Plugging In

Readying America’s Cities for the Arrival of Electric Vehicles

The adoption of large numbers of electric vehicles (EVs) offers many benefits for cities, including cleaner air and the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But with more EVs on the road, and many more coming soon, cities will face the challenge of where electric vehicles will charge, particularly in city centers and neighborhoods without off-street residential parking.


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The adoption of large numbers of electric vehicles (EVs) offers many benefits for cities, including cleaner air and the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles are far cleaner than gasoline-powered cars, with lower greenhouse gas emissions and lower emissions of the pollutants that contribute to smog and particulate matter.

The number of EVs on America’s streets is at an all-time high. Throughout 2016, sales of plug-in electric vehicles increased nearly 38 percent. In 2017, sales of electric vehicles were up again, increasing 32 percent over the year. The introduction of the Chevy Bolt, Tesla’s Model 3 and other affordable, long-range electric vehicles suggests that growth in EV sales is just beginning. In fact, Chevrolet’s Bolt EV was named Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year.

But with more EVs on the road, and many more coming soon, cities will face the challenge of where electric vehicles will charge, particularly in city centers and neighborhoods without off-street residential parking.

The good news is that smart public policies, including those already pioneered in cities nationally and internationally, can help U.S. cities lead the electric vehicle revolution while expanding access to clean transportation options for those who live, work and play in cities.

Electric vehicles are poised for explosive growth.

Technological gains that allow electric vehicles to drive farther, charge faster, and be produced more affordably are revolutionizing the vehicle market. With adequate policy and infrastructure investments, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that, globally, more than half of new cars sold by 2040 will be electric vehicles.

Cities need to be ready for an influx of electric vehicles.

In a few short years, tens of thousands of electric vehicles could hit city streets across America, from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. Yet, as of now, most cities are unprepared for this pending influx. These vehicles will need a place to charge, so public access to EV charging stations will be critical, especially since only about half of vehicles in the U.S. have a dedicated off-street parking space, like a driveway or garage.

Major cities will require the installation of hundreds to thousands of publicly accessible electric vehicle chargers in order to serve the increased demand for electric vehicles. Studies conducted separately by the National Renewable Energy Labora-tory, the Electric Power Research Institute, and Pacific Gas & Electric estimate that 1-5.2 public fast chargers are needed to support 1,000 electric vehicles. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that 36 non-residential Level 2 chargers are necessary for every 1,000 electric vehicles. Cities will also need to facilitate at-home charging since the majority of EV owners will need to park and charge their vehicles overnight at or near where they live.

The world’s leading EV cities have adopted key policies that enable urban residents to own and operate electric vehicles. In particular, these cities have been able to deliver electric vehicle infrastructure to urban drivers through innovative parking and planning policies, including:

  • Residential access to on-street EV charging: Many residents, particularly in large cities, do not have access to an off-street parking spot where they might charge their electric vehicle overnight. Cities around the world are tackling this problem with innovative solutions to install or incentivize residents to install on-street charging infrastructure at curbsides in dense areas. For example, residents in London can ask the city to install, and mostly pay for, EV charging infrastructure at streetlights on their block.
  • Access to public charging stations: By acting directly or partnering with other entities – such as private garages, public schools and community centers – cities can ensure that there are adequate parking spaces for people to charge their EVs when they aren’t at home, for instance, while they are commuting, shopping or traveling.
  • Support for private investment in publicly accessible stations: “Semi-public” stations can provide EV owners a place to charge at privately owned stations at businesses, parking garages or private driveways. By incentivizing the installation of shared charging stations, cities can optimize use of charging infrastructure.
  •  Incentivized EV parking and charging: Some cities have local government programs or agencies that offer discounted or free charging and parking for electric vehicles in public spaces. Electric vehicle charging port on a lamppost in London.  

Leading cities are encouraging shared mobility options and reforming parking policies to expand access to electric vehicle travel and reduce conflicts over parking.

  • Carsharing services are expanding access to EVs – and to EV charging – around the world. Fleets of shared electric cars, like BlueIndy in Indianapolis, allow people to drive electric vehicles without needing to personally own one. These services can also expand public access to EV charging by opening up their charging infrastructure for the public to use. 
  • Expanding shared mobility, electrified public transit, safe biking and walking and other transportation options – as well as implementing parking reforms – can reduce competition for on-street parking that might crowd out space for EV charging. 

Electric vehicles are an essential tool for cities to combat global warming and air pollution, and offer consumer benefits like lower fuel costs. Technological developments mean that EVs are poised to hit the market in record numbers. However, there is a lot left to be done. If cities fail to develop comprehensive plans for EV charging now, they risk being unprepared for large numbers of EVs hitting local streets in coming years.

In order to be successful, cities will need to develop comprehensive solutions to accommodate electric vehicles, including convenient opportunities for charging. Some specific strategies include:

  • Expanding access to electric vehicle charging for residents without off-street parking, by dramatically increasing the number of charging stations in residential areas.
  • Partnering with businesses and public entities (like schools, community centers and municipal offices) to use their existing parking infrastructure while providing EV charging.
  • Facilitating and encouraging electric shared mobility options like carsharing, ridesharing and bikesharing.
  • Directing municipal utilities to install charging infrastructure and coordinating closely with investor-owned utilities to maximize opportunities. 
  • Considering a demand-based and shared system for parking.