The Big Apple’s Big Bet on Electric Vehicles

Can New York City pave the way for EVs and cleaner air?

This past February, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out several transportation initiatives in his final State of the City address, meant to give his city “the cleanest air of any big city in the country.” The plan includes two significant goals related to electric vehicle adoption: 1) install 10,000 charging stations throughout the city by 2020, and 2) purchase electric vehicles for its taxi and municipal fleet. New York took the first step toward making those goals a reality earlier this week on Earth Day, when it brought six Nissan LEAF EVs into service as taxis. But what will it really take for the Big Apple to drive EV adoption and hopefully clean up its air in the process?


The Challenge

The first goal is familiar: announce a robust network of charging opportunities and gain recognition as an EV-friendly city. Plenty of communities have gone that route, though the sheer size of NY’s proposed program—4,000-plus more charging stations than are installed in the entire country to date—is ambitious. The announcement even earned some congratulations from a charging station company, though that’s not especially surprising given their vested interest. The second goal is equally interesting, because it seeks to “walk-the-talk,” by putting actual cars on the streets and people (primarily city employees and taxi drivers) behind the wheel.

Yet if Bloomberg and the city that never sleeps are going to be successful, they’ll need a clear vision for the program. The charging station infrastructure in particular, as robust as it could be, presents a classic Field of Dreams conundrum. If you build it, will they come? Maybe, but New York has to do it right.

New York City is both an unexpected and a fantastic place to develop an electric vehicle ecosystem. On the one hand, it boasts a robust public transportation system and low vehicle ownership rates, but on the other hand, “enjoys” heavy traffic congestion and a huge population with an even bigger vehicle commuter base.

Electrifying the Locals

According to a PlaNYC study conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Long-term Planning and the associated report, “Exploring Electric Vehicle Adoption in New York City,” transportation accounts for 22 percent of total carbon emissions. It also accounts for 28 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, according to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, so there’s a real incentive to spur cleaner options for the city. But in a city of over 8.2 million people, there are approximately 1.8 million registered vehicles—only 44 percent of households own a car compared to the national average of 90 percent. Still, according to an American Community Survey, 23 percent of New York City commuters travel by car, alone. Vehicle ownership rates may be half the national average, but that still adds up to a sizeable number of cars on the road.

Yet how much do such NYC residents drive? As it turns out, not much. A study conducted by Joe Cortright of CEOs for Cities found the average vehicle miles traveled to be nine miles driven per person, per day, in New York City. Such a driver could go an entire workweek before they need to charge their car. Their day-to-day EV charging needs would be relatively minimal, and the Mayor’s PlaNYC confirmed this sentiment in its survey of early EV adopters, who expressed disinterest in a dense public charging network.


But some resolution on New York’s geographic diversity is useful here. NYC’s five boroughs vary widely in their makeup, from relatively suburban Staten Island, to ultra-urban Manhattan and the Bronx, to semi-urban Queens and Brooklyn. Such superficial differences between boroughs also speak to very real differences between residents’ access to a dedicated parking space, and by extension, home-based charging for their EV.

According to the PlaNYC study, 50 percent of Manhattan car owners have a designated parking space, whereas in Staten Island, the number is 80 percent. Thus, parking is at the center of the EV infrastructure challenge. For Bloomberg, the—ahem—charge is to serve those NYC car owners who don’t have access to home charging. And while it may be tempting to locate charging stations in high visibility locations, such as near Times Square where they’d have lots of PR value as an EV dog-and-pony show for tourists, he can have real impact where New Yorkers—most of whom reflexively avoid the throngs around midtown Manhattan—actually drive: to work.

And conveniently, locating charging stations near offices, such as the financial district downtown, would serve both NYC residents and another even more sizeable population: commuters.

The Bridge and Tunnel Crowd

New York City and its eight-plus million people draw on an even larger pool of commuters from the surrounding metropolitan area, which includes Long Island, northern New Jersey, Westchester County and the lower Hudson Valley, and southwestern Connecticut—all areas well within the comfortable range of many electric vehicles. That Combined Statistical Area adds about another 14 million people to the potential EV conversation mix.

Between the Port Authority, which covers the Hudson River crossings connecting NYC to New Jersey, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which covers the East River crossings that lead to points north and east, you have more than 500 million vehicles per year traveling into, out of, and through the city. Many of them are commuters.

By strategically deploying charging stations in locations most beneficial for this bridge and tunnel crowd, Bloomberg can incentivize EV adoption. New York already does this to a small degree, with EVs eligible for a Clean Pass Vehicle sticker that permits access to the 40-mile-long high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane of the Long Island Expressway (I-495), which funnels directly into the Queens Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan. But New York City can do more to accelerate EV adoption among this important commuter base.

The Out-of-Towners

Further, a growing number of vehicles in New York City are coming in from far outside of the immediate metropolitan area. The NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management found that Manhattan is the number one destination in the U.S. for “extreme commuting,” or trips of over 90 miles each way. The fastest-growing commuting pool is that of drivers traveling from places such as upstate New York. A 90-mile drive on a 100-mile range pure electric vehicle is cutting it close—and is potentially impossible when factoring in driving styles, the impact of weather, and idling in traffic—but it’s in the ballpark where the electric car provides superior economics over a gasoline powered vehicle. After all, the more miles you put on an electric vehicle, the more you take advantage of lower operating costs of electricity-powered miles.

The question remains: for such commuters, what is the right location for charging stations? DC fast chargers—which will give compatible electric cars a full charge in about a half hour—can be installed off highways, in a similar fashion to gas stations. But a commuter isn’t going to wait around for 30 minutes on their way to work; and they probably won’t need to if they charged the night before. Moreover, DC fast charging equipment is an order of magnitude more expensive than the currently common Level 2 (220–240v) stations, which will charge a pure electric car in four to six hours. Even your standard Level 1, 120v outlet can be a cost effective way of offering charging services for a car that will be idle for eight hours—as most New York City commuters’ vehicles will. Again, the charging station location issue comes down to placing them in parking garages and/or streetside where they’re most likely to be used by the commuting workforce.


Electrifying the Fleet

Then there’s the city’s goal of fleet electrification. The city will be adding 50 electric vehicles to a fleet that already includes 458 plug-ins. In addition, a taxi pilot will incorporate 6 Nissan LEAFs (that just went into service) and two DC fast-charging stations (one of which will be open to the public). Even more ambitious, the Mayor announced a commitment of electrifying one-third of the city’ s taxi fleet. These are certainly aggressive goals, but we should be careful not to assume they are written in stone. After all, hybrid taxis, which Bloomberg promoted earlier in his tenure as Mayor, have already faced hurdles with competing vehicle types.

But electrifying taxis and the city fleet still leaves the issue of personal automobiles on the table. According to a 2006 report by Schaller Consulting, 60 percent of traffic in Manhattan is attributed to personal vehicles, with the remaining 40 percent encompassing trucks, busses, commercial vehicles, and of course, taxis.

And while charging station deployment is one way to promote EV adoption in the city, other options must be explored as well. The starting point of 6 electric Nissan LEAF taxis gets New Yorkers into an EV as passengers, but Bloomberg would do one better to get New Yorkers behind the wheel of EVs, such as via a car-sharing fleet, which has grown in popularity in New York City. Demonstrating a new technology is one thing, experiencing it first-hand is another.

EV Car Sharing: Getting New Yorkers Behind the Wheel

Car sharing has long been considered an opportunity for electric vehicles—high utilization, short routes, and designated parking spaces all play well for battery-powered vehicles.

Until recently, there wasn’t a true electric car-sharing program to be found. Today, though, examples are growing in number, with Bolloré’s Autolib in Paris perhaps the gold standard. The service provides 37,000 Parisians with 1,800 electric cars and 700 charging stations distributed throughout the city. And with a growth rate of 1,200 members per week, it is seeing tremendous success. This could be a promising model for a city like New York, though it’d require a build out (some of it already planned via Bloomberg’s announcement) of the city’s EV charging and parking network. Plus, growing NYC car sharing is already one of 14 transportation initiatives of the PlaNYC 2030 vision, so electrification of existing car-sharing plans would dovetail nicely.

The Path Forward

If Bloomberg is serious about shifting New York City’s driving public from polluting combustion engine autos to electric vehicles, enablers need to be front and center. Smart strategies will embrace both NYC residents and the city’s robust commuter base, and involve intelligently sited charging stations and parking spaces (including streetside and in garages), increased vehicle access through car-sharing programs, and demonstration that the Big Apple is prepared to walk the walk by continuing the electrification of its city and taxi fleets.

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First image: courtesy of New York City Mayor’s Office, by Edward Reed
Second image: courtesy of Shutterstock, by Songquan Deng
Third image: courtesy of New York City Mayor’s Office, by Spencer Tucker