Why Electric Vehicles Won’t Rule New York Anytime Soon

Eric Schaal/ACS
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you want a beat on the pace of electric vehicle adoption on the East Coast, look no further than New York City, the biggest fish of them all. In old Gotham, you would be lucky to ever spot an electric car cruising the streets, forcing those who dream of clean air to hold their breath for the time being.

But how is such a progressive city so far behind when it comes to green transportation? The question has plagued us for the better part of the year, and a recent experience driving a Ford Focus Electric in town revealed what’s going down with electric cars in New York. The verdict: Not much of anything.

Drivers with no financial limitations won’t have a problem operating an EV (or doing anything else) in the city, but we see widespread electric vehicle adoption many, many years away in these parts. Here are four reasons the status quo (i.e., gasoline cars and high emissions) will rule for the foreseeable future.

1. Few public charging stations


“Where do you charge that thing” was how one New Yorker put it when we pulled up in our Focus Electric near Union Square. There’s no simple answer.

When you hear someone refer to EVs like the BMW i3 or Focus Electric as “city cars,” the reference is to the ability to park in tight spaces and live with a range shorter than 90 miles. Considering a trip from downtown Manhattan to the beach in Rockaway, Queens, isn’t quite 20 miles, there are countless emissions-free trips New Yorkers could make in the course of a week.

However, there are few chargers available when it’s time to juice your battery. Outside of expensive parking garages (over $400 per month), there are next to none in Manhattan, which makes widespread EV adoption impossible. (A recent 90-minute charging session at Astor Place cost Autos Cheat Sheet $36.)  The poor charging infrastructure also shows why NYC taxis are a long way from going electric. There is no place for a cab to charge up before getting back on the road.

2. No EV initiatives by the de Blasio administration


It was a splashy showing on Earth Day by the de Blasio administration, but the OneNYC plan New York’s mayor unveiled had very few electric vehicle initiatives attached. Despite a call for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, the efforts to get more EVs on the road was hardly anywhere to be seen. Of the 50 or so charging stations promised, we’re guessing they’ll be attached to expensive garages rather than available to drivers who park on the street.

That’s too bad, because a study recently showed cities like New York could reduce auto emissions by 94% through the use of EVs and autonomous cars by 2030. The technology will be in place soon enough, but electric cars need a place to charge that doesn’t involve exorbitant garage fees.

3. The Taxi of Tomorrow is a gasoline minivan

Source: Nissan
Source: Nissan

Complaints about the NYC Taxi of Tomorrow are various. It makes New Yorkers feel like suburban soccer moms; it’s big; and forcing it on drivers creates animosity among a prickly tax base. On the plus side, it is handicap accessible, which is a huge improvement over current cabs. However, this vehicle gets 24 miles per gallon, which is barely good enough for the national average (including pickup trucks, Mercedes-Benz sedans, and other cars considered gas guzzlers).

Compared to a Toyota Prius that gets 51 miles per gallon in city driving, the Nissan NV200 is not quite half as good. Recently, a Prius logged over 600,000 miles operating as a taxi, so there are a lot of gallons New York is giving up in the exchange. While Nissan has an electric model of this vehicle overseas, there are no plans to bring the car to America. The Taxi of Tomorrow may make up 80% of the New York fleet eventually, which looks like a huge missed opportunity to step up EV adoption.

4. No New York incentives for EV purchases

Eric Schaal
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

If a New Yorker wanted to finance the cost of a city garage for the year (approximately $4,800), a state or city incentive for could go a long way toward an electric car purchase. However, New York is one of the states that has no purchase incentives for zero-emissions vehicles. There are incentives for installing charging stations, but no way to defray the cost of buying the car and parking it in the first place.

This drawback will keep many New Yorkers out of the game and keep New York under the weight of its considerable auto emissions. We acknowledge the solutions may be a challenge to implement, but it’s nothing a state and local government couldn’t handle with the right focus. Maybe look to California for a few pointers?

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY