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.