Why Cities Should Support Right-of-Way Charging

By Jeff Allen, Executive Director, CEO

Jeff Allen has served as Executive Director of Forth, a trade association and advocate for electric and smart mobility, since its founding in 2011. He previously served as Executive Director of the Oregon Environmental Council and as an organizational development consultant. He holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Goldman School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan. Mr. Allen will be speaking and leading a workshop on transportation electrification at the Meeting of the Minds 2020 Annual Summit in February.

Feb 17, 2020 | Infrastructure, Mobility | 2 comments


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Throughout history, cities have invested in programs and infrastructure to support the efficient movement of people and goods. Once upon a time, this meant regularly cleaning up after horses and providing tethering rings. Over time, streetcar tracks ran down city streets. Then those were paved over to make way for cars to drive and park. As cities began focusing more on livability and embraced “new urbanism” approaches to revival, streetcar tracks began to return alongside dedicated bus lanes, bike racks, and dedicated bike lanes.

Cities now face a number of new demands on their public rights of way. It will take new forms of urban design and management to accommodate the next generation of mobility services like bike share systems, car sharing, micro-mobility services, and rideshare services. Broader smart city technologies like parking management, way-finding, and citizen engagement technologies will also factor into the design process.

Cities that are serious about tackling climate change are also recognizing that they need to electrify everything that moves. This includes private passenger cars, and requires making room for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the public right of way.

Cities that have been most successful in promoting cycling, like my home town of Portland, have invested in bike racks, dedicated bike lanes, and other infrastructure that is ubiquitous, convenient, and highly visible. Likewise, cities that want to reduce air pollution and meet carbon goals by accelerating transportation electrification need to invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure that is ubiquitous, convenient, and highly visible, using public rights of way.

Why Cities Should Support Right-of-Way Charging

To meet clean air and carbon goals.

Cities that are serious about reducing carbon pollution from transportation need to promote walking and biking, expand transit and micro-mobility services, manage development, and use pricing to reduce traffic and parking congestion.

Many of these steps are designed to reduce the use of single occupancy cars. At the same time, though, cities will also need to electrify everything that moves, including those passenger cars. Just as our approach to solid waste requires a “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach, city transportation policy needs to pursue a “both-and” strategy. Making it easier to use an electric car does not conflict with encouraging alternative transportation options, any more than making it easier to recycle conflicts with discouraging single-use packaging.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Research by UC Davis in California shows that most consumers do not realize that electric vehicles are available, and that public awareness has barely budged over the last six years. Highly visible charging on the street can be a very effective way to increase awareness. Cities that are serious about promoting cycling paint colorful bike lanes, replace car parking with large bike racks, and encourage drivers to “start seeing bicycles.” We need to help gas-car drivers “start seeing electric cars.”

Care for your “garage orphans.”

Charging at home is simple if you own a home with a dedicated parking spot and electrical service. However, some 20% of Americans, and an even higher percentage of low- and moderate-income drivers, are “garage orphans” who live in apartments or condominiums. Urban policy to promote sustainability and density are steadily increasing this percentage, while also steadily reducing the amount of parking provided in new construction. Public charging for these drivers will be increasingly important in cities.

Electrify shared mobility.

Delivery vehicles, carshare services, and drivers for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft can easily travel 50,000 miles a year or more, some five times more than an average commuter. If cities want these services to electrify, it is important to recognize that time is money for these drivers, that they will need to charge multiple times in a day, and will want to be able to do so as quickly as possible. They will need fast charging that is centrally located and easily accessed.

A new report by Forth, released February, 2020. Download here.

Recommendations for Cities

As part of our work with multiple cities through the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, Forth has recently published a report that offers a toolkit for cities seeking to provide ubiquitous, convenient, highly visible, and affordable charging options in busy urban areas. Forth’s report includes a wealth of additional detail, but our recommendations begin with a few basic suggestions.

Start with high level policy.

To meet our climate goals, all new cars sold must be electric within the next decade. Cities should start by adopting a policy recognizing this imperative and committing the city to support this transition. City departments can then develop specific policies and programs to meet this goal, but with clear direction and support from political leadership.

Think bike racks, not gas stations.

Public electric vehicle charging generally won’t be profitable until there are far more electric cars using it, yet cities sometimes approach charging companies as if they were entering franchise negotiations with profitable technology companies, or regulating undesirable gas stations. To create the best environment for creative problem solving, cities should think of public charging as an important public service that they provide their citizens through public-private partnerships.

Collaborate.

To make charging easier, cities will need to collaborate across internal departments, but will also need to work closely with their local electric utility and with private charging companies. Mobility technologies and needs are evolving quickly, creating new challenges and opportunities. Convening a cross-functional stakeholder group can be a great way to brainstorm ideas and to shape and evaluate programs.

Be creative.

Charging can be integrated with high-efficiency lighting, mounted on power poles, combined with parking control systems, integrated into multimodal “smart mobility hubs,” or used to offer Wi-Fi and other smart city services. Some companies offer free charging services supported by advertising, others operate smart networks that generate valuable data, and others simply sell non-networked hardware. In short, there are a variety of technologies and business models that should enable cities to develop a strategy that supports their other mobility priorities.

Be clear.

When a city is ready to proceed, it should create clear and simple parameters and processes to minimize the transaction costs for participants. Small pilot programs that are clear, fast, and well defined are nearly always better than sweeping plans that are vague and overly ambitious without implementation strategies behind them. Simple applications with the potential to request additional information are generally better than asking participants for comprehensive information up front. Sometimes, the most impactful thing a city can do is simply get out of the way by reducing permitting or planning barriers, or identifying specific locations for innovation.

Think big, but start small.

Meeting our carbon reduction goals will require all new cars sold in the US to be electric within the next decade or two. On the one hand, this means that cities need to be prepared to accommodate and charge a fleet that is 100% electric. On the other hand, it means that there is time to plan. Cities do not need to rush to tear up streets just to install charging. They can begin to incorporate charging into their long-term plans for the urban streetscape, incorporating charging naturally as streets are renovated along with lighting, sidewalks, bike lanes, and other aspects of modern urban mobility.

In many progressive cities, it is increasingly easy to find a well-marked bike lanes and convenient bike parking corrals in place of car parking spots. To address the climate crisis, cities need to make it just as easy to find electric car charging. A key element in that strategy will be making that charging available at street parking spaces. We hope our report provides helpful case studies and recommendations to cities as they innovate towards that goal.

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2 Comments

  1. Tacoma has a five year pilot program allowing property owners on non-arterial streets to permit chargers in the right of way. (href=”http://tacomapermits.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/GB-200-EVCS-Permits-Tip-Sheet.pdf) Vehicles that aren’t charging are prohibited for parking in these spaces.

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