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Don’t curb your e-thusiasm: Charging and the curb

Electric vehicle charging at the curb presents unique challenges to meet equity, accessibility, and eligibility for federal programs.

An electric scooter charges at the curb in front of a warmly lit storefront at night

An electric vehicle fast-charging point in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, which can charge all types of electric vehicles. Photo by Ather Energy on Unsplash

In our last post in this series on integrating the electric vehicle (EV) transition and smart growth, we talked about the reality that many apartment dwellers will lack access to at-home charging in the foreseeable future, whether because the parking for their building doesn’t have charging, or they don’t have at-home parking. Charging at the curb will be important to meet the needs of these residents as well as folks away from home who need a charge.

In our EV blog series, we’ve shared strategies in the zero-emission fleet transition which work in concert with smart growth. These strategies can both advance the EV transition and reduce the need to drive so much. They include electric carshare services, charger-oriented development, the NEVI program, equitable access to chargers, integrating smart parking policy with EV-charging, and electric micromobility. To learn more about reducing transportation emissions, check out our report Driving Down Emissions and go here to learn more about CHARGE, the coalition we co-lead on EV issues.

Charging is parking

As we look to integrate EV charging in smart growth communities, inevitably we need to come to terms with the profound implications of our approach to parking. EV charging is, after all, a form of parking. Once we are talking about parking, we must address the inescapable fact that misguided parking policies have, over decades, pushed destinations further apart, leaving communities less walkable, hollowing out downtowns, and creating longer trip times for everyone.

Reforming American parking policy has been the subject of several books, including the foundational treatise The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup, and the more recently influential Paved Paradise by Henry Grabar. The consensus among parking reformers is that communities must eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements to allow more affordable and denser development. Managing on-street parking—with parking meters, permits, or other time-limiting features—can also pave the way for more sustainable development patterns while still making it reasonably easy to find a parking space. Fees collected in a given neighborhood can be re-invested in improved streetscapes or used to fund clean transportation options like public transit or bikeshare.

We know that the curb, as the access point to everything off-street, has additional value beyond just parking. Loading zones for passengers and goods, parklets, streateries, bike lanes, bus lanes, bike parking, bikeshare stations and more, are all potential uses for limited curb space. Many of these uses rose to greater prominence during the pandemic and have stuck around. Now we’re adding curbside EV charging to an already crowded interface.

This all adds up to the need to be thoughtful about how we place and price curbside EV charging stations. Communities should be careful to place curbside chargers where they don’t preclude other uses that enhance smart growth livability. This means curbside chargers would likely be better-placed on quiet residential side streets and municipal garages, rather than major commercial corridors in denser urban areas. This way, they won’t get in the way of the other curbside uses that enrich smart growth livability. 

But we shouldn’t stop there. Below are several ways to think about curbside EV-charging, including what Congress and the Biden administration should do to fix current programs to give local governments the flexibility to better address these issues.

1. Pricing

Before making any decisions around pricing, cities should take account of the curb space available. How much space needs to be set aside for other important curb uses, like bike lanes, bus lanes, and streateries? The remaining space will be available for vehicle parking (and charging). 

These parking spaces should be regulated and priced for 85 percent occupancy. At that occupancy level, usage is maximized with enough turnover that there’s pretty much always a parking spot available on every block face. That is ideal to maximize drivers’ access to the curb and businesses’ access to customers. 

EV-charging in denser urban environments where space is at a premium adds another consideration into the mix. A charging spot has value for access to the neighborhood AND access to charging. Cities will need to right-price charging in these highly desirable locations to get outcomes that maximize the use of the chargers—and also achieve appropriate turnover access to the curb. To accomplish this, they may need to charge for both parking and charging in the same spot.

Finally, it’s important to note that the federal government’s primary program for investing in charging infrastructure in communities—the Community Fueling Infrastructure (CFI) program’s Community Charging and Fueling Grants—allows pricing for both parking and charging for curb sites, but unfortunately not for parking lots. In dense neighborhoods and downtowns with lots of demand for the curb, a gated municipal garage may be the most sensible place for chargers. The program needs to be fixed so that cities have the flexibility they need to apply the appropriate price in the appropriate location—as long as it’s transparent, simple and seamless for the user.

2. Opportunism

We’re in the early stages of the EV transition, and we need to accelerate if we’re to reduce transportation emissions fast enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Since access to charging is one of the biggest impediments to drivers purchasing EVs, we need to get a bunch of it out there quickly and cheaply. It makes sense right now to be opportunistic and take advantage of existing grid infrastructure, even as we know we need to invest in the grid to build a more substantial charging network.

There’s a lot we can do quickly. For one, some EV owners are charging their cars at the curb with a cord that runs from their house across the sidewalk. Cities like Portland have adopted rules to allow Level 1 charging from house to curb as long as the cord runs through an ADA-compliant cord cover across the sidewalk. This can be a good way to quickly provide more access to charging for those without off-street parking, as long as residents aren’t misled to think they own the public parking in front of their house.

Cities are also looking at ways to deliver curbside, public, Level 2 charging using existing grid infrastructure. Los Angeles and other cities have been installing Level 2 chargers at streetlights. The electricity service is already there, so it’s a great place to put one or two charger ports. The private company Itselectric has developed a technique for using spare capacity in buildings fronting the street to install a Level 2 charger at the curb.

Federal programs are failing to support any of these opportunistic solutions. The Community Charging Grants arbitrarily require all charging stations funded by the program to have four ports. This precludes funding for the sensible, quick solutions above. It also reflects a gas station mindset of having a bunch of charging in a centralized location. As we discussed in the post in this series on Charger Oriented Development, this approach fails to maximize the potential of EV-charging. When all you need is access to a plug, especially for Level 1 and Level 2 charging, there is no reason why we can’t have charging infrastructure distributed more diffusely in the urban environment.

The bottom line

Communities are navigating brand new territory as they figure out what works best for public charging in their communities. New ideas and challenges will continue to emerge, and consensus on the most urgent needs will evolve as the EV transition continues to gain momentum. Public agencies will need to be flexible and nimble for us to get the most out of investments in public charging.