Aug. 24, 2023
More than one-third of U.S. adults are "garage orphans" — renters or homeowners who don't have a place to install a private electric vehicle (EV) charger. And that means they might think twice about buying an electric vehicle, even though EVs are increasingly affordable. Availability of charging infrastructure close to home is a big factor in the decision to buy an EV for many consumers. Residents of older urban and suburban neighborhoods might live in homes without garages, driveways, or parking lots, but still rely on a vehicle for their commute.
Most EV owners do have their own garages, but the 10 percent who do not must find other options to recharge. To improve equitable access to the benefits of electric vehicles, it's important to ensure that these residents have access to the infrastructure that supports EV ownership.
It might be tempting to place limited on-street chargers in areas that already show EV ownership, but planners can seed new areas of EV use by placing chargers in areas where traditional, or internal combustion engine (ICE), vehicles dominate. To encourage the switch from ICE vehicles to EVs, here are three ways planners can be strategic in charger placement by targeting currently unserved areas.
Eliminate charging deserts
Planners should first collect census and demographics data to understand how current EV charging infrastructure relates to low-income communities and environmental justice. Studies have shown that Black and Hispanic majority neighborhoods as well as areas with lots of multifamily housing have lower access to public and publicly funded chargers. Planners can analyze building typologies within these neighborhoods to understand where residents don't have access to private parking.
Overlaying this data with maps that show EV charging locations, such as the one from the Alternative Fuels Data Center, can help target underserved communities within EV charging deserts, typically defined as areas where the nearest public charger is more than a ten-minute walk away.
It's not just neighborhood residents who need chargers: commuters and visitors to a neighborhood will also use on-street chargers. Planners can focus on areas with a combination of traits: lack of public transportation, a high rate of incoming and outgoing car commuters, and the presence of large workforces such as hospitals and universities or high-traffic destinations like stadiums, zoos, and parks.
Cities can partner with large institutions and take advantage of the fact that their employees park and could charge at work. Those employers could encourage and potentially incentivize EV use. Ride-share drivers will be hunting for public chargers as well: both Uber and Lyft have committed to be all-electric by 2030.
Consider the potential for 24-hour use of public chargers — by visitors during the day and by residents overnight — and use parking to incentivize EVs over traditional cars and trucks. For example, on-street chargers in New York operated by FLO cost $2.50 per hour during the day and just $1.00 per hour overnight. Besides the cost of charging, parking is free in those spaces.
Place chargers strategically
Like any municipal infrastructure project, planning for publicly accessible EV chargers requires a careful review of available data as well as community input. Planners should consider demographics, air pollution concerns, public transit connectivity, parking restrictions, and current EV charging locations and use.
At the curb level, public charger placement should work to reinforce a sense of place, promote accessibility, and support street life, taking into consideration the width of sidewalks, location of curb ramps, and the direction of travel (since most charging ports are on the driver's side). Prioritize EV charging deserts and areas with heightened levels of air pollution where cars are the main option for commuting. Neighborhoods with many garage orphans — especially those adjacent to areas with a high rate of incoming car commuters — are the optimal places for new public chargers.
While on-street parking regulations in residential neighborhoods with a high number of garage orphans typically don't require car owners to move their vehicles frequently (if at all), main streets usually employ time-limited parking. Planners can place new chargers on streets at the border of residential and commercial areas, where parking limits ensure a good charge (at least two hours at a Level 2 charger) but don't allow the EV to be parked so long that they don't see turnover. Cities can then adjust parking regulations to support daytime charging for visitors and overnight charging for residents or incentivize EV ownership by waiving residential parking permit fees for EVs.
Educate the public about the benefits of EV charger access
Efforts to place chargers on neighborhood streets might draw pushback from community members worried about losing parking spaces for traditional vehicles or disrupting neighborhood character (particularly in historic districts). Planners can share the importance of EV charging access for garage orphans to level the playing field for EV ownership. On-street chargers located near main streets with shopping and dining can also help those local businesses compete with large-format retailers who might have dedicated parking lots and chargers for their customers.
The goal of any public charging infrastructure program should be to replace ICE trips with EV trips. Some critics argue that a focus on switching to EVs encourages driving over cleaner modes like transit or nonmotorized transportation. But many residents live in areas with few commuting options beyond driving, and the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to EVs will be vital in reducing emissions. In areas with poor transit, providing charging infrastructure is an equity issue and critical to the fight against climate change.
While significant public investments have helped single-family homeowners install electric vehicle chargers, garage orphans are left out of in the cold. Our cities could become segregated by EV and ICE usage — with corresponding air pollution disparities — if some areas have little or no access to charging infrastructure. Planners can help drive an equitable and inclusive switch to EVs with thoughtful deployment of public chargers.