As gas prices continue to rise across the U.S., some New Yorkers like Brooklyn resident Stephanie Doba don't need to worry.
Desperate to decrease her use of fossil fuels three years ago, Doba traded in her fuel-efficient Toyota Prius for an electric vehicle — a Tesla 3 Midrange. And she said she can't imagine going back to a gas-powered car.
“For me, it was wanting to put my money where my mouth is as someone very concerned about the climate crisis,” Doba said. “I just couldn't bear driving a gas car anymore.”
Yet Doba is a rare breed of New Yorker. According to state data, approximately 21,000 electric vehicles are registered in New York City, less than 1% of all the vehicles registered in the five boroughs. A similar trend applies statewide, where only about 62,000 of 11 million vehicles are solely electric.
This low rate of electric vehicle adoption is despite New York leading many states in advancing climate change policies. Transportation, meanwhile, accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in New York state and nearly 30% nationally.
Drastically reducing the dependence on fossil fuels for moving people and goods around is vital to meeting both state and federal goals of carbon neutrality by 2050. To that end, President Joe Biden has set a benchmark of making half of newly produced cars electric, hybrid or fuel cell by 2030. Currently, less than 1% of the 276 million vehicles on the road in the U.S. are electric.
However, a combination of inconsistent access to charging stations, high sticker prices and outdated perceptions about electric cars have driven auto buyers from considering the option.
Brooklyn has approximately 10,000 registered electric vehicles against 3,900 each in Manhattan and Queens.
The electric car remains a novelty for those who can afford to buy and maintain one because of these limitations. Americans have mixed feelings about phasing out combustion engines, and more people oppose than support a switch to cars that don’t use gas to alleviate climate change.
Huge disparities remain in access to NYC charging stations
The Brooklyn Museum is one of 15 places across the city that has a super charging station in its parking lot. These super chargers can power an electric car battery to 80% in roughly a half-hour.
Last week, Doba charged her car at one of the 10 stalls and five other vehicles were also plugged in. One driver was working on a laptop, another reading a book and the rest were watching television. Doba chose to catch up on an episode of "Schitt’s Creek," but also said the well-placed station is a good excuse to go check out the latest exhibits at the museum.
One of the biggest deterrents for car buyers is “range anxiety,” the fear that a vehicle won’t reach its destination or a power source before it’s empty. While electric cars have been around for nearly two centuries, the technology to power them has been slow to catch up until recent years — and access is still limited in some places.
The museum’s super charger is the nearest one to Doba’s home, just over a mile away. In a pinch, when she can’t charge at home, she said she can make it there on less than 5% of her car battery, easily. Doba’s vehicle can go approximately 260 miles on a full battery, good for a trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. Newer models can reach a range of approximately 400 miles, enough for a trip to Toronto.
“I learned to believe the car because it's really accurate. It's never screwed me up,” Doba said. “That level of trust in the technology is something to get used to.”
Most electric car owners charge their cars at home or work. Doba plugs her car directly into an outlet inside her brownstone in Brooklyn, running it through an old coal shaft to her basement. It takes about 5 hours to charge her car to 80% with a 220-volt connection.
But ownership can be a hassle if you can’t charge at home or work. For many New Yorkers, who live in apartment buildings, it’s not feasible. And finding charging alternatives is difficult in the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens where there are far fewer public charging stations.
Most charging stations concentrated in Manhattan, despite a sizable share of electric vehicles existing in other boroughs. Brooklyn has approximately 10,000 registered electric vehicles against 3,900 each in Manhattan and Queens.
“People are concerned about being stuck with their battery dead and not having the ability to recharge,” said Kenneth Gillingham, economics professor at Yale School for the Environment. “That's somewhat compounded by the fact that it takes some time to recharge, and that’s not the same as going up to the gas station, filling up your gas tank in five minutes.”
Another way to think about this charger disparity is by looking at the number of electric vehicles versus the number of charging stations in a location. Citywide, there are 33 electric vehicles per charging station. Think of that as a baseline for equity. Brooklyn has 98 electric vehicles for every station, so several more cars than public chargers. Likewise, Queens (39) Staten Island (53) and the Bronx (53) have higher ratio of electric vehicles per station than the citywide average, potentially suggesting that these locations are under-resourced, too. Manhattan, meanwhile, has 11 vehicles per charging station.
Most commuters head to Manhattan for work, so perhaps the disparity of more chargers in the borough is justified. And while Manhattanites have ample charging stations now, experts expect there won’t be enough in a decade or so, when the borough dominates new car sales, said Kenneth Gillingham, economics professor at Yale School for the Environment. He calls this a chicken and egg problem.
“You don't want to put in the chargers before people are going to be using them,” Gillingham said. “People don't want to buy electric vehicles until the chargers are in.”
Biden has called for the rapid expansion of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Last year, he pursued $15 billion across multiple pieces of legislation to pay for 500,000 stations — but only obtained half of these funds through the bipartisan infrastructure law signed last fall. The separate Build Back Better plan could make up the difference, but it is all but dead in the U.S. Senate due opposition from Biden’s own party.
Less maintenance but could use a universal charger
When Doba visits her daughter in Burlington, Vermont, she must stop once to recharge her car battery in Albany. At that point, it’s around 20% and could go another 50 miles. Two superchargers exist in the vicinity, with 26 stalls combined. She said she has never had to wait to plug her car in for the half-hour it takes to get her battery to 80%.
She also uses the time to stretch her legs, use the bathroom, eat, watch Netflix or play games on the car's entertainment system. Most Americans only spend about 5 minutes at the petrol station, and most drivers prefer pumps located at supermarkets, according to GasBuddy, a tech company that tracks gas prices in real-time. Most electric vehicle chargers are located near amenities such as shopping malls, which fits the habits of most drivers.
But chargers lack a universal standard, meaning an electric car can’t plug in at every station. Most public electric chargers are built by and for Tesla vehicles, which makes it harder to own an alternative brand, especially if charging is not an option at home or work. That’s in contrast to gas-powered cars, which can go to a Shell station or a Chevron station and fit their pumps.
Electric cars are more practical for fleets, said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University. Taxis, United States Postal Service and government agencies have the capacity to set up charging at their own facilities for all their parked vehicles. These cars are also easier to maintain.
“If you have a gas car, you have to put in oil, gas, antifreeze and you have an exhaust system and the catalytic converter,” Wheaton said. “There are no mufflers and all of those pieces and parts [for electric vehicles], and you’re not putting in oil and hydraulic fluid.”
The brakes last a lot longer on an electric car because of the regenerative braking system. It captures the energy from the brakes to charge itself. Doba says in the three years she owned her electric vehicle, she hasn’t had to do much maintenance other than replace tires, some wiring that rodents chewed through, calibration and replacement of minor parts such as window adjustments.
Not only does it require less maintenance, but building an electric vehicle takes about 30% fewer people, who don't have to be skilled, Wheaton said, but that doesn’t make production cheaper. The battery costs up to 50% more to build than an internal combustion engine.
“It's like building a toaster,” Wheaton said. “You can have anybody put them in, and you don't need the expertise that you do to put in a 500 horsepower engine and making sure everything runs smoothly is a lot more difficult than just plugging in the connections on an electric vehicle.”
A new Tesla Model S Plaid will cost a prospective buyer $134,490, featuring a range of about 350 miles with a top speed of 200 miles per hour. Their least expensive option, the new version of Doba’s Model 3 costs about $46,490, has a range of 260 miles and speeds up to 140 miles per hour. According to the Kelley Blue Book, that’s almost a grand less than the average new car price for last year. Electric vehicle car buyers can also receive up to $9,500 in state and federal credits, reducing the cost. There are a dozen or so more affordable electric cars offered by other manufacturers such as the Chevy Bolt or the Nissan Leaf. Those options can be as much $20,000 less, with state and federal credits.
It also costs less than $20 to fill up Doba's battery compared to more than $30 for the same distance for a gas-powered vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon.
Once the electric vehicle is built, there are no emissions except for the power to charge, which come from whatever mix of energy sources is available. As New York City transitions more and more to offshore wind turbines and solar panels, those emissions will get lower and lower.
“Whereas the gas [cars], if we can improve the fuel economy on it, then we can have lower emissions, but still nowhere near zero,” Wheaton said.
Health benefits exist, too. A gas-powered car releases particulate matter and other emissions while it runs, which have been linked to asthma, especially among children. Adoption of electric cars could reduce this disease burden.
But electric vehicles come with some environmental impacts. Lithium, nickel and cobalt are required materials, and their production contributes to global warming. Mining these elements can also contaminate soil and water. Most cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where nearly 16% of the miners are children, according to the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy institute.
Experts told Gothamist that within a decade, electric cars will become dominant in new auto sales. They are confident that the battery technology will improve, allowing much longer travel distances, and they predict charging infrastructure will eventually be on par with gas station convenience. As legacy car brands adopt more electric models, prices will go down and the most popular vehicle styles, such as pickup trucks and SUVs, will be offered as electric, making it a more viable and attractive option to buyers.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. consumer doesn't care about global warming as much as they care about having a big SUV or a big truck,” Wheaton said. “You have a lot more choice now than you did a year ago, and you'll have a lot more choice next year.”