Cities emerge as incubators for electric cars

The realization is emerging that if electric cars are going to succeed in becoming part of the American fleet, it is probably going to happen in cities.
There are several reasons for this:

  • In-city trips are short and probably stay within the range of most electrical vehicles, if they don’t rise much above 50 to 75 miles.
  • Cities suffer more from air pollution and therefore have more to gain from the introduction of electric cars.
  • Cities have compact electric grids and are therefore better prepared to set up a network of charging stations.
  • Cities have large car dealerships and therefore are more likely to carry a wide variety of models to attract consumers.
  • Cities can offer benefits to EV owners such as access to high-occupancy and bus lanes without having to deal with state legislatures and their broader constituencies.

The International Council on Clean Transportation has issued an 80-page report on the progress that cities around the world have made in advancing electric cars for transportation. It says:

Cities could represent an important focal point in the transition toward a robust electric vehicle market due to urban driving patterns and cities concentration of vehicle ownership and charging networks. Although it is early in what is likely a decades-long transition, the current diversity of electric-drive promotion actions provides a rich laboratory for what it working.

The study surveyed 25 major cities in the United States, comprising more than 42 percent of the population, 46 percent of auto sales, 67 percent of new electric-vehicle registrations and 53 percent of the public charging stations in the country. Their findings were illustrated in the following chart:

EV graph_Tucker2
The vertical axis shows the percentage of cars that are now EVs, with San Francisco approaching 6 percent. The horizontal axis shows how much each city has done to promote EVs. The size of the dot shows how many chargers per million people are now available in the city.

California obviously leads with a $2,500 state tax credit for the purchase of a new EV. When combined with the $7,500 federal tax credit, this can reduce the price of a Nissan Leaf by nearly one-third. This is undoubtedly the reason why San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside rank so high. (Many of California’s smaller cities such as Sacramento and Palo Alto would also have very high ranking.)

But other cities have been active as well. Seattle has a mix of incentives, utility cooperation and charging infrastructure and has three times the U.S. average of EV registrations. Portland has the country’s most extensive charging network and extensive outreach and is also triple the national average. Atlanta has gotten into a relationship with Nissan and has become the biggest market for the Leaf in the country, with eight times the national average. The main advantage seems to be access to the HOV lanes on Atlanta’s network of freeways. The city has also just voted to buy a large number of electrics to replace gas-powered vehicles in the city’s municipal fleet.

The ICCT report lists 30 actions that states, utilities and cities can take, 14 of them at the city level. These include everything from outright subsidies for purchase to parking benefits, from access to bus lanes to utility help in setting up home-charging stations.

The California cities rank the highest, with San Francisco scoring 23 out of 30 incentives. But Washington, Philadelphia and New York ranked fairly high and have not been able to build up their electric fleets. The reason seems to be the drag in municipal bureaucracies in setting up chargers, plus concerns about theft and vandalism. Perhaps not surprisingly, Detroit ranked near the bottom. The home of the internal combustion engine has not been that receptive to electric vehicles. Tampa, Miami, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh are the other laggards.

The ICCT recommends the “ecosystem” approach, where “a lot of actors are moving in the same direction.” State and federal governments are encouraged to provide funding incentives. Nonprofits are encouraged to do outreach and publicize the virtues of electric transportation. Utilities are to be recruited to co-promote EVs and offer incentives for their purchase. Small businesses are encouraged to install charging stations at workplaces. And automakers are encouraged to increase the availability of their models. The last seems particularly important, since outstanding EV models are not available in all areas. Atlanta’s success in promoting the Leaf seems to be an example of how cities can leverage arrangements with car dealerships.

The report concludes:

These cities on average saw a new electric vehicle share of 1.1% in 2014. Compared to a nationwide average electric vehicle share of 0.8%, the 25 cities in this study had an average electric vehicle deployment that was 40% greater, and many individual cities had deployment that was much greater than that. Based on these basic snapshots of 2014, electric vehicles are being deployed disproportionately in major cities, so it is an important moment to serve these cities with an up-to-date understanding of electric vehicle and charging infrastructure trends and best practices that are emerging.

Every city can’t be San Francisco but many can do much more.