New York’s slow progress moving to EVs highlights obstacles cities face

While the city has struggled to build public chargers for electric vehicles, it has made strides in electrifying its own fleet.

A Tesla parked in driveway and plugged into charger in Queens, New York.

A Tesla parked in driveway and plugged into charger in Queens, New York. Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

New York City has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

To reach that target, the city has undertaken major efforts to switch from fossil fuels to electric power. But the sluggish rollout of public charging stations in the nation’s biggest city shows how difficult the transition can be, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

There are about 2 million cars in New York City, and many of them are stored on the street. Of those cars, only about 30,000 of them are electric vehicles, and they are vying to use just 2,000 to 3,000 publicly available chargers, many of which are in parking garages where people need to pay to access them. The city and its major electric utility have installed just 100 curbside, slower-speed chargers across the five boroughs.

“You really have nowhere to charge your vehicle,” said Nick Colvin, the CEO of LinkNYC, which provides free public Wi-Fi in the city. “There are a lot of incentives that have been provided by the federal and the state government to put in the charging infrastructure. But it’s not clear how you might use that to actually get public charging infrastructure to the curb into a city like New York where the vast majority of New Yorkers park their car overnight.”

He said he knew firsthand how difficult it could be to install anything along the city’s crowded curbsides, especially infrastructure that requires electrical hook-ups. It took LinkNYC a decade to install 2,000 broadband hotspots at old pay phone locations across the city. But to meet New York’s overall climate goals, Colvin said, the city would have to install “tens of thousands of curbside chargers [by 2030]. It’s a big challenge.”

Colvin was speaking at the Smart City Expo USA in New York, where the issue of climate change was top of mind. The venue is on the East River, where the city plans to spend up to $7 billion to prevent rising sea levels from inundating lower Manhattan and the financial district. Some of that work is already underway.

Keith Kerman, New York City’s chief fleet officer, pointed to progress the city government had made in converting its own vehicles to electric power and other low-emission fuels.

“We just announced a few weeks ago our 5,000th electric vehicle and our 2,000th electric charging port,” he said, ”not for the public, but for the [city] fleet.”

Three years ago, the city did not have a single electric pickup truck or van. Now it has 500 of them, and every New York City ambulance is a plug-in hybrid, he said. New York has also followed the lead of West Coast jurisdictions by moving all of its diesel vehicles to “renewable” diesel made of used cooking oil and other used animal fats. “We just did a winter with sanitation [trucks] all on biofuels, with 60-plus percent greenhouse gas benefits,” he said.

“We think of these problems as insurmountable, that you can only make these incremental changes with a grant project here and a grant project there. Following California’s lead, we just switched out all of these old fossil fuels,” Kerman said. “These things can be done at scale.”

But he added that leaders have to be realistic about what is possible. Right now, he said, there is not an electric truck that can plow snow.

“Do not have only one strategy,” he said. “There are those who say everything’s got to be zero-emission and electric, and nothing else is worth anything. I want everything to be electric and zero-emission, too… But I also work in the day-to-day world, where that can’t happen, won’t happen. I cannot wish it to be true.”

“So we pursued three parts: electrification, efficiency and biofuels,” he said. “Move on every front you can [to] make progress.”

Tiya Gordon, co-founder and chief operating officer at itselectric, a company that helps property owners install public chargers on nearby curbs, echoed that sentiment. She said that New York has to build more accessible chargers before its residents will make the switch to EVs.

“It’s not chicken or egg. It’s all egg,” she said. “No one is going to get that electric vehicle if they can’t walk out of their door and see where they’re going to charge it.”

To make a dent in the number of curbside chargers needed, Gordon said the city could work with her company. The hook-ups that her company provides, for instance, avoid some of the biggest obstacles to installing public chargers, by connecting the chargers to existing buildings rather than using their own utility connections. That ultimately means less electrical work is required.

“The biggest barriers that cities like New York, Boston, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco all face is the fact that, to put a charger in the ground, you need to make a utility connection. And this is a very time-consuming and costly process,” Gordon explained. “It’s an old school perspective of thinking. To go and make a connection to that high-voltage line in the street, you’re [digging] 7 feet down, you’re trenching, you’re putting in a transformer, putting in a meter and a customer service box. All of this takes time, and it takes money, and cities don’t want to be responsible for those upfront costs.”

The public chargers that New York installed cost an average of $230,000 each, she noted.

Gordon’s company installs bollard-style chargers that link up to an existing building connection. It uses “Level 2” connections, not the “fast chargers” that draw considerably more power. Drivers can replenish their battery in several hours or overnight on a Level 2 charger, which uses the same kind of plug as a heavy appliance like a clothes dryer.

The company also uses detachable cables, she said as she pulled one from her tote bag. The driver keeps it in their car and brings it out when they need to charge. That arrangement avoids clutter on city streets, and it prevents damage from copper thieves and vandals. The detachable cable also prevents the chargers from getting locked in to a specific charger standard, at a time when the U.S. auto industry is wrestling with whether to use Tesla-style plugs or a previous industry standard. “We can basically just swap the cable out,” she said. “The actual hardware stays the same. It’s evergreen, and it never needs to change.”

Kerman, the fleet manager, added that there could be other ways of increasing charging capacity, such as using wireless chargers (often under roads or parking lots) or swapping batteries.

One way government officials can speed up the roll-out of charging infrastructure is to designate those initiatives as “pilot projects,” Gordon said, which helps streamline the procurement process. The 100 curbside, public chargers New York City installed were done through a pilot program, she noted. “If that’s what it takes, then we should just do pilots everywhere.”