How Midwestern Cities are Taking Electric Vehicles beyond the Passenger Car

July 8, 2019
As electric vehicles become more common, they are expected to drive development of microgrids to serve charging stations. Here a team from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) looks at Midwestern cities that are taking electric vehicles beyond the passenger car.

As electric vehicles become more common, they are expected to drive development of microgrids to serve charging stations. Here a team from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) looks at Midwestern cities that are taking electric vehicles beyond the passenger car. 

When you think about electric vehicles (EVs), you might first think of passenger cars for personal or family use. That description fits the fully electric Chevy Bolt we’re driving on our EV road trip. But EVs are also an important part of mass transportation—from public transit options like street cars, light rail, and buses to 21st-century options like electric car shares, app-linked ride hailing services, and microtransit possibilities.

On our tour of the Midwest, we’ve seen that cities across the region are rapidly taking advantage of these innovations.

Electrified transportation supports a suite of options to get people where they need to go. Let’s examine the wide range of mobility-expanding public electrification efforts we’ve seen and heard about on our trip, stop by stop.

Intermodal route planning in Columbus

One of the first things we saw while driving in Downtown Columbus was Smart Columbus’s autonomous electric shuttle pilot. To be clear, Smart Columbus is simply exploring how (and if) autonomous public transit options can safely serve their city’s needs. The pilot is just one example of Columbus’s cutting-edge work to integrate the transportation options of the future into public life.

The Smart Columbus Experience Center is all about expanding access to varied transit options. As McKinzie Harper explained, she’s had no problems living downtown and getting around—even after ditching her car.

Indeed, in addition to the electric BMW i2 and Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid we saw on the Experience Center floor, we tried out a large touch screen that helps plan intermodal trips around Columbus, connecting transit routes to local restaurants, entertainment venues, and more.

Hailing electric rides in Cincinnati

Cincinnati residents who might not be looking to buy an EV themselves (although many are) have a variety of other electric transportation options to choose from, all delivered in the last few years. In 2016, the city opened the Cincinnati Bell Connector, a single-rail electric streetcar that follows a 3.6-mile loop and connects major destinations like the Riverfront, Downtown, and Over-the-Rhine.

Courtesy of NRDC

There’s also electric ride hailing options in the downtown area, like Gest Carts and Oggo. Both are free or very low cost for riders, relying on revenue from advertisers and sponsors. When we met with Oggo’s founders, they emphasized that their goal is to fill the need for an easy-to-use, accessible, last-mile transportation option for the city. Emphasizing the importance of partnerships, they’ve been in dialogue with the city since their inception in 2018.

Buses and BlueCars in Indianapolis

You don’t have to spend much time in Downtown Indianapolis to notice the wide range of electric transportation options that exist: green-topped electric buses; small, curvy cars emblazoned with the turquoise BlueIndy logo; and, to be sure, the electric scooters that have hit so many city streets.

Lately, Indianapolis has been making headlines with its bus fleet plans: the new $96 million, 13-mile Red Line will feature electric buses arriving every 10 minutes and is complete with wireless charging pads to boost driving range. The buses will operate in a dedicated lane to function as a high-frequency rapid transit system. The system will provide a cost-effective means of avoiding street traffic and eliminating air pollution.

Courtesy of NRDC

BlueIndy’s EVs have become a staple of Downtown Indianapolis. Launched in 2015, BlueIndy is the first electric car share in the U.S. The program is similar to Zipcar: it uses a membership-based card to unlock cars, and participants pay different rates based on how long they take one out for a spin. The biggest difference? You’ve got to plug it back in when you park in a designated BlueIndy spot.

The Indianapolis Office of Sustainability told us we can also look forward to a fleet of electric school buses in the near future—a key step to keep students breathing clean.

The future of electric transportation

We’re excited about the steps that Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis have taken in expanding transportation electrification in their cities. While the cost of EVs has dropped considerably over the past several years, we still need to strengthen options for individuals who can’t afford a personal car, who don’t want one, or who need alternate methods of transportation due to disabilities. Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis show how cities can play a leading role in solving the last-mile problem. Cities need to continue exploring and making commitments to the full range of electric transportation options.

This article originated on NRDC’s blog and was reposted with permission. It was prepared by an NRDC team that includes Ada Statler, Schneider Fellow, Eastern Region, Climate & Clean Energy program; Madhur Boloor, Schneider Fellow, Analysis Team, Climate & Clean Energy Program; Patricia Valderrama, Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow, Climate & Clean Energy program; and Samuel Garcia, Schneider Fellow, Midwest Region, Climate & Clean Energy program.

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