Modern Mobility in Washington, DC


How is Washington, DC embracing modern mobility and cleaner air? Part of a four part series assessing electric mobility in the US & Germany. 

Washington, DC is one of the wealthiest, greenest and active cities in the US. However, it is also one of the most polluted cities. The American Lung Association gave the city a fail on air quality in its “State of the Air 2017” report.  The main cause of pollution has been identified as traffic. Which is no wonder considering the population doubles during the day due to commuters from Maryland and Virginia (see map 1). The combination of air pollution and congestions creates local issues, for example public health concerns, but also an increase in greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.

Washington, DC embedded by the states Maryland and Virginia

Policy experts, environmental nonprofit organizations and DC’s citizens are not only concerned by the daily amount of traffic the city needs to accommodate but are also highly alarmed by air pollution and ask for action. One approach to greening DC’s transportation sector could be the electrification of the transport system.

Numerous policymakers on the federal and state level are promoting a transition of the transport system with a focus on electric vehicles. The aim is to achieve multiple benefits in environmental protection, becoming leaders in innovation and encouraging the economy. To support the shift, a monetary incentive on the federal level was implemented in 2011, according to which the purchase of a new electric vehicle comes with a tax cut of up to $7.500

On the state level, DC has offered reduced registration fees for electric vehicles since 2005. It is also a partner of the Clean City Coalition. This initiative has nearly 90 coalition promoting partnerships to reduce the use of petroleum-based fuels. In addition, the inclusion of modern technology promotes the use of electric vehicles and uses local planning skills to achieve a clean city.

Moreover, Washington, DC cooperates with the surrounding states Virginia and Maryland. One cross-border policy approach is the Designated Electric Vehicles Corridor, where interstate highways have designated alternative fuel corridors (I-95 and US-50). It is a joint project financed by private investment and federal financial support in electric vehicle infrastructure. The corridor allows easy access to charging stations and encourages commuters to invest in an electric vehicle because it includes a designated lane for electric vehicles only, which reduces traveling time. 

Another approach is the “Green Driver State Incentives in Washington, DC” program. It tries to encourage green driving practices, which can help to lower carbon footprints. The program aims to reduce air pollution which causes public health issues. Other policies directly related to Washington, DC are about to pass the DC City Council. For example, the “Electric Vehicle Public Infrastructures Expansion Act of 2017,” which will establish the electric vehicle charging station pilot program and place at least 15 publicly available charging stations by January 2019 throughout the city. The second most recent policy is the “District of Columbia Green Finance Authority Establishment Act of 2017”, which is a new policy tool for states and is supported by public funds. It offers loans, liens and credit enhancements to fund gaps for clean energy projects. Its ultimate goal is to increase private investments by offering these financing tools.

The Charging Infrastructure Challenge

Another factor to make the transition towards electric vehicles successful is the deployment of charging stations. Currently, charging mostly takes place at home with a Level 1 charger - a simple outlet which is the same for a toaster or dishwasher. The car is usually fully charged overnight, which has a positive side effect on the grid system, since this period is generally a low peak time. As electricity during evening and night hours are often offered at a lower rate, charging electric vehicles can be even cheaper than fuel powered cars.

The DC-area’s utility provider PEPCO is already offering incentive programs especially for electric vehicle charging at home with a reduced price when charging between 8 pm until noon the following day. The program is offered in Maryland and indirectly positively impacts Washington, DC by reducing carbon emission. The second most common charging place is at work, where the car is often parked for hours and can be charged for a reduced price. This option is either offered by the utility provider or the employer, often with a Level 2 charger.

Image removed.

The recharge time varies depending on the manufacturer and model. For example, a Ford Focus EV requires a charging time of 3.5 hours and has a range of 115 miles (purchase price about $29,900). A comparable German model would be the Volkswagen eGolf, with a charging time of just under 6 hours, a range of 125 miles and a purchase price of $30,500. These two models are good examples of how varied the engineering development between different car brands has emerged. In order to achieve the largest market share and satisfy consumers, it is important for car manufacturers to invest in research and create more efficient car models.

Ford Focus EV (by Rachel So CC BY-SA 2.0) & Volkswagen eGolf (by M93 CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE))

Getting Consumers On Board

The consumer remains the largest driver of the transition. So far, the average owner of an electric vehicle is well educated, with a good income and is often a tech enthusiast or interested in environmental protection. However, many other consumers are not aware of the positive benefits of electric vehicle ownership. Often, people do not understand the difference between a hybrid and a plug-in electric vehicle and, with very low oil prices in the US, do not see the benefit of shifting to a new technology. 

For those who already know more about electric vehicles, other factors hinder the decision to switch. Some examples are long-distance travel, range anxiety and the possibility of more efficient fuel-powered cars. While Washington, DC currently has about 70 Level 2 charging stations, electric vehicles have only a market share of 2%. The issue of public accessibility also remains. Washington, DC has currently no fast charging stations which would allow drivers to recharge within 30 minutes. Most charging stations are available at workplaces or single houses, which makes public accessibility very difficult. This restricted development hinders particularly low-income households and people residing in multi-story homes from entering the market.

Another reason for the limited uptake can be seen in the limited availability of charging stations. The expansion of charging stations is also important for creating greater public awareness and acceptance of electric vehicles. The fact that a car is powered by electricity is not always obvious and people do not always recognize an electric vehicle as such on the street. When you see an electric vehicle charging station, however, people become more aware of the electric vehicle transition. Increased visibility of these charging stations would help raise overall awareness for electric vehicles. In order to make the transition successful, the visibility, communication and education on electric vehicle charging stations need to be improved.

Unfortunately, the deployment of charging stations is left to the open market, which has not developed efficiently in DC at the moment. However, there are business models which can create a win-win situation. Shopping malls with large parking houses, for example, could attract customers with offering free charging. Also, smaller shops or hotels may offer their parking facilities and deploy some charging stations and reach a broader audience.

One argument for the slow implementation of charging infrastructure is the uncertain return on investment for small and medium-sized investors. The estimated timeframe when a single charging station becomes profitable is not transparent. With no opportunity to use domestically produced renewable energy or reduced rates offered by utility providers, the market of installing charging stations by private investors seems unattractive.

Interviews were conducted for this research with experts in the field of electric vehicle and the transition in Washington, DC.* According to their academic and independent consulting expertise, a policy recommendation for DC should be the promotion of more electric vehicle charging stations in the city. That way it will overcome the issue of limited access to certain groups. It is also important to make this deployment visible. By showing a proactive development of charging infrastructure in all neighborhoods, public acceptance and adaptation are more likely to be achieved.

The Influence of Shared Mobility

Bikeshare in Washington, DC

From left to right: Capital BikeshareLime Bike, Mobike, SPIN, OFO, and JUMP (sources in hyperlinks).

But tackling the pollution issue is not just done by electric vehicles alone. Capital Bikeshare is DC´s approach to encouraging its citizens to use bikes. This idea started in 2010 and is a docking-based option. In September 2017, new bike share companies (LimeBike, Mobike, Spin, OFO) arrived including one offering electric bikes (Jump). Jump is offering a unique service in DC with a new form of electric mobility halfway between a traditional bike and a car – perfect also for navigating both DC’s hills and its traffic. Moreover, these bikes are easy to access due to their dockless feature and are affordable at only $1 per half an hour (on average). Therefore, it is a cheaper form of transport and sometimes faster than the metro or bus. The existing bike lanes need improvement but are generally available throughout the city.

Carpooling systems like Lyft Line and Uberpool and car sharing systems like Car2Go and Zipcar are also a growing market in DC. It is a phenomenon observed in metropolitan areas where the economy is shifting to a shared economy. With carpooling in particular, a one-way ride to the desired destination can be shared with other people and simultaneously save the cost. A simple app can communicate where the trip is going, how many seats are available and how much it will cost. Car sharing is a similar service to car rental. However, it gives the driver more flexibility since the payment is only happening per used hour and some allow one-way rides instead of returning the car to the point of pick up. 

These types of car-sharing and pooling programs make the actual ownership of a car less attractive. With increasing car sharing opportunities especially in urban areas, the movement to a less car orientated transport system seems realistic.

Driving Forward: Creating a Connected Infrastructure

The increasing popularity of carpooling and bike sharing options in DC is a good reflection of the environmentally friendly attitude of the city’s citizens. The shift and demand from consumers to alternative transport options is a strong signal and enhances the pressure on car manufacturers to continue issuing the market with electric vehicles.  Urban planners also need to rethink infrastructure planning, particularly if more people begin to rely on a sharing economy and electric vehicles over traditional fuel-powered, individual car ownership.

Keeping all these developments in mind, the future outlook for Washington, DC is promising. With its urban attributes of wide streets and proactive biking culture, Washington, DC can become an inspiration for other cities not just on bike or car sharing. The city can be an example for cooperating with other states and promoting electric vehicles with modern policies. Moreover, DC is welcoming and hosts tourists and political leaders regularly. The city has an opportunity to show to the world its progressive attitude by deploying electric vehicle infrastructure. DC should start with making the charging infrastructure accessible for lower and mid-income households.

With this vision, Washington, DC has very high potential to become the leading green city in the US for the electrified and alternative infrastructure to fuel-driven cars.

*I would like to thank Nick Nigro (Atlas Public Policy) and Matthew Goetz (Georgetown Climate Center). Their time and input were a great help in order to reflect on the current developments in Washington, DC.
Find all other articles in this four part series here.