An urgent need exists for cities to prioritize sustainable transport strategies for dealing with the effects of the climate crisis. Transforming a century-long pattern of driving internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles into a love of electric vehicles (EVs) in cities is an important element of domestic plans to decarbonize.
According to the US EPA, about 29% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from transportation, after accounting for electricity use. EVs, on the other hand, produce zero tailpipe emissions, so the world is shifting to electric personal, public, and commercial transportation to reduce climate pollution.
Yet it’s difficult to convince city residents to switch to EVs. Without easy access to charging, many apartment dwellers are skeptical about EVs. They need local city leaders who are ready to explain why their city should prioritize transportation electrification, and the reasons they can provide are plentiful: economic development opportunities, workforce expansion, health benefits from improved air quality, less climate pollution, and more.
Each of us faces a conundrum: we know that our individual carbon footprints are only a pinpoint in comparison to the fossil fuel industry contributions to climate pollution. Then again, we still want to do what we can for the planet, especially by supporting cities when they create transportation decarbonization strategies.
Cities around the world now acknowledge that the climate crisis poses a serious threat, but, as they have attempted to tackle this issue by adapting and mitigating, they’ve experienced disparate levels of planning and success.
Cities have the power and means to lead the way, argues Kate Harrison, co-founder of MoveEV, an AI-backed EV transition company that helps organizations convert fleet and employee-owned gas vehicles to electric and reimburse for charging at home. A review of 50 city climate action plans released from 2020-2022 reveals that 81% of those plans reference EVs as part of their climate solutions. Harrison says cities stand at a pivotal juncture.
“The choices cities make today concerning transportation will profoundly influence the health and well-being of residents tomorrow. The shift to electric vehicles is more than just an eco-friendly choice; it’s a commitment to a brighter, cleaner future. By leading with action and vision, cities can create a legacy that upcoming generations will appreciate and thrive in.”
Leaders need to acknowledge that urban EV uptake must grow alongside the deployment of charging infrastructure. Additionally, conversations about the public health and environmental hazards that ICE vehicles present must be explicit and impactful.
Prioritize City Charging Infrastructure
There’s no question that an abundance of public charging infrastructure would give city drivers confidence that they could complete their journeys and top up their charge as needed. Unfortunately, that seems like a dreamscape right now. Instead, many urban EV owners have no choice but to settle into a nightly charging routine that means charging cables snaking through trees and across sidewalks. It’s distasteful and unsafe.
The Biden administration is helping to broaden charging opportunities by making a $7.5 billion investment in EV charging so a network of 500,000 public Level 2 and Level 3 chargers can be constructed along highways and within communities by 2030. By that time, the goal is to have EVs account for at least 50% of new car sales.
The US federal government is walking the talk, as it has set guidelines for its employees to seek zero emissions transportation options whenever possible. A comprehensive EV charging infrastructure is critical for city growth of the EV market. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group document, “How to Build an Electric Vehicle City: Deploying Charging Infrastructure,” explains how cities must build EV charging infrastructure at scale and encourage investment from other stakeholders. They say that cities can draw upon 2 main tools to accelerate the construction of charging infrastructure:
- EV vehicle-ready building codes, which ensure the long-term, cost-effective buildout of charging; and,
- streamlining permitting processes and providing pre-approved site, which helps to spur private investment in charging infrastructure.
Municipalities can explore the Department of Energy’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Projection Tool to project consumer demand for EV charging infrastructure. Also, city climate action plans likely have EV charging goals and strategies. New York City, for example, has more than 4,000 government-owned EVs. MoveEV’s Harrison notes that, by electrifying their take-home fleets, other cities can similarly set precedents for their communities. “Seeing neighbors drive electric vehicles daily serves as a powerful endorsement,” she emphasizes, “motivating nearby residents to make the switch.”
Health Benefits & Quality of Life
As urban populations increase and more vehicles hit the roads, the quality of the air is compromised, directly impacting health, environment, and quality of life ― especially for children, minorities, and other vulnerable populations. MoveEV’s Harrison points out how, in this context, EVs offer a practical solution to health issues posed by tailpipe emissions.
“Their adoption in urban settings has the potential to significantly improve air quality and enhance public health. Early childhood is a critical period for brain development. However, toxic air pollutants can significantly inhibit this growth during these formative years. The consequences include impairing children’s cognitive capabilities in reading and math, akin to missing an entire month of elementary school.”
Lower income communities will need persistent investments, amounting to about 30% of chargers and charging investments through 2030, to ensure equitable infrastructure access and associated benefits. By 2030, it is projected that only 18% of battery EV drivers in apartments will have access to Level 2 home charging, up just from 13% in 2019.
Air pollution is a glaring racial and social justice issue. Areas with fewer white residents suffer almost triple the nitrogen dioxide levels compared to predominantly white zones, as highlighted by the National Academy of Sciences. Historically marginalized communities, often near major traffic corridors, must endure high levels of daily climate pollution exposure.
“Transitioning to EVs can help address these deeply ingrained environmental inequities,” MoveEV’s Harrison reminds us.
Final Thoughts: Why Cities Should Prioritize EV Adoption
One of the biggest global climate challenges is decarbonizing transportation. Many global cities are “trailblazers” in the electric transition, according to MoveEV’s Harrison, because they offer incentives like public charging stations, free parking for EVs, rebates for home charger installations, reimbursing for charging at home, and reduced tolls.
And it’s not just cities and the federal government that is seeing the need to prioritize city EVs. States, too, are targeting strategies to increase their EV charging infrastructure. California’s adoption of EVs correlates with a 3.2% decrease in asthma-related ER visits between 2013 and 2019.
The impact of mass EV adoption has already been demonstrated outside the US. Norway has seen a notable reduction in dangerous particle emissions since 87% of its new car sales are now fully electric. Starting in 2026, only ships powered by alternative fuels will be allowed to visit Norway’s fjords. Lawmakers want to protect the unique natural environment and stop marine diesel oil and mass tourism from damaging the climate.
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