New York Gov. Kathy Huchul announced Thursday that the state will follow in California’s footsteps by banning the sale of new gas-powered cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs by 2035. As in California, it’s an important step not only to advance the state’s emission-reduction targets but also to mature and advance the electric vehicle (EV) market.
That said, New York has a big challenge to transitioning the state’s cars to electric, one that California also has but on a much smaller scale. About one in every five cars registered in the state are in New York City, an EV charging desert where very few car owners have a private driveway where they can install their own charger, as is the case in much of the country including California. In order for the state to have any prayer of coming close to its goals, it needs to figure out the difficult problem of how to get city-dwelling curbside parkers to consider EV charging not only possible but convenient.
There are some 2 million registered “standard” vehicles in New York City, according to the latest figures the state DMV released—which for some reason was in 2018—compared to 7.6 million vehicles in the rest of the state. There is no reliable data on how many of those New York City vehicles have their own driveways (more common in the less-dense outer boroughs), are kept in garages, or rely on street parking. There is also no reliable data on how many street parking spots the city has, but the most commonly reported number is 3 million. So without getting too hung up on the exact numbers, it is reasonable to say the vast majority of New York City car owners keep their cars parked on the street overnight. Certainly, some people in California park their cars on the street overnight too. But of the major cities, only San Francisco has the density that makes street parking the norm. And San Francisco County has just 1.5 percent of the state’s cars, compared to New York City’s almost 20 percent of the state’s private vehicle fleet. So New York City figuring out vehicle charging is fundamental to the state’s goals.
The ideal EV charging setup is having a Level 2 charger hooked up to a 240-volt outlet next to where the car is parked every night. Charging your car becomes like charging your cellphone, something you never think about except in the couple of times a year or so you’re out and about for especially extended periods. This is straightforward enough if you park in the same spot every night that you also own. It’s far less straightforward if you don’t own the spot if you park in or don’t park in the same place all the time.
City street parkers have both problems, making EV ownership a riddle for dense cities to solve. There are two ways to accommodate EVs: Put chargers where people park and make people go to chargers when they need them. Most experts agree cities will need a lot of both. In other words, cities will need thousands upon thousands of curbside Level 2 chargers that can fully charge the car in about four to six hours as well as a smaller but still significant number of fast chargers that can fully charge the battery in an hour or less.
New York City’s biggest problem is it is terribly short of both kinds of chargers. It installed its first curbside charger last year. At that time, London already had 8,600. Oslo, a city of about 635,000 (Brooklyn has some 2.5 million) has something like 2,500 chargers. New York City’s electric company, Con Edison, says it wants to install 21,000 Level 2 chargers and 525 fast chargers in the city by 2025. I’m not big into predictions, but it’s not looking good, considering in the 14 months since it installed its first charger, it has installed approximately 100 more. Only 20,900 to go.
“The challenges facing NYC in building charging infrastructure should be well known by this time,” said Chris Nelder, formerly an electric vehicle charging expert for the Rocky Mountain Institute who has previous experience trying to work with Con Edison on charging projects. “I don’t think ConEd has much credibility as a provider of charging infrastructure in NYC. I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on them!”
Beyond the raw numbers, the location of those chargers is important too. Con Ed could install 50 of them in a giant parking lot of a medical center, for example, which might look good on paper but be a very long walk from where most people in the area live. To this end, Nelder said, “A serious analysis would have to break down exactly how many cars park exactly where (street, private garage, public garage, home) and understand what the options are for each use-case.” Considering New York City doesn’t even know how many street parking spaces it has, such an analysis would be difficult.
The fast charging picture isn’t much better. According to a search on PlugShare, there are some 17 fast charging locations around the city. There are none south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan, and none in the Bronx. According to the DMV, there were 469,300 registered cars in the Bronx and Manhattan as of 2018. Currently, they have one fast charging station, in Lower Manhattan, among them.
New York’s 2035 no new gas car mandate, like California’s, will be phased in over time. California expects EVs to account for 50 percent of new car sales by 2028 in order to ramp up to 100 percent by 2035. If New York is to follow the same timeline, that means in six years it would expect half of all New York City new cars to be electric. A lot can change in six years, but to me, that’s an incredible expectation given they currently have virtually nowhere to charge.
Things don’t have to change overnight. And even in 2035 there will still be gas cars left on the road. But by then, a significant portion, if not a majority, of the cars in New York City should be electric, and that would require a lot of entities, including Con Edison, that are not taking charging very seriously to kick it into gear.
There is, of course, one other option. Cities like New York could also target goals of reducing car ownership overall, which would in turn ease the need for quite as many chargers. New York could aggressively expand and improve the city’s public transportation and bicycle infrastructure. It could create new car-free streets and districts. These are all things London and Oslo have done in addition to installing lots of EV chargers. In fact, the very difficulty of installing enough EV chargers for everyone could be interpreted, along with the city’s eternally crippling traffic and nightmarish parking situation, as evidence that private automobiles are not suited for such a dense urban environment and it would be best to not repeat the mistakes of the past by expensively and inconveniently outfitting an environment for a technology for which it is not suited. Installing 2,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 EV chargers in New York City is going to be a mess, because street geometry doesn’t lie. Cars in cities can’t be anything else.
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