Recently, I was chatting with a friend who drives an electric vehicle in New York City—and parks it at the curb. There are no curbside chargers in his neighborhood, so powering up requires dipping into a nearby garage for a few hours, or driving to a curb in a different neighborhood entirely. Full battery? Move that car or keep paying the charging company. Studying the charging landscape to save time, money, and energy has become “his whole personality,” he told me. As he sent me image after image of prices, charging maps, and street-parking setups, I could see he wasn’t totally kidding.
The Biden administration wants half of new U.S. vehicle sales to be electric by 2030. As this plan proceeds, EVs will get cheaper, the used-EV market will grow, and rural charging options will increase. Simply put, these vehicles will cease to be a symbol of wealth, or even environmentalism. They’ll be normal. And one of the great limiting factors on their ownership will be the space to park and plug them in. A good parking spot, in the electric-vehicle era, is about to become more important than ever.
Surveys have repeatedly found that access to home charging is among the most influential factors determining whether someone will go electric. That access is easy enough for those who can plug their cars right into their wall, but one in three U.S. households does not have a private garage. They’re what the charging industry calls “garage orphans”—and charging options for their EVs will be limited for years to come. In other words, access to parking, already a struggle that brings out the worst in American drivers, is about to become an all-important factor in decarbonizing the American economy. Tens of millions of drivers will have to learn to share.
I’ve spent five years analyzing America’s tortured relationship with car storage for my book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. Normally I’d bet against any vision of the future that depends on sensible and selfless behavior in this regard. But in this case, I’m not sure we have a choice. If we want to electrify the fleet without leaving a third of the country behind, widespread charger-sharing is inevitable, however improbable it seems.
Building a national public-charger network is going to be more expensive than the $7.5 billion Congress has allocated to the problem. A Level 1 charger, which is nothing more than an extension cord plugged into a wall outlet, refuels a car at a rate of just a few miles each hour. A Level 3 charger can refuel a car in less than an hour, but it costs tens of thousands of dollars to install.
The Goldilocks option is a Level 2 charger, which can refuel a car overnight but requires some special equipment to do so. The Kelley Blue Book estimates that you should budget $2,000 to put one in your home garage. It could cost a little less—but it could cost a lot more. Retrofitting commercial garages, multifamily buildings, and big-city curbs is a much more expensive proposition. For example, adding Level 2 charging to the parking for a pair of two-story residential buildings in Millbrae, California, would come to more than $19,000 a spot, according to an analysis by Peninsula Clean Energy. At that price, says Phillip Kobernick, a programs manager at the company, universal accommodation of EVs would be impossible. “We’re never going to get there,” he told me. “We’re never going to get there unless a ridiculous amount of money falls from the sky.”
The solution for many condo boards and building managers is obvious: Make each charger serve as many as six different cars. Evan Goldin is the CEO of Parkade, a San Francisco–based company that helps private buildings manage and sublet their parking spots. Charging companies make charger-sharing difficult, he told me. One of Goldin’s clients installed 65 chargers in a 700-stall condo-tower garage. Almost all were set to be accessible to just one driver by default. Another car could not pull in and pay for electricity, even if the spot were empty and the cord free. “Why would they do this?” Goldin asked. “Because they want to sell as many chargers as possible.”
If the building’s chargers were easy to share, Goldin thinks its residents could probably get by with having them installed in just 10 to 20 percent of their spots. Each neighbor might plug in on a different night of the week, with a couple more charging on the weekend. James Di Filippo, an analyst with Atlas Public Policy, told me that a maximally efficient garage, with a managed system of rotating spots, could power eight to 10 vehicles per Level 2 charger, based on a typical daily driving mileage. If even a four-to-one cars-to-charger ratio could be implemented at a national scale, it would save billions of dollars in electric-charging infrastructure. (McKinsey recently estimated that we would need about a two-to-one ratio by 2030.) “If you really optimized it, where people played nice, behaved well, you could charge very, very efficiently,” Di Filippo said. “The barrier is people’s behavior.”
This situation—contested space at the curb, and a high cost to retrofit existing structures—bears no small resemblance to the parking crisis that plagued the American city in the 1950s and ’60s. In response, most American jurisdictions began requiring every type of building to include a certain amount of parking. A required number of spaces were constructed with every home, at every office, and for every nail salon, bowling alley, theater, and so on. As a result, the country wound up with a huge surplus of parking spaces—as many as seven for every car—divided among buildings that might otherwise have shared parking between them. That parking waste was passed on to tenants, clients, and homeowners as a hidden cost, bundled into rents, receipts, and asking prices.
With electrified parking, as with its analog predecessor, the public sector is determined to mandate or subsidize what the private sector won’t build on its own. Because it’s cheaper to install EV charging during building construction than to add it later, many progressive jurisdictions have started requiring developers to include EV-ready parking in new buildings. Last week, for example, the Colorado Energy Code Board voted that 60 percent of new parking spots in large multifamily buildings should have the infrastructure to support future charging ports. That presumes a little sharing, but not much, and a lot of overbuilt electric-vehicle infrastructure—Kobernick projects that more EV chargers will be attributable to building codes than to retrofits by 2035.
Cities have also begun to install publicly funded EV infrastructure at the curb, which anticar activists say functions as a long-term subsidy for drivers and permanently consigns valuable urban real estate to car storage. If a private garage shared among neighbors might get by with, say, 25 percent of its spots electrified, just how many chargers will be needed on the streets of a big city like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles, where millions of people park at the curb? In New York City, Con Ed is funding Level 2 public charging to the tune of more than $100,000 per curbside parking space. At that price, evidently, a fully electric fleet will require a whole lot of sharing: low-battery drivers pulling in as fully charged drivers dutifully pull out.
Even then, the system works only if there’s buy-in from the millions of car owners who may purchase an EV without a dedicated charger at home. So far, the chargers are getting installed—but buyers aren’t yet ready to commit to a life of powering up at the curb. Nathan Yang is the chief product officer with Flo, the electric-charger company that manages curbside stations in New York City, among other places. Public-charger installation, he says, “is not economically sustainable today. Utilization rates are not high enough, and reliability is a challenge.” Low usage of Flo’s curbside stations suggests that New York City drivers without dedicated parking are not ready to take the EV plunge.
To see how this plays out, just look at China, the world’s largest EV market, where 1.7 million public chargers have been installed, almost half of which are Level 3. Each one is used, on average, just once a day. Most EV experts agree that infrastructure must precede EV adoption. But it’s going to be a very expensive change if we can’t get comfortable with the idea of a shared plug, a shared parking spot, and a little more attention to the practice of parking.