How cities are deciding where electric vehicle chargers should go

Electric vehicle charging stations are pictured in Monterey Park, California.

Electric vehicle charging stations are pictured in Monterey Park, California. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Places where street parking is the norm and residential driveways are rare face unique challenges when it comes to making sure drivers can plug in their cars.

The New Jersey city of Hoboken, which sits across the Hudson River from New York City, has an ambitious goal: It wants to put electric vehicle charging stations within a five-minute walking distance of every household in the city. Accomplishing that will require city officials to figure out how to best integrate the new hardware into a dense urban environment, where curb space is valuable, driveways are scarce and street-parking is limited.

Cities across the country face similar challenges, as local leaders prepare for a surge in electric vehicles. Their approaches have varied considerably, from installing chargers on city-owned streetlights in Los Angeles to partnering with private charging companies in places like San Antonio and Hoboken. Decisions local governments and industry are making now are likely to affect how the charging landscape looks for years to come. 

“We’re here to provide the infrastructure, and then people will feel confident making an informed decision to convert from a gasoline-powered vehicle to an electric vehicle,” said Ryan Sharp, Hoboken’s director of transportation and parking. Sharp noted that shifting to electric vehicles is a major emphasis of the city’s climate plan.

Hoboken already has 1,000 electric vehicles on its streets, and that number is expected to triple by 2025. Unlike more suburban areas, the square-mile city has few garages and driveways where drivers can plug in their cars overnight. That means they need publicly available chargers to entice residents to switch to the cleaner cars.

Likewise, officials in many cities say that the public’s willingness to use and buy electric vehicles could depend on how easy it is to charge those cars and trucks in public.

Hoboken is emphasizing on-street spaces as it adds some 25 new chargers, which would double its existing number of stations, Sharp said. Most of its current stations are tucked away in public garages and parking lots. But the one public charger Hoboken has on a street, a few blocks from city hall, accounts for 40% of the city’s charging sessions. Sharp sees it as a sign that curbside stations will be in demand.

“The data says everything,” he said.

To help deploy the new chargers, Hoboken is partnering with Volta, a charging company that uses video advertising at its stations to support the EV infrastructure. Volta will handle the installation and operation of the new sites, and it will pay the city to do so.

Unique challenges for cities

Hoboken is one of the densest cities in the country, which makes on-street charging an especially high priority there. But other cities confront different challenges as they build their charging networks, which has shaped their responses.

In Los Angeles, city leaders pushed early to roll out charging infrastructure as a way to meet the climate goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Electric vehicles are also far more common in California than in the rest of the country. In the first few months of 2022, 16% of new vehicles sold in California were electric, double the percentage from the same time in 2020. California officials have also approved a plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

Michael Samulon, Los Angeles’ director of vehicle electrification and city projects, said in a recent conference call with electrification advocates that the city has hundreds of chargers on public property, like libraries, parks and even the zoo.

Los Angeles has also installed more than 500 chargers connected to streetlights, which the city is able to do because the electric utility is owned by the city (in many cities, streetlights are owned by a private electric company instead). Samulon called the possibility of streetlight stations a “wonderful benefit.”

“They are easily deployed. They don’t require any extra permitting, and, importantly, they don’t require any extra trenching,” he said. “They just get attached right to the streetlight. They tap into the power on the streetlight and bada bing, bada bang, you’ve got a charger. We can install about two of them per day with one crew. So they’re quite effective.”

Los Angeles created a car-sharing program called BlueLA designed to service disadvantaged communities. The program, a partnership with Blink Charging, so far has 200 chargers at 40 stations, with 100 vehicles available for drivers. And the city plans to expand it. More than half of the people who have used it, Samulon said, have been from disadvantaged communities.

“It’s sort of a quasi-public transportation, in the sense that it’s filling a niche in between a personal vehicle and public transit,” Samulon said.

The city’s public works department has also offered a rebate of $4,000 for people and businesses that install electric chargers on their property, and many of those have been installed at multifamily dwellings, he added.

In San Antonio, the city had been moving ahead with a plan to install chargers at 25 city-owned locations, in a partnership with Blink Charging. But the Texas city had to put those plans on hold for several months after receiving a complaint that some of its existing locations were not accessible for people with disabilities, said Julia Murphy, San Antonio’s deputy chief sustainability officer.

Initially, city officials couldn’t find a good set of guidelines for how to ensure their sites were accessible, but the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency, released specifications this summer. Now, Murphy said, all of San Antonio’s sites on city property will comply with those standards.

“It behooves especially municipal governments that are trying to do a quick deployment to know that it’s not going to be quick,” Murphy said in the conference call organized by the Electrification Coalition.

Chris Bast, the director of EV infrastructure investments for the Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes greater adoption of electric vehicles, said localities could encourage more residents and businesses to install chargers by cutting red tape.

Putting in chargers requires permits like any major construction project, plus coordination with electric utilities to get in the connection queue, said Bast, who had overseen electrification efforts for the city of Seattle in a previous job.

The city of Seattle struggled to get electric hook-ups for its public chargers because of a building boom that led to 18-month wait times to turn on new power. The long waits weren’t a big deal for companies constructing new buildings since those projects took so long to complete. But it “really screws up your whole timeline” for charging stations that take two to six weeks to build, Bast said.

Those kinds of problems can multiply for charging companies working in multiple areas.

“It can be time-intensive, costly and complicated. You might miss things, especially for a developer who is working in a whole set of different cities with a whole different set of rules and requirements,” he said.

Bast recommends that cities first centralize permitting for EV chargers, and then figure out ways to make the process faster.

Hoboken builds for urban streetscapes

Hoboken partnered with Volta in July after it issued a request for proposals outlining its goals for its next round of electric charger installations, the city’s third.

The arrangement depends on allowing ad displays, but Sharp, the city’s transportation director, said residents have come to expect that.

“More and more, we’re seeing the advertising model in urban areas, especially as a way to use a smart cities approach to give cities services, whether it’s bus stops that have real-time bus arrival signs on them or electric vehicle charging stations, or it could even be smart garbage cans,” he said. “There are so many different types of street furniture and infrastructure that can be provided to cities at no cost or low-cost by using the advertising model to essentially cover the costs for installation, construction and maintenance.”

In its solicitation for charging vendors, the city said it wanted the new stations to fill in gaps between existing chargers, particularly on curbside sites. They emphasized those kinds of spots, not just because the city’s one on-street charger was so popular, but because they thought a similar approach to their car-sharing service worked well, too. The service is even called “Corner Cars.”

“The premise back then was that if you put the cars on the street in little pods of two near corners, and you distribute them evenly across the city, so they’re highly visible and highly accessible, that’s going to increase utilization,” explained Sharp. “They’re so convenient and highly accessible, you don’t have to worry about where to find them on level four of this parking facility.”

Another feature the city wanted in its new public chargers was a mix of charging speeds—including slower-working Level 2 chargers and faster Level 3 chargers.

While some people want a quick recharge, local residents or visitors enjoying the nightlife or waterfront might prefer a slower option with less expensive fees, Sharp said. The city’s current chargers, for example, cost $1 an hour for a vehicle that is actively charging but $3 an hour after the process is complete. The idea is to encourage drivers to move their vehicles when they’re done, so other drivers can use the charger.

But hurrying back is also a way to disrupt a pleasant evening and fast chargers can refuel some vehicles in as little time as 30 minutes. “Fast charging could actually be too fast,” Sharp said.

Volta sees its Hoboken deployment as a “watershed moment” that could help the company study how highly visible charging infrastructure affects residents’ perception of charging availability or scarcity, said John Stuckey, the company’s vice president of public network development and data products. (Volta analyzes data about EVs to help communities determine what kinds of chargers they need to deploy and where.)

“We’re going to look at the perception of EV charging availability before the network goes in, and then after, because we fundamentally believe … if you build it right, they will come,” Stuckey said.

Volta’s chargers are especially visible because of their video screens displaying advertisements. But Stuckey said that the revenue generated from those displays also helps the rest of the charging infrastructure fit better into busy roadside environments.

“Because of our multiple revenue streams, we’re making money day one on the sponsorship opportunity,” he said. Stuckey said this means the company can afford higher construction costs to keep support equipment for charging infrastructure hidden and out of the way, while placing chargers themselves in prime locations.

“You’re still honoring the pedestrian flow and the look and feel of the city,” he added. “But it’s not easy.”

Sharp, from the city, said picking individual spots is a “unique challenge” because the locations have to work for both the transportation and electric infrastructure. A spot that might look good from a transportation perspective might be a “terrible” choice because it’s too far away from a power supply or would require expensive trenching, he said.

What’s more, dedicating a spot for a charger “locks in” that parking space, which can affect plans to add bus lanes, bike lanes or other curbside features

Generally, both Volta and the city want the chargers in higher-traffic areas, he said. More eyes on the ads could mean more money for Volta, while city officials don’t want ads in front of people’s homes on residential streets.

But Sharp said the city will experiment to find the right mix.

“If we have a few stations that are in more residential areas, we could, in theory, have the charging station function as a charging station during the day and then, at say six o’clock every day, it could default to resident permit parking so people could park their car there overnight, regardless of whether they have an EV or not,” Sharp said. 

“These are options that we’ll be exploring,” he added. “There may not be a one-size-fits -all solution for every station in the community.”

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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