At the forefront of the electrifying America’s car fleet: Cities

Published Fri, 2017.07.28 | By

Nic Lutsey

Whether you live in Boca Raton, Burlington, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, or Santa Monica, you’re likely hearing a lot more about electric cars these days. That’s mainly because their costs are dropping rapidly, and automakers keep offering new electric options. If you or your neighbor doesn’t already have one, stay tuned: More intriguing electric cars are coming to a town near you.

Yeah, yeah, we know, electric sales are just 1% of U.S. car sales—but the markets are starting to turn. In fact, we’ve got the data to prove it (see our latest report here). From 2015 to 2016, the U.S. electric market was up 30% overall. More impressively, the local electric car markets of Charlotte, Detroit, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, Providence, Richmond, Salt Lake City, and Virginia Beach saw growth of over 75% from 2015 to 2016. There are now 11 U.S. metropolitan areas with over 10,000 total electric cars (as of the end of 2016); Los Angeles, the largest, has over 100,000. Of the 50 largest metro areas, 49 saw increased electric car sales from 2015 to 2016 (the exception was Atlanta, where the incentive was repealed and swapped for a fee…).

Why this uptick in electric sales across U.S. cities? These markets have more electric models available (to appeal to more prospective consumers), greater consumer incentives (to help lower the upfront cost), more extensive public charging infrastructure (to ensure greater convenience), and more local promotion activities (to help educate consumers). Based on our latest analysis of U.S. metropolitan areas, the more of these actions that are in place, the higher electric vehicle uptake is across the U.S. markets. All of these factors are statistically linked to increased electric vehicle sales, and we provide lots of examples where they are being implemented.

To give one clear example of a key underlying factor, public charging infrastructure grows hand-in-hand with electric vehicle growth (see figure). Even through electric vehicle charging is mostly done at home, public charging is a necessary part of the electric vehicle ecosystem; it boosts electric vehicle user range confidence and increases the extent to which electric cars displace gasoline use. This reaffirms the relationship that we and other groups have found linking uptake and public charging. It also greatly reinforces the opportunity for cities like Los Angeles, and local utilities like in Kansas City, to deploy charging infrastructure to help spark the market. Another key action on this front is to expand access to public charging where residents are less likely to have their own garage for home charging (see Seattle’s latest right-of-way program and Austin’s multi-family home rebates).


Electric vehicle uptake versus available public charging infrastructure.

In other parts of the world, we see the same trend where local and national governments help spur the electric car market with incentives, charging, and local campaigns. U.S. cities can take a page out of the playbooks not just from the leading U.S. cities, but also from the world electric vehicle capitals in Europe and China. Cities like Amsterdam and Oslo take similar steps, often going further (e.g., with free electric car parking, free charging, electric taxis and car sharing), and have much higher electric vehicle uptake than do most U.S. cities. Beijing and Shanghai show strong preference for electric cars in their local car registration policies. London could eventually offer access to the urban center only for electric vehicles. Other cities like Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Munich, Paris, and Stuttgart are even considering banning higher polluting and diesel vehicles to fight local air pollution. Of course, city policies must be tailored to local needs and circumstances, but all of these cities keep innovating and learning from each other’s new policies.

Local action has always been at the heart of environmental progress. Especially now, local action is necessary to combat climate change. Cities, rightly seeing electric as one of the big climate solutions, are clearly at the forefront.