Connecting state and local government leaders
Big cities and rural areas fear being left behind if they can’t keep up with the demand for chargers, but they also have to consider costs, competition for curbsides, equity and more.
Boston’s new mayor has an ambitious goal to help residents make the switch from gas-burning cars and trucks to electric ones. She wants enough electric chargers placed throughout the city by 2030 so that every Bostonian can reach one in a 10-minute walk.
Currently, only 57% of the city’s residents are that close to a charging station, which could make owning an electric vehicle impractical, especially for people who don’t have garages or driveways where they could park their cars and plug in. The charging stations that are in place tend to be clustered downtown and in wealthier neighborhoods, creating “charging deserts” in lower-income and out-of-the-way areas.
“We need urgent action to drive down vehicle emissions and protect the health of our communities,” said Mayor Michelle Wu when announcing the goal in December. She also touted increased use of city-owned electric vehicles and an expansion of an electric vehicle carshare program. About 30% of Boston’s 550 or so light duty vehicles are fully electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles.
“These steps will contribute to cleaner air and lower emissions, advancing Boston’s efforts to become a Green New Deal city,” Wu said.
But cities of all stripes and sizes – not just ones hoping to implement a Green New Deal – are scrambling to make sure their streets are ready for the expected surge of electric vehicles in coming years. Leaders are trying to make sure their cities are not left behind, while, at the same time, hoping to avoid missteps that will leave them with outdated or impractical infrastructure as vehicle technology evolves.
“This really is coming,” said Joel Levin, the executive director of Plug In America, an advocacy group for electric vehicle owners. “Right now, the places that are dealing with this front and center are the larger cities. But it’s going to gradually shift out to everywhere in the next five years or so.”
While many government leaders are anxious to bring charging infrastructure to their cities, getting the right kinds of chargers in the right places can be trickier than it might seem.
There are three categories of chargers, based on how much power each delivers. A Level 1 charger can run on a standard 120-volt outlet, but they are the slowest kind. It can take anywhere from six to 22 hours to recharge a car battery in one of them. Much more common are Level 2 chargers, which run on 240-volt outlets like those that are used for a dryer or other major appliance. They can charge a vehicle overnight, or in two to eight hours.
The slower chargers are common in homes, where 80% of electric vehicle users recharge their cars and trucks. But they are still far slower than filling up at a gas station for longer journeys.
That’s where “superchargers,” or Level 3 chargers come in. They use direct current, rather than alternating current, with 480 or more volts. That means they can charge a car in about 30 minutes. This is the kind of technology that Tesla uses for its national network of chargers.
But there are different types of charging equipment on different vehicle makes and models, so not all vehicles can use the same chargers.
How to pay for electricity also varies by the charging provider. Some networks require drivers to be part of their network in order to use their chargers, meaning drivers can’t use their credit card or cash the way they could for gasoline.
Gas stations have started offering electric charges along with petroleum pumps. But they could face competition among other kinds of retail outlets, too. 7-Eleven, for example, recently announced it will be installing 500 fast-charging ports at 250 locations in the United States and Canada. Walmart and Target have been rolling out similar initiatives for years.
The stores aren’t just interested in selling charges to drivers; they’re hoping to attract customers inside while they wait, too, said Levin from Plug In America.
The increased competition could mean that gas stations that are struggling financially may close, he said, continuing a decades-long trend of declining numbers of gas stations in the country.
A different kind of competition could emerge on curbsides, especially in cities.
Publicly available chargers will likely cater to two kinds of drivers: people from out of town, like commuters and tourists, and people who live in multifamily buildings that don’t have a garage or driveway where they can recharge their cars.
Levin said most public chargers will be in existing parking lots for government buildings, schools, churches, big employers, hospitals and retailers.
But cities are also making chargers available at curbside parking spaces. Los Angeles, for example, attached Level 2 charging stations to existing light poles. The arrangement takes advantage of the fact that the city owns its electric utility, and that it had extra capacity when it switched its streetlights to more energy-efficient LED lamps.
Levin cautioned, though, that drivers of nonelectric vehicles may resent a city setting aside too many spots for electric charging before there’s ample demand for the service. “If you do too much of it too fast, you’ll get some blowback now, especially in places where parking is at a premium,” he said.
Jon Orcutt, the advocacy director for Bike New York and the former policy director for the New York City Department of Transportation, also warned against cities setting aside too much curbside space for parking.
The side of the street is, after all, a valuable commodity, especially in cities. Demand has grown for access to the curb in recent years, as package deliveries have surged, streetside eateries have opened up, rental bikes and scooters have required parking, food trucks have multiplied, bike lanes have become more common, and ride-hailing services drop off and pick up more passengers.
“The main thing is to stay flexible,” Orcutt said. “What we don’t want to do is to commit a huge amount of curb space to a changing technology. If it ends up being something like a long-term lease, everyone is still wary of what happened in Chicago,” which leased its parking meters for 75 years in 2009 in exchange for $1.16 billion in one-time revenue.
Not only that, but other uses of curb space could help cities meet their climate goals more than parking for electric vehicles. “There are emission benefits to bus lanes, to bike lanes, and even to more active pedestrian and public spaces,” Orcutt said. “We might just want to discourage driving altogether.”
Fears of Being Left Behind
That said, as with almost every new technology, there are substantial concerns that chargers will come to affluent areas but not low-income neighborhoods in cities or in rural areas.
That not only cuts those areas out of a key part of the economy, it could take a toll environmentally, too. People of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white people are, including pollution from vehicle exhaust.
Levin, from Plug In America, said cities should focus on making sure residents living in moderate- to low-income neighborhoods have access to nearby chargers. “The people we need to support are the people in apartment buildings,” he said. “The ideal scenario would be to have a Level 2 charger within a block of [low- and] moderate-income apartment buildings. That’s where it’s really helpful.”
For Mayor Ty Coleman in Alamosa, Colorado, getting electric charging infrastructure into his town is not just a logistical problem, it’s a key to keep the city of 9,400 people economically viable.
Alamosa is in the heart of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, a region 120 miles long and 72 miles across that some electric vehicle owners call the “valley of death” because it has so few public chargers. The closest fast-charging station outside of Alamosa, he said, is 80 miles away.
So Coleman has worked with local businesses and community groups to make sure Alamosa has chargers. There’s a new fast charger at a state welcome center, plus slower chargers near city hall, at a bank and at a nearby alligator farm that is a prominent tourist destination.
Coleman said the downtown locations, in particular, can help the local economy. While their cars are charging, motorists can eat at local restaurants or check out the attractions advertised at the welcome center.
“It gives us another economic lifeline in our rural, small community,” he said. It helps keep people coming into local businesses, which otherwise might not survive. “We want to make sure our small towns don’t become ghost towns. That’s why we strategically placed our EV charging stations in our downtown.”
Coleman worries, though, that the city only has one fast charger. That could discourage drivers from stopping by, because it would take too long to refuel. The mayor also anticipates that more local customers will be looking for those kinds of chargers as automakers start selling more electric pickup trucks, rather than mainly sporty Teslas.
He’s hoping the Biden administration could help Alamosa and other small communities add that kind of infrastructure. The recently passed infrastructure law contains $7.5 billion to establish a nationwide charging network. Of that, $5 billion will be dispersed through states, while the remaining $2.5 billion will be available to local governments and other organizations.
Coleman spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on a recent call about making sure rural areas can use the new charging money. Rural communities have a hard time assessing their needs and applying for federal grants, so they may require assistance with those initial steps, Coleman said.
“I also told [Buttigieg], while we’re building this infrastructure, we need to be thoughtful, and we need to build something in this network that we can grow into instead of growing out of by not building the network as efficient and as dense as we need it to be,” Coleman said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.