Driving an electric car in NYC

BMW i3 charging at an Autolib' carsharing station in Paris. (Wikipedia)

Just for variety, we thought we’d show you Paris. BMW i3 shown charging up at an Autolib’ car sharing station. (Wikipedia)

Over the next ten years, transportation options in New York will evolve dramatically; electric cars will likely become commonplace, and self-driving cars may turn automobiles into a subscription service, meeting you via an app, it’s claimed, when and where you want. 

Small lightweight electric cars are one future transportation mode that can conceivably compete with mass transit for energy efficiency, though not with bikes, of course. See engineer Saul Griffith speaking on infrastructure, at 44:30 here

New York’s shift to electric vehicles has been tentative so far (see City Atlas on the elusive electric taxi), but the de Blasio Administration has now committed to adding 2000 electrics to the city’s fleet, making for perhaps the largest municipal fleet of electric cars in the world – which should also bring the charging stations, and familiarity, that speed adoption. And also: cleaner air and less CO2.

Lilas Randrianarivony had the chance to try out the EV lifestyle last summer, with a BMW i3 on loan to the Parks Department. New models of similar electric cars from Tesla and Chevrolet solve the range issue that earlier EV’s have had (including the i3) which apparently makes you think carefully about where you are before running out of juice.

Last year, my crew and I had the opportunity to venture around Queens in a sporty i3, taking down data for the Tree Census 2015 for New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Along the way we learned a lot about what it takes to operate an electric car in the five boroughs. Even here, distances matter, as does the recharging time – at least, until fast chargers become ubiquitous.

Our car was part of a group loaned by BMW to NYC Parks for the purposes of Trees Count! 2015; for us grateful census-takers, the summer heat, and scope of daily travel, made an EV a welcome ride.

The BMW i3 has a lightweight carbon fiber body, and an estimated 81 mile range (efficiency-wise, that breaks down to 138 MPGe city, 111 hwy, and 124 combined for the city car). Due to its compact size, maneuvering is easy. The rearview camera and, my personal favorite, the parking assist can be activated with a quick command. The interiors range from black to off-white leather seats, with a bamboo dashboard sprawling across the front.

The first thing I noticed when test driving around Flushing Meadows Park was how quickly the car accelerated, with speed building until you release the pedal. Once released, there is a successive deceleration, without requiring the driver to press on the brakes; deceleration engages a charger that simultaneously charges the battery back up.

There are three power modes: comfort, ECO PRO and ECO PRO+. The ‘eco’ modes are intended to bump up the range; they sacrifice top speed, heat or A/C, and display brightness as a way to conserve power.

See the video below (from Boston) for a run through of some of these features – including how the car slows when you bring your foot off the accelerator pedal.

Other oddities include the coach doors; the car opens like Cinderella’s coach, but back doors have to be closed before the front doors in order to lock properly. Additionally, the front seat belts are attached to the back doors, so someone in a front seat has to unbuckle if the person seated behind them wants to exit. This makes parking awkward and more complicated than with the standard four door.

To become widely adopted in the city, electric vehicles need fast charging stations, greater range, and reasonable cost. Chargers will have to be as readily available as gas stations, or more so, because range depends on temperature (hot days call for A/C, cold days for running the heater, and either shortens the car’s range) and because a charge takes longer to put into a car to put into a car than a tankful of gas – even Tesla’s fast charger takes more than five times longer for the same range. We encountered the charger scarcity issue during a desperate time, realizing that charging stations were very rare in Southern Queens. Too many EV’s and too few chargers is a problem NYC doesn’t have yet, but could in the future.

Parking garage giant Icon Parking has partnered with Beam Charging and Car Charging to “provide valet operated car charging stations in a few of our locations.” According to their maps, there are 6 in Queens, 6 in Brooklyn, 100 in Manhattan, and 2 in the Bronx; Staten Island has none at the moment.

On our tree survey we saved the Rockaways for last not only because of it’s distance compared to the rest of Queens but also to bask in August’s sun and enjoy the last weeks of the census project, as well as of the summer, by the shoreline. Starting with an 81 mile range in a charged-up i3, it’s about a 17 mile drive total from Olmsted Center (located in Corona, Queens) to Rockaway Beach. This excluded the fact that we had to zigzag across the peninsula to drop one another off and to get lunch, roaming from top to bottom across many more miles. In the hot August sun, A/C was our saviour, but running the A/C drained the car’s battery faster.

We found ourselves in the worst case scenario situation one late afternoon, when we had exactly 15 miles blinking at us on the LED dashboard. Factoring out potential midday traffic, the nearest charging station was located in Forest Park, about 10 miles from the beach. This was a great firsthand experience with an electric vehicle because we later found out that it was a type of hybrid, able to take gas as well to power an onboard generator that gives some more range.

The current i3 is great for local commuters in a city; however, due to the limited range, those going long-distance or even if the charge isn’t full, will have to make do without the basic features (A/C, radio etc) in order to get to their destination.

In a little-noticed switch, many DHL and UPS vehicles in NYC are now electric, hybrid, or CNG. (Ph: City Atlas)

In a little-noticed switch, many delivery vehicles in NYC are now electric or hybrid. (Ph: City Atlas)

In a big city like New York with a population of more than eight million, is it worth prioritizing investments in electric personal vehicles over mass transit? The NYC subway is likely the greenest piece of infrastructure in the US, because it keeps so many of us out of cars entirely. And new refinements in New York could include electric buses, though the MTA has not chosen that route yet. Cities that lack train systems may especially benefit from clean buses: investors Michael Linse and Zach Barasz claim a changeover to electric bus systems will be faster than we think:

By 2020, we expect a majority of transit buses sold in the U.S. to be electric, and we expect the availability of highly efficient, low cost, zero emissions, and quiet electric buses to lead to a renaissance of urban transit in the United States.

Philadelphia’s bus system is adding electric buses from Proterra (a company that includes an ’emissions prevented’ scoreboard on its website). New York’s MTA has tested electric buses, but has no plans announced to add them to the fleet. Chinese company BYD is providing buses elsewhere in the US, as well as preparing a new test of electric taxis in New York.

Stephanie Mahalchick looked at the Bloomberg-era PlaNYC for City Atlas in 2012, reviewing the goals on transportation: improve and expand sustainable transportation and infrastructure, reduce congestion on our roads, bridges and airports, maintain and improve the physical condition of our roads and transit system. According to Greening Mass Transit & Metro Regions by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability and the MTA, they propose three crucial steps:

Encouraging a mode shift from automobiles to transit ridership dramatically lowers CO2 emissions on a per-passenger-mile basis. Second, the resulting reduction in road congestion means that the remaining vehicle traffic runs more efficiently, further lowering emissions. Third and most significantly, by enabling clustered development, a transit network shrinks the average mileage between destinations. This reduces vehicle miles traveled overall while encouraging biking, walking, and greener lifestyles.

The looming game-changer in urban areas across the US, beginning in California, is the advent of self-driving cars (as noted at the front of this piece). Lightweight electric autonomous cars, used as shared vehicles through systems like Uber, have the potential to improve congestion and energy use significantly as compared to conventional vehicles. New York’s density and enormous, efficient transit system still should make car use a third option, after transit and walking or biking. 

But New York has influence beyond its size; establishing EV’s and charging infrastructure as the norm here for cars, both for private use and as shared vehicles, might especially help in speeding the changeover elsewhere in the United States.