Unplug the ride, roll it out (silently) and head on down the avenue.

That’s the concept behind Berkeley’s plug-in rollout of an innovative car in the city’s fleet.

Beginning in May, it became a popular signup for Berkeley staffers to get a converted, plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius from the city parking garage, which has two customized charging stations.

It’s the latest indicator that the Bay Area is serious about leading the way in green automotive trends. Bay Area cities, businesses and nonprofit organizations are taking small steps now toward ambitious plans to set up an infrastructure for the growth in use of electric autos in the next few years.

“We’re trying to be cutting edge on many things,” said Nils Moe, assistant to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates on environmental issues. “But we’re also cautious to gauge the market and demand for this … The economy is a limiting factor right now. But manufacturers will be coming on line in the next two years providing plug-in and all-electric vehicles.”

As consumers decide whether to invest in the new technology, cities can encourage the development with convenient recharging stations. San Jose recently opened a public recharging station downtown. San Francisco has a City Hall display explaining the technology, and the city fleet has three plug-in, converted hybrid autos. The city is looking for grant money to finance the conversion of as many as 100 more plug-in electric vehicles for city staff, said Bob Hayden, transportation adviser at the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

The federal stimulus bill passed earlier this year includes incentives for infrastructure and for consumers to buy electric vehicles.

The Bay Area is a “hotbed” of activity in the field, according to the Sierra Club, and not just because of the municipal efforts. Many companies developing the infrastructure for plug-in electric cars are in the Bay Area, including Coulomb Technologies of Campbell, which has worked with San Jose and San Francisco on the recharging stations.

Transportation officials have set up a government-to-government group meeting occasionally to develop ideas to make the Bay Area the lead electric vehicle market in the nation, said Hayden.

“It’s certainly a chicken-and-egg scenario,” said Moe. “We need charging stations to convince people to invest in these vehicles.”

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) get up to 100 miles per gallon at slow speeds. They often run the first 10 or 20 miles — the range for most staff trips on city business — on electricity alone, said Moe.

The city and its partner, City CarShare, converted one of the city fleet’s regular Priuses at 3Prong Power of Berkeley. It involves enhancement of the electric power drive and conversion to a larger capacity battery with the ability to plug in to recharge. The conversion costs about $6,000, said Anita Daley, membership development and outreach director for City CarShare. By driving PHEVs rather than traditional internal combustion cars, consumers can reduce smog-forming tailpipe emissions by 100 percent, according to City CarShare information.

The Berkeley city car sports decals noting the innovation, said Anita Daley. As with regular Prius models, it has a computer dashboard display that shows when the car is running 100 percent on electricity and at other times how efficiently its internal combustion engine is operating. This reinforces drivers to confirm that they’re conserving energy.

City CarShare is a Bay Area nonprofit that implements ideas to improve the environment by reducing individual car ownership. City CarShare encourages car sharing and its 12,000 members take out fleet cars for trips around the Bay Area. City CarShare partners with the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco on city fleet projects.

The Berkeley partnership is unique in its efficient conservation, Daley noted, because cars reserved for city fleet use during business hours, including the new converted plug-in hybrid, are shared by other City CarShare members for use on weekends and evenings.

Starting from scratch in 2005, now about 250 Berkeley city staffers are using City CarShare vehicles.

The city has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by going from about 15 cars to five shared City CarShare vehicles, including standard hydrids and a wheelchair-accessible van, Daley said.