Charging an electric car at a Whole Foods.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Do you have range anxiety? I did. I don’t anymore — I have other worries. Let me tell you all about them. They concern owning an electric car in New York.
I got the chance to simulate what that would be like when Nissan offered me a 100 percent electric LEAF SL for two weeks this spring. Usually lent out to reporters who write for magazines like Road & Track, the LEAF didn’t seem like it would work for me. My Road & Track doppelgänger probably plugged into an outlet in a ground-floor suburban garage, slept peacefully, and then awoke anxiety free with the car fully charged. For a street-parking city guy like myself, though, it all seemed too complicated. What was I going to do? Run a 200-foot-long extension cord from my tenth-floor apartment in the Financial District down to Broadway? No, I would have to go looking for a charge. In the narrow maze of lower Manhattan, it would probably be hard to find one.
Tom, the Nissan rep with neatly gelled hair and a reassuring demeanor, met me with a bright-white LEAF at Zuccotti Park. He immediately tried to allay my fears before handing over the keys. “These things are amazing,” he told me. “You have 250 miles of range to play with here.” That actually wasn’t that different from the 350 miles my 18-year-old Honda Civic goes on a tank of gas. But when I asked Tom to tell me about his own electric car, he demurred. “Actually, I drive a Subaru,” he said, blushing slightly. “Upstate, where I live? The infrastructure — it’s just not there … yet.”
And that’s what I wanted to know: In New York City, was the infrastructure “there” yet? And if it was there, would driving an EV somehow persuade me that replacing the city’s two million gas-powered cars with electric ones would fix the city’s infuriating congestion and transportation issues? To find out, I would drive the LEAF all over Manhattan and the boroughs and seek out charging stations of all kinds. And after I’d put it through its paces in the city, I’d make a long haul to the East End of Long Island to see how much juice it really had.
Since Tom had delivered the car with a full battery, I was keen to burn some of that energy off.
Not too much, mind you. Just enough to merit a charge. But when I headed over the Brooklyn Bridge, I immediately ran into what I thought was going to be a power-sucking traffic snarl. “Oh no,” I thought. “This is where I get stuck in EV dead-battery hell forever.” Tom, though, had shown me that I could switch on something called the “e-pedal,” which transforms stop-and-go traffic into electricity through “regenerative braking” — that is, it collects momentum when braking to charge up the battery a bit. In addition, like many newer cars (electric or not), the LEAF had a semi-automated setting allowing it to “know” where it was relative to cars in front and in back. It could stop and go all on its own. Creepy but easy. By the time I got onto less crowded streets, I’d only lost a percent or two of charge.
I tooled around Brooklyn for a good hour, had coffee with a friend in Red Hook, and still had plenty of battery power left. So I tacked back across the bridge to pick up another friend, who for a year had heeded the fears of a husband who would have preferred if she never saw the light of day until every last microbe was extinguished off the face of the planet. Margot, as I’ll call her as a form of witness protection, longed for a seafood meal in City Island. At last, some range-burning high-speed distance! I thought. But again: traffic. Car jammed against car for miles and for no apparent reason. Is every hour in New York rush hour now? We shopped. We ate calamari by Long Island Sound and then oozed our way home in still more traffic. Hours of it. I turned off the toll-avoid feature on Google Maps and let the car find the most “efficient” ride home — a wide, sad loop around road-blighted Queens. Miraculously, I found a free parking spot near my apartment in Manhattan that was good till 7 a.m. the next morning. After driving for the better part of six hours, I checked the dash and saw I still had 60 percent charge and more than 150 miles of range. I walked in my door and collapsed on my bed, dreading the prospect of the traffic-choked New York roads that lie ahead.
A confession here: Pre-pandemic, I had just about had it with having a car in Manhattan. Street parking was stressing me out, garages were too expensive, and after writing a book on climate-change solutions, I had come to prefer biking, walking, or taking the subway. I only ever owned a car in the city in order to escape it.
COVID changed all of that — not only did I drive more, but the idea of losing my urban emergency exit was powerfully unsettling. Now, with my range anxiety decreasing and EV city ownership seeming possible, I felt all mixed up. Not knowing how to think about all of this, I reached out to the Canadian public-transportation booster Taras Grescoe, writer of the anti-car manifesto Straphanger. “I hear you,” he told me during an impromptu Zoom therapy session from Montreal. “Listen, I loved cars as a kid,” Grescoe continued. “But as an adult, I’ve come to love cities more.” Grescoe’s Twitter feed is a screed against carkind. He often posts a meme showing a road choked with vehicles labeled “gas powered” next to the same car-choked road labeled “electric.” Grescoe’s point is that cars are a problem no matter what powers them. Bikes, pedestrian infrastructure, and public transit, he believes, should be the 21st-century city’s true connective tissue. To illustrate his point, he directed me toward a recent study in which researchers found that bikes would be ten times more effective than electric cars in helping cities achieve net-zero carbon-emissions goals over the next decade. In all, Grescoe told me, he drives only a couple weeks a year, using an extensive, partly electric car-sharing network that the province of Quebec subsidizes with cheap hydropower. (General Motors tried one of those in the States. It went bust during the pandemic.)
This was still buzzing in my ears when I woke up early and looked down at the LEAF nestled in one of New York’s 3 million free public-parking spots — a sweep of territory that takes up 480 million square feet, the equivalent of 12 Central Parks. But it was time to charge, so I hit the road. Swiping to an app Tom had told me about, PlugShare, I saw that there were quite a few charging stations right near my home. The reviews were withering. “The attendant denied me access to the charger even though the app showed availability,” complained one user on Rector Street. “[Attendant] would not just charge car. Must pay $60 PER HOUR parking fee,” carped another. The national average cost for charging an electric vehicle, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, should be about a buck-per-gallon equivalent. But unfortunately, many Manhattan charging stations are in private garages, where the proprietors can slap on an added parking fee that often makes kilowatts much more expensive than gas.
Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images
The city should have gotten an infusion of charging-station money to offset the price gouging. Volkswagen, as a result of the Dieselgate scandal, in which the company was found guilty of lying about its vehicles’ emissions, was fined $2.9 billion, and much of that windfall went to supporting electric-vehicle infrastructure. But in another variation on the theme of Cuomo versus de Blasio, state officials nabbed most of the New York EV-earmarked payout to fund charging stations outside the city. Change, however, is supposedly on the way, Jonathan Levy of the charging network EVgo promised me. Soon there would be QR codes on parking gates that would allow the electricity-seeking driver to slip into a private garage and cop a charge sans price gouge. Perhaps this is the kind of thing Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure package will fix. We’ll see.
The closest free-parking charger to me was only four miles away at the Whole Foods in Gowanus. There, I popped open a panel on the car’s front end and plugged in to a level-two charger. There are three levels of charging now available to EVers. Level one is the equivalent speed of what you’d get if you plugged in at home at a regular 110-volt household outlet, and it takes 24 to 36 hours to charge your car fully. Level two charges at two or three times that speed, and the PlugShare app shows dozens of level ones and twos spread throughout the city, usually in pay-to-park garages. (These are shown in green in the screenshot from PlugShare.)
Screenshot of the PlugShare app
Photo: Plugshare; Courtesy of the author
At this point, there are just a handful of level three “DC Fast Chargers” (brown points in the PlugShare screenshot) in the city. These take around 60 to 90 minutes to fill up an empty battery all the way. But if you just need a quick 50 miles of range, you can get that at a level three so quickly that you’d scarcely be able to finish a cup of coffee and a croissant before you’re ready to roll (yes, I did that more than once). Even faster stations exist, and faster ones are coming. In fact, chargers are evolving so quickly that my 2020 model was already a little out of date. The LEAF could charge at speeds up to 100 kilowatts per hour; more recently designed cars, at the highest-speed stations, can accept charge at a rate of 350 kilowatt-hours, meaning EV beasts like the Porsche Taycan take a full charge in about 20 minutes. Tesla, meanwhile, has a proprietary network of DC “Superchargers” whose pumps didn’t fit my Nissan, so I never even tried to make it work at the dozen-odd New York locations (thanks, Elon). And here’s a note to anyone shopping for an EV right now: Bottom-of-the-line models often don’t have the level-three DC Fast Charger port, so you’ll be stuck with slower charging stations for the foreseeable future. Many compromise by getting a “plug in” hybrid, which has a gas-powered engine to handle long hauls and a 30-to-50-mile-range battery for short runs. A plug-in driver who pulled in next to me at Whole Foods claimed he got the equivalent of 78 miles per gallon. And while, for the moment, a lot of charging-station electricity is coming from coal- and gas-fired plants, with the price of renewables plummeting and the Biden administration pledging many millions of dollars toward more renewable power generation, it’s likely that greener charging will be the trend. The EVgo charging network is, for example, already committed to only sourcing renewable.
My own fully electric level-two session at the Whole Foods in Gowanus took about two hours to get the battery from 60 percent to 80 percent. I didn’t wait for the rest because the last 20 percent of charging time goes the slowest in order to protect the battery from blowout. I spent those two hours sitting in the car writing this very article. That didn’t have to be the case, though; since there’s a self-locking feature that prevents anyone without access to the vehicle from unplugging the car while it’s charging, I could have done some shopping. That’s, in fact, exactly what the EV economy to come wants you to do. In the future, as stations get faster and more ubiquitous, charging and shopping will be inextricably linked. Large retail chains will cut deals with emergent charging networks, and we’ll merrily shop and charge our days away.
Unless, of course, we just stay home and keep ordering all our junk online.
And so went my week of EV driving in the city. A jaunt to Bay Ridge for Palestinian food. A top-off at Whole Foods the next morning. A swing through Flushing Chinatown, another quick 50 miles of range at a level three in a Queens mall. Manhattan garage-gougers aside, the LEAF’s pretty impressive range, coupled with the fact that free-parking charging stations do in fact exist, made filling up not that daunting. It was all less difficult than I had imagined, but it definitely called for a reimagining of my weekly planning.
Charging at home on the East End of Long Island.
Photo: Paul Greenberg
The next step was to see if electric would work on a much longer trip. With spring break upon us, I loaded my family into the LEAF and headed out to Orient Point, Long Island. We made the 100-mile drive without the need of a refill. Upon arrival, I still had enough power for a couple days’ tootling around. When my battery finally waned on day three of our North Fork idyll, I could have used one of the handful of charging stations around Greenport (though the closest level-three DC fast charger was broken). But since I had the luxury of parking and charging overnight at home, I just ran the cord through a window in my rental cottage’s living room and plugged it into the wall. The next day, I was good to go.
It was out on the woodsy roads of exurbia that the LEAF really showed itself to be the superior vehicle, and I started to kind of feel like a writer for Road & Track. I thrilled to the badass acceleration EVs lord over their gassy forebears. In a conventional car, a mechanical drivetrain turns chemical energy into kinetic to move you forward. In an EV, electric direct from batteries circumvents all of that so you get a lot more whoosh. This is true even when the car is in “Eco Mode,” a function that slightly mellows the road rager’s instinct to engage in battery-draining pedal-punching. When you take the car off Eco Mode, the acceleration is positively rocketlike. And then there’s the silence. No rev, no roar. It’s a little like taking a tranquilizer and driving a very fast, fancy golf cart.
I will miss this, I thought when I took the LEAF on its final run back to Manhattan, hands mostly off the wheel as it drove through the LIE smog-swamp in semi-autonomous mode. Stopping off about halfway, I sipped one more latte while I grabbed a few more miles of range at a level three outside a car dealership that I easily found on PlugShare. Actually, I didn’t find it — the LEAF did. I just put “find charging station” in the car’s GPS, and that was that.
And when I got back to car-clogged Manhattan and went to hand the keys to the parking attendant at the Nissan garage in Chelsea, I almost wanted to snatch them back. I felt this all the more acutely the next time I drove my Honda. My old car now seemed loud, crude, and obnoxious. I could see what EVgo’s Levy meant when he said that future generations will look back on gas-fueled cars the way my generation looks back at cigarettes. Both stink.
But what really stinks is the city’s refusal to think beyond the car. Let the wizards of Nissan, and all the other truly amazing next generation of auto engineers out there, electrify and decarbonize every public bus and every publicly owned vehicle the city’s got. For the rest of us, it’s time for New York to take on the commuting lobby, the garage mafia, and even puny little street parkers like me and figure out a much more urban-appropriate green future. New York should have, like Montreal, a robust, affordable, electric car-sharing network that would allow us to use cars only when we need them. This will likely need to be subsidized as much as any charging network or wind farm that may come to pass under Biden’s infrastructure package. And what we can’t pay for with federal dollars, we can underwrite by rethinking how we use the 480 million square feet we simply give away in the form of free parking. The city should finally bill for all that space and use that revenue to make itself smartly electric. If we did that, New York might breathe its way into permanent outdoor restaurants, hyperabundant bike lanes, park strips of carbon-sequestering trees, and, dare I say it, a pedestrian-centered urban plan.
Don’t get me wrong, I really did love my two-week affair with an EV. But if I’m being honest with myself, I can’t get away from the feeling that all cars, electric or not, keep us gridlocked in an old way of thinking. In a greener world, when my Honda finally dies, I’d like to be able to let the idea of owning a car in the city die with it.
Paul Greenberg is the author of The Climate Diet, just out from Penguin Press.
Photo: Paul Greenberg