Last summer, Hank Gutman, serving as New York City’s transportation commissioner, encountered a couple in the Bronx who were charging their Nissan Leaf, running an extension cord out of their apartment window and across the sidewalk. Gutman was already very concerned about current infrastructure supporting electric vehicles in the city, but this moment had a crystallizing effect. To convert the city into an electric-car mecca was a very different prospect from turning the tides in suburban New Jersey.
With transportation responsible for nearly 30% of its greenhouse gas emissions, the city would need an aggressive plan to incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles if it was to achieve its most significant environmental objective – carbon neutrality by 2050. This is assuming that the ideal – an absence of cars in the city – was not immediately on the horizon.
The city can’t make electric cars cheaper, but it could make them more attractive by making them easier to charge. Certainly, the prospect of driving around, looking for a charging station, failing to find an available one and maybe just having your car peter out on Flatbush Avenue was not motivating.
By 2021, officials had set a goal for 120 new chargers to be in place within four years; these would exist in addition to those that are privately run by companies like Tesla and exist largely in Manhattan neighborhoods, where there are many ways to get around that don’t require owning what can be a $95,000 car.
To Gutman’s mind, there were equity and distribution issues. In a city of more than 8 million people, 120 additional chargers was “pathetic,, as he put it recently. “No matter how hard we push to move New Yorkers toward mass transit and electronic bikes, there are parts of the city that are dependent on private transportation,, he said.
In September, the Transportation Department issued a report with more ambitious proposals. It noted that New York was far behind California and major European cities in terms of how many electric cars were on the road. Right now, there are about 20,000, but there will need to be 400,000 by the end of the decade to reach New York’s long-term carbon target. In one analysis that ranked 100 metropolitan areas in the United States according to the accommodations in place for electric car culture to thrive, New York ranked 93. It was 92 places behind Provo, Utah.
According to the report, the city needs to install 1,000 curbside charging points across five boroughs by 2025, increasing to 10,000 by 2030, numbers the current mayoral administration is intent on hitting while also equipping 20% of all spaces in municipal parking lots and garages with chargers. At the same time, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law requiring all cars and trucks sold in the state to operate with zero emissions by 2035.
Measures like this were leading automotive reporters and policy people to declare 2022 the year of the electric car. Beyond those initiatives, a greater number of less-expensive models were headed to the market, and rebates were available at the federal and state levels to make them more affordable. Even more government money has been allocated to support infrastructural change.
But if the past two years have shown us anything, it is that neither calls to conscience nor self-interest can radically shift behaviors when rising up against liberal tyranny is the greatest animating force of all. Optimists about the electric car future believe that escalating gas prices, first the result of pandemic supply chain issues and now the disruption to global oil markets caused by the crisis in Ukraine, will convert skeptics for whom the catastrophes of climate change and threat of end times have not been sufficiently propulsive.
A poll released in June by the Pew Research Center indicated that 51% of Americans opposed a proposal to phase out production of gasoline-powered cars and trucks entirely, even as automakers are moving to do this on their own. Early last year, for example, General Motors said it wanted to stop selling gas- and diesel-reliant cars within the next 14 years.
This past week, we got a glimpse into how contentious things might get when Vice President Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, promoted electric cars and buses at an event and then were slammed by Republican commenters for being “tone deaf., The criticism was that it was insensitive, when so many Americans were struggling with the high cost of gas, to mention that zero-emission transport would release us from the vagaries of fuel pricing.
Soon enough, electric cars were at the center of conspiracy theories spreading on social media. The Biden administration, it was suggested, was nefariously driving up the cost of gas specifically to get people to drive electric cars. Similar to the fantasy that COVID vaccines were really just a means of government mind control, another conspiracy theory has it that the government wants us to drive electric cars so they can freeze them at any time, a scenario straight out of “Minority Report.,
New York’s Republican strongholds – in Staten Island and certain areas of Queens and Brooklyn – happen to be places where public transportation is sparse and car use is high. I asked the city’s current transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodríguez, how realistic it was to imagine that drivers across the ideological spectrum would embrace electric cars. The commissioner was, in fact, quite optimistic.
“Katrina, Maria, Sandy – these big events make people understand that it’s real and not something invented by the Chinese,, Rodríguez said, referring to the climate crisis and the notion floated by Donald Trump that it was all a hoax manufactured by China. When Rodríguez served as chair of the City Council’s transportation committee, he told me, he often met livery drivers who were eager to switch to electric cars. “What we have found out is that there is an interest not just among upper-class New Yorkers to move away from gas, but working-class New Yorkers as well.,
While that is undoubtedly the case, the fact remains that even with declining prices and government subsidies – which in New York state could total about $10,000 – the price of a new electric car is still in excess $20,000, or about twice as much as a 2011 Hyundai Sonata. This in a city where hundreds of thousands of residents face eviction and a high rent burden. The road to virtue is long.