, more than 50 hybrid cars are sold there each month, according to sales representatives.
Chris Glakas, sales manager of Herson’s Honda in Rockville, said the cars are very popular. “ItÕs a combination of fuel mileage and the fact that people want to send the message to car manufacturers to build more hybrids,” he said. “Or a lot of the time its just ‘green’ people.”
The area is also very affluent, he said, so they cars are affordable to most people. “If they want something, they get it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”