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Can New York City pave the way for EVs and cleaner air?

This past February, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out several transportation initiatives in his final State of the City address, meant to give his city “the cleanest air of any big city in the country.”

The plan includes two significant goals related to electric vehicle adoption: 1) install 10,000 charging stations throughout the city by 2020, and 2) purchase electric vehicles for its taxi and municipal fleet. New York took the first step toward making those goals a reality earlier this week on Earth Day, when it brought six Nissan LEAF EVs into service as taxis. But what will it really take for the Big Apple to drive EV adoption and hopefully clean up its air in the process?

The Challenge

The first goal is familiar: announce a robust network of charging opportunities and gain recognition as an EV-friendly city. Plenty of communities have gone that route, though the sheer size of NY’s proposed program—4,000-plus more charging stations than are installed in the entire country to date—is ambitious. The announcement even earned some congratulations from a charging station company, though that’s not especially surprising given their vested interest. The second goal is equally interesting, because it seeks to “walk-the-talk,” by putting actual cars on the streets and people (primarily city employees and taxi drivers) behind the wheel.

Yet if Bloomberg and the city that never sleeps are going to be successful, they’ll need a clear vision for the program. The charging station infrastructure in particular, as robust as it could be, presents a classic Field of Dreams conundrum. If you build it, will they come? Maybe, but New York has to do it right.

New York City is both an unexpected and a fantastic place to develop an electric vehicle ecosystem. On the one hand, it boasts a robust public transportation system and low vehicle ownership rates, but on the other hand, “enjoys” heavy traffic congestion and a huge population with an even bigger vehicle commuter base.

Electrifying the Locals

According to a PlaNYC study conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Long-term Planning and the associated report, “Exploring Electric Vehicle Adoption in New York City,” transportation accounts for 22 percent of total carbon emissions. It also accounts for 28 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, according to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, so there’s a real incentive to spur cleaner options for the city. But in a city of over 8.2 million people, there are approximately 1.8 million registered vehicles—only 44 percent of households own a car compared to the national average of 90 percent. Still, according to an American Community Survey, 23 percent of New York City commuters travel by car, alone. Vehicle ownership rates may be half the national average, but that still adds up to a sizeable number of cars on the road.

Yet how much do such NYC residents drive? As it turns out, not much. A study conducted by Joe Cortright of CEOs for Citiesfound the average vehicle miles traveled to be nine miles driven per person, per day, in New York City. Such a driver could go an entire workweek before they need to charge their car. Their day-to-day EV charging needs would be relatively minimal, and the Mayor’s PlaNYC confirmed this sentiment in its survey of early EV adopters, who expressed disinterest in a dense public charging network.
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