The $1 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is now a reality, and $550 billion in new investments is about to hit the streets. This long-awaited victory will change the trajectory of our aging infrastructure and airports, improve the safety of our roads, bridges, and tunnels, and will help in cutting vehicle emissions.
For those of us who are focused on the climate crisis, this legislation raises the potential of addressing many burning issues in transportation—the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector in the U.S. It is no secret however that our hopes for full transformational change were left on the floors of congressional offices last summer. Still, the Biden administration and negotiators defended some funds for sustainable transportation. A large portion of this—$7.5 billion—is dedicated to the installment of EV charging stations. We are optimistic about this because, if invested wisely, this relatively small pot of money has the potential to become an important milestone in our country’s transition to sustainable transportation by serving as a catalyst for the EV revolution—or in other words, the systemic transformation of our transportation fleet away from combustion engines.
Many believe the cost of EVs is a main barrier to widespread adoption, but they are becoming more affordable every day. A large barrier is the public’s perception of EVs and range anxiety, a term used to describe the fear of being left stranded with a dead car on the side of the road with no chargers nearby. This phenomenon is the main reason why so much focus is being placed on EV charging infrastructure. The idea is that a strong, accessible, and visible EV network will induce EV ownership.
This network will need to feel as ubiquitous as gas stations. But research shows that EV adoption does not necessarily happen when chargers are installed next to gas pumps or even along highways. That’s because EV charging is fundamentally different than pumping gas: EVs can be charged overnight at home, while shopping and dining, and at the office. But as convenient as these options may sound, they are not available to large swaths of the population.
Short of USDOT and state DOTs driving decisions for the placement of charging stations, the private sector will continue to follow their technology adoption models, which are currently focused on those who already own an EV. For this select demographic, charging is available in our homes and the stations are well represented at places like Whole Foods. Without appropriate government intervention, EVs will become more exclusive to affluent communities, restricting the carbon, cost, and air quality benefits savings and widespread adoption goals intended by the Biden administration. How then can we place these stations more strategically?
This is where Big Data, specifically Big mobility data can help. My company, Streelight Data, has created a dashboard to show where the chargers should be installed. Mobility data provides policy makers, advocates, and planners with anonymous, privacy-protective analytics that can easily show behavioral patterns in our communities for all kinds of people. For example, we can use mobility data to identify and prioritize charging investments in areas where low to middle income individuals drive, work, and shop, effectively closing the accessibility gap that exists in charging infrastructure right now. (Analytics can also locate places key for tourists or truckers in the 100th or 200th mile of their trip, and other interesting charger locations.) In short, these analytics gives planners the ability to accelerate years of surveys and lugubrious reports, and prioritize a community’s goals to achieve equity, utility, tourism, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or all of the above. All it takes is the will to say “we want to prioritize these elements” and the data to direct that strategy is easy.
The work of creating a nation-wide EV-charger network will be hard. It will come with challenges related to site access, land use, grid connectivity, and associated costs. EV charger deployment must be paired with programs to accelerate the purchase/sharing of EVs, consumer education, utility preparedness, and more to achieve an EV revolution. Committing to oversight and accountability and using tools like Big mobility data to work smarter, not harder, will help ensure this multi-billion-dollar investment will not evaporate before our eyes with little change in the complexion of EV ownership and the velocity of adoption.
Laura Schewel is the founder and CEO of StreetLight Data. Prior to StreetLight Schewel worked on transportation sustainability issues at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Rocky Mountain Institute. Schewel holds degrees in engineering and literature from Yale, with a PhD from UC Berkeley.