So you’ve got a nice house with a garage where you can charge your electric vehicle—you’re living in the future. You’re also—sorry!—far from original: 90 percent of US EV owners have their own garages. But woe to the urbanites. Chargers built into apartment parking lots are few and far between. And as if parking in a city isn’t nightmarish enough, competition for plug-friendly street spots leaves EVs stranded from the electricity that gives them life. Could you hack into the power lines above and snake a cord into your Tesla? Sure, if you prefer your biology extra crispy. But a better way is coming, because smart people are working to bring power to thirsty urban EVs.
That’s good news, because transforming smoggy cities’ vehicles into electric ones is going to be an important part of any plan to stave off further climate change. But convincing urban dwellers to pony up for EVs is tough. Even those who have gotten over anxieties about battery ranges will find there aren’t many places to charge them. Someone’s going to have to fix that, says Dave Mullaney, who studies electrification as the principal of the Carbon-Free Mobility team at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability-focused research organization. “What’s pretty clear right now is that electric vehicles are coming, and they are quickly going to saturate the market of wealthy people with garages,” he says. “They need to expand beyond that.”
So the goal is clear: Build more chargers. But in dense places, the eternal question is, where? And how to guarantee that they will not only be accessible, but cheap enough for anyone to use them?
“I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all strategy,” said Polly Trottenberg, the US deputy secretary of transportation, during a media call Thursday. She would know: Trottenberg was, until recently, head of the Transportation Department in New York City, where she oversaw her fair share of EV charging experiments. At least money is on the way to help cities figure it out. The federal infrastructure bill contained $7.5 billion to support hundreds of thousands more public charging stations. States including California—which has pledged to stop selling new gas-powered cars by 2035—also have programs dedicated to building more chargers.
Whatever the strategy, though, cracking the problem is vital if cities—and the feds—want to stick to bigger goals for improving equity, accessibility, and racial justice, which many politicians have named as priorities. After all, low-income folks can’t switch from traditional cars to electric ones until they have abundant access to affordable charging infrastructure. The capitalist temptation would be to let private companies battle to see who can put more chargers in more places. But that risks creating charging deserts, the way the US already has food deserts, poor neighborhoods where grocery chains don’t bother setting up shop. Public schools in the US have a similar structural inequality: The higher the tax base, the better the local education. And since the still-nascent charging business is actually pretty bleak right now, the government will likely need to keep directing resources or subsidies to low-income communities to make sure they’re included once the EV economy booms.
Making charging a taxpayer-funded public good, not another corporate cash grab, could help encourage the adoption of EVs in low-income urban neighborhoods—they might even be powered with community-owned solar arrays. Pulling gas-powered cars off the road will improve local air quality, which is far worse for the poor and people of color. And installing chargers in under-resourced communities will be especially important because buyers in these areas might be more likely to own used EVs with old batteries that don’t get the optimal range, so they’ll need more consistent charging.
But getting buy-in from residents in those places will be critical, because communities of color have grown accustomed to “neutral or benign neglect and sometimes even directly malignant [transportation] policy decisions,” says Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, the clean transportation consultant at GreenLatinos, a nonprofit. For communities unfamiliar with EVs, who might depend on gas stations or conventional auto repair shops for jobs, the sudden appearance of chargers could look like a harbinger of gentrification, she says—a physical sign that they are being replaced.
Some urban areas are already experimenting with new charging strategies, each with their up- and downsides. Big cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and smaller ones like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Portland, Oregon, have swiped bright ideas from Europe and are installing chargers next to streetside spots, sometimes even on street lights. These are often cheaper to put in, because the space or pole is likely to be owned by a local utility or city, and the necessary wiring is already there. They also can be easier for drivers to access than even a charger at a gas station: Just park, plug, and walk away.