By Daniel Katzive
Gas is expensive. The planet is getting hot. The internal combustion engine, which has been powering cars for over 100 years, is on the way out. Electric-powered vehicles are the future.
All of these are common refrains, perhaps particularly common from our out-of-town friends or relatives who are already driving electric vehicles (EVs). But what if you’re a climate-conscious Upper West Sider?
Well, if you live here, odds are you don’t own any kind of car. According to U.S. Census data, as of 2020 there were about 106,000 households living in the zip codes comprising the Upper West Side, while New York State data shows only 32,000 passenger vehicles registered in those zip codes, suggesting that less than a third of Upper West Side households own a car. Compare that with the overall numbers for New York State, where the average household owns 1.25 passenger vehicles. In a neighborhood like ours with ample public transportation, the most economical and climate-conscious practice is to eschew a vehicle altogether.
To the extent Upper West Siders do have their own vehicles, it is a bit more likely to be an EV than it is for New York State residents as a whole. There are currently 578 EVs registered in UWS zip codes, according to Department of Motor Vehicle records; 520 of those are Teslas. This may not seem like a large number in densely populated neighborhood liked ours. But statewide, just 0.5 percent of all registered vehicles are EVs; on the Upper West Side that figure is 1.7 percent.
So who are those 578 EV owners, and how do they manage this new technology in the city, which is not exactly EV-friendly at this point? Perhaps because there are so few of them, The Rag struggled to make contact with EV owners in the neighborhood, but did talk with a number of sources who described the challenges of maintaining an EV in a urban space like New York City.
Marc Geller, a spokesperson for the 50-year-old nonprofit Electric Vehicle Association of America, said the economics of EV ownership are straightforward for those who can charge a car at home. EV fuel costs can be just 25-30 percent of the costs for an equivalent gasoline-powered car, and maintenance costs are lower thanks to the absence of an engine. “However, once you use a third-party system [for charging], that system has to make money,” said Geller. “And there is no regulation for the public selling of electricity to charge cars, even for a public utility.”
Of course, owning any car in New York City is more complicated than it is in most of the rest of the country. Parking spots on the street can be hard to come by and cars must be moved twice a week for street cleaning. Snow storms and theft can also be problems.
Filling up with gas is also not always so straightforward. Gas prices are higher (around $5.11 per gallon in New York City currently, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency). And the Upper West Side is down to just one gas station, on 96th Street between West End Avenue and the Henry Hudson Parkway. (Long-time residents may remember that the Jewish Community Center at Amsterdam Avenue 76th Street now sits on the site of what was a gas station until the early 1990s, and the station at Frederick Douglass Circle on 110th Street was replaced by a luxury condominium a few years ago.)
But there is additional complexity for an UWS EV owner: most of us live in apartment buildings, and very few have dedicated parking spots – let alone parking spots with access to electricity. Increasingly, neighborhood parking garages do offer charging services for EVs, but, as with most things in New York City, convenience comes with a cost.
For starters, the cost to park your car in an UWS garage can exceed the cost to rent a small apartment in other large cities (or a large apartment in some small cities!). On top of the monthly rate, city residents pay 10.375 percent parking tax. According to Spothero.com, the average monthly parking cost in New York City is $570, and the web site did not list any garages charging less than $700 on the Upper West Side, though we note that vehicle owners can sometimes negotiate lower rates with individual garages.
The additional fee for keeping your EV charged can be large; our informal survey turned up parking garage rates for charging EVs that ranged from $50 to several hundred dollars per month for unlimited charging.
However, with a full tank of gasoline costing nearly $100 now for a car with an 18-gallon tank, drivers who use their car frequently might find the economics attractive. And keeping your EV in a pricey parking garage has the added convenience of not having to look for gas (imagine if your garage topped up your gas tank for you!). If you use your car less often, some garages also offer one-time or hourly charging rates as low as $10 (in addition to parking), which might be a better deal than paying a flat monthly fee.
For street parkers, though, EV ownership is considerably more complicated. There are public curbside charging stations, but they are few and far between; the city-wide network of public chargers, PlugNYC, consisted of 96 curbside chargers as of June 22, according to the NYC Department of Transportation.
There are three public charging stations (each with two connectors) on the UWS: West 76th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus; West 84th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus; and West 93rd Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.
To access these stations, drivers use an app called FLO to locate nearby stations, reserve a time for a charging session, and pay for it. The pricing is $1.00 per hour from 7pm and 7am, and $2.50 per hour from 7am to 7pm.
These chargers, installed in partnership with Con Edison, can “provide an EV with up to 20 miles of range per hour,” a sign on the charger says. The rules on the charger say that “only EVs that are plugged into the charger are authorized to park here.”
The city plans to install 1,000 curbside stations by 2025 and 10,000 by 2030, according to a September 2021 DOT press release. But right now, it would be difficult to count on finding an open charger regularly. Periodic visits to the chargers on West 76th Street this past month found the spots sometimes vacant, but also sometimes blocked by non-EVs parked illegally (in some cases ticketed).
When there was an EV in the space, it was not always plugged in or, according to the screen on the charger, not actually charging even if it was plugged in. On one occasion, we did observe a parking agent ticketing a Tesla which was in a charging spot but not plugged in. On another occasion, an unplugged-in Tesla was not ticketed and perhaps protected by its placard from the NYPD Sergeants’ Benevolent Association.
EVs we saw charging in the spots had usually been there for many hours, according to the information displayed on the Flo screen, in one case for over 13 hours, suggesting that open times for charging might be hard to find – especially since UWS residents with EVs must also compete with commuters for charger access. EVs we saw charging on 76th Street often had out of state plates and, in cases where New York State plates were displayed, a check of the DMV’s database showed the cars were not registered to owners with UWS zip codes.
A flexible approach to charging might work, however, if a street parker was willing to occasionally park in a garage and pay a one-time charger fee. If the car is used to commute out of Manhattan to a location with chargers this could also reduce an EV owner’s dependency on street charging. One EV owner who spoke to the West Side Rag told us he uses his EV to commute to a job in the West Village and will typically charge his car once a month using an hourly rate offered at various garages.
Plug-in hybrids are another option for Upper West Side residents who want to reduce their carbon footprint but not risk being marooned without any juice. Plug-in hybrids have a standard internal combustion engine as well as a battery and electric motor that can be charged with external power. While these vehicles do provide more flexibility, they do not reap the maintenance savings that are a key part of the value proposition for an EV, because there is still an internal combustion engine that must be maintained. Marc Geller of the EV Owners Association also points out that some of these plug-in hybrids on the market do not have large battery capacity, meaning the vehicle will often be running on gasoline.
EVs are actually for sale on the Upper West Side. Polestar, a Swedish electric vehicle manufacturer spun off by Volvo in 2017, has a dealership at the corner of West 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. A salesperson we spoke to there told us that some New York City buyers of EVs do take advantage of charging facilities on the other side of the river in New Jersey, where they presumably work or have other reasons to visit regularly. The DMV data we reviewed did not show ANY Polestar electric vehicles registered on the Upper West Side, though they could have been included among the 8 “other” makes registered or perhaps among the three Volvos. Most likely the dealership is mainly selling cars to customers who live outside the city and are here for work.
Do you own an EV and live on the Upper West Side? We would love to hear about your experience. Please feel free to use the comment fields below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “EV Article”. If we get enough responses, we will consolidate your comments (anonymously if you prefer) in a future article.
Additional reporting by Scott Etkin.