Chris Higgins and his wife have been wanting to buy an electric car for a while, but they couldn’t figure out how they would charge it. The couple live in a 1904 house in a semi-industrial area near Vancouver’s Commercial Drive that has no garage, no driveway and no easy way to run a cord anywhere.
But Vancouver city councillors have now approved a motion making it easier for residents such as Mr. Higgins to plug in. They can run cords across city sidewalks as long as the cords have a protective covering to ensure passersby can wheel or step over them. It means Mr. Higgins is certain he and his wife will buy an electric car within the next two years.
“This is the perfect solution,” said the 43-year-old Mr. Higgins. “It’s legitimate and there’s specifications by a third party about how to do it.”
But the idea of running cords across sidewalks stirred up a small brush fire of criticism on Twitter from those saying the cords would create a tripping hazard and mobility challenge for many in the city. It also lifted the curtain on the challenges many cities will face as they encourage and prod residents to switch to electric vehicles while developing an overall plan for comprehensive plug-in charging infrastructure that’s easily accessible.
Most Canadian cities have a hodgepodge of measures: building public charging stations, requiring new multi-family buildings to provide a certain number of suitable plug-ins, encouraging people to take advantage of provincial discounts for adding plugs (if discounts exist), and rules around where electric cords can go.
“I think all cities are behind on this, although Montreal and Vancouver are the furthest ahead,” said Nathan Lemphers, a researcher at the Toronto-based Smart Prosperity Institute, which is tracking the evolving use of electric vehicles. “But it’s important to underscore how uneven this transition will be.”
For some cities with large suburban populations, electric vehicles are theoretically an easy sell because so many residents can simply charge through a private driveway or garage attached to their home.
“No struggle,” wrote Edmonton resident Sue Huff in a request for comment from The Globe. “We installed an EV plug in the garage, also have an app on our phone/in the car that tells us where all the free charge stations are located. Hubby plugs in at work as well.”
Both Calgary and Edmonton are working to provide more public charging stations. Calgary added 42 new stations to downtown parking lots in 2019, bringing the total to 48. Edmonton has 76 public charging stations. It’s also working with several companies to encourage homeowners and businesses to install and register charging systems in their buildings.
“Our research shows that most people charge at home or at work,” said Andrea Soler, Edmonton’s project manager for change mobility.
But cities with substantial amounts of older and multi-family housing are having to work harder to provide the charging infrastructure that’s needed.
That has led some residents to get creative with their own solutions – until they get stopped, as Toronto homeowners were in October. They had been using an appeal process to get around a bylaw so they could build parking pads in the front yards of their houses and facilitate charging, but city council passed a bylaw to halt that practice.
But even for a city such as Vancouver, where electric cars now represent 11 per cent of vehicle purchases (unlike Toronto, where it’s only at 2.5 per cent), where to plug in remains an immediate problem.
Since 2014, when the city began requiring charging circuits to be included in new buildings, about 60,000 plug-ins have been installed – 9,000 in 2020 alone. Toronto started requiring charging infrastructure in new buildings in 2018.
Vancouver, with a population approaching 700,000, currently has 483 public charging stations, according to chargehub.com. (Toronto has 864 for its 2.5 million residents, while Montreal, with 1.8 million residents, has 1,258.)
Vancouver tried a pilot program for two years that allowed homeowners to install curbside charging stations in front of their homes but the requirements were so complex and the cost so high that almost no one applied for it.
The idea of running cords over sidewalks, with an approved cover, was taken from Seattle. But councillors also asked staff to explore cheaper under-the-sidewalk solutions after hearing from one resident.
“It’s way safer. You don’t have to take the cord in and out,” said Leonard Schein, who says he has seen many residents near his Point Grey home installing an under-sidewalk connection in spite of the city’s prohibition. “It probably costs at max $200.”
For the city’s many condo residents, though, running a cord to the sidewalk for dozens or even hundreds of residents isn’t a possibility: The price for putting in new power, especially the Level 2 or Level 3 chargers that go beyond a standard household outlet, is prohibitive for many.
“My condo strata looked into the cost of a couple of stations in our parkade. The price quoted was about $38,000,” said Alida Mackenzie, who lives in a building on Vancouver’s west side. “The residents balked at this as we are a small building and maintenance fees are already close to $500 and for many, myself included, even higher.”
The provincial government has been offering rebates recently for those installing new charging outlets, which local electrical companies say has spurred some conversions.
“Multi-family is starting to take off. We had about 10 this year so far,” said Warren Ferino, a project manager at TCA Electric. But it’s still not cheap. Buildings will often need to pay for a BC Hydro load calculation to see whether the building has enough power supplied already or needs to upgrade its connection.
Some residents, in both individual homes or for stratas, are looking at devices that monitor power in the whole building so that it will cut off power to the electric vehicle if it’s needed elsewhere at certain points of the day.
For Mr. Higgins, though, the cord over the sidewalk is the best option at this point. He figures he and his wife will charge the car for a few hours in the evening after his wife drives it home from work and, when he takes the dog for its final walk at night, he’ll unplug and bring the cord in.
“This will definitely remove a barrier for us.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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