For most electric car owners, charging up their vehicle is as simple as plugging in overnight in their own garage. Being able to charge at home easily is a big part of EVs’ appeal compared with old-school gas cars.

But that still leaves out a big chunk of the car-owning population – those of us who can only hope to own a garage one day. More than 35% of housing units in the U.S. population have no access to a garage or carport. Many are apartment renters, while others (like me) are homeowners in big cities where space is at a premium. Whether we own or rent, a lot of us rely on surface lots, street parking, or other spots where overnight charging isn’t available.

Sparse access to home charging in cities also contributes to racial and income disparities in EV adoption. The majority of white U.S. Census respondents own their homes, but other racial and ethnic groups are more likely to rent, and often are less likely to have garages for EV charging. Public-access EV charging also has been slower to arrive in lower-income and majority-minority communities.

The urban EV gap is real. So how can ordinary consumers get around it?

Close up of the power supply plugged into an electric car being charged

Free DC Fast Charging

One solution for city-dwellers also bears the most resemblance to filling up with gas – using public stations for Level 3 DC fast charging. Bear in mind, fast charging all the time can get costly unless you have a special deal from the EV manufacturer. Carmakers also warn that it could gradually reduce the battery’s capacity if you frequently fast-charge beyond 80%.

The good news is that many EV makers offer at least some fast charging for free.

Some of the deals won’t help much if you rely frequently on fast charging. Ford, for instance, gives new Mustang Mach-e owners 250 kWh of free charging through Electrify America stations – enough to fully charge a typical-sized Mach-e battery about three times. That’s enough for one decent road trip of around 750 miles, but it’s not a long-term boost for urban EV owners.

A handful of EV manufacturers offer years of free fast-charging with a new purchase or lease, which is by far the best deal for garage-less among us. Some of those offers come from luxury models like Audi, Lucid, Mercedes and Porsche. But honestly, if you’re dropping in excess of $100,000 for one of those, you can afford a garage – and you definitely shouldn’t be parking overnight on city streets.

The sweet spot for an average city-dweller is to get a reasonably affordable EV that also comes with years of free fast charging. As of now, the only realistic choices for that come from Hyundai, Polestar and Volkswagen.

Polestar 2 fast charging at Electrify America

EVs under $60,000 that come with years of free DC fast charging

  • Hyundai Ioniq 5 – 2 years of free 30-minute charging sessions through Electrify America. Details on the Hyundai website.
  • Polestar 2 – 2 years of free 30-minute charging sessions through Electrify America. Details on the Polestar website.
  • Volkswagen ID.4 – 3 years of free 30-minute charging sessions through Electrify America. Details on the Volkswagen website. (Note: The 30-minute limit applies as of the 2022 model year; 2021 ID.4s have 3 years of unlimited charging sessions)

If you’re going to rely on a fast-charging network, the car’s range and average charging speed could be critical. Unless you plan to visit a fast-charger several times per week, it’s best to buy a car with well over 200 miles of range – enough to cover most people’s weekly mileage.

The reliability of charging is also a huge consideration. Tesla owners can use the very reliable but (currently) Tesla-only Supercharger network. Other EVs can access non-Tesla networks like ChargePoint, Electrify America, or EVgo, though reviews have found that those networks can be more prone to broken chargers. Volkswagen ID.4 owner Nilan Watmore said he’s had success using mostly free charging from Electrify America in his city neighborhood. But the charging experience isn’t always convenient.

“It’s convenient when it works,” Watmore said. When he’s had issues, a call to Electrify America maintenance usually takes care of it, he said, but it can be a headache.

Fast charging from 20% to 80% takes between 20 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the vehicle and the type of charge station. Making a special trip to a charger is less convenient than charging at home, but since many fast chargers in the U.S. are installed at shopping centers, it’s possible to plan charging sessions into a weekly errand routine.

2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5 fast charging at a Electrify America station

The Fast Charger’s Dilemma

Without a free charging deal, fast charging can be way more expensive than charging overnight at home.

For example, an Electrify America station in Chicago costs 31-43 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to about 14 cents per kWh for typical residential electricity rates in the city. That means charging a normal-sized 82 kWh car battery from 20% to 80% costs about $20 (at best) through Electrify America, compared to about $9 in a residential garage. Although Tesla doesn’t post Supercharger rates publicly, they tend to be a bit cheaper than other networks – though not by much.

A 100% charging cost difference can wipe out much of the fuel price advantage that EVs have over-relying on gasoline. In the example above, fast charging through Electrify America costs at least 10 cents per mile, assuming reasonable EV efficiency of 3 miles per kWh. By comparison, if you drive a gas-fueled car that gets 30 mpg, at a cost of $3.50 per gallon, that comes out to 11.7 cents per mile. For cost-conscious drivers, the similarity in fueling price removes some of the incentive to drive an EV. Tesla’s website boasts that a Model Y offers $5,100 in fuel savings over a comparable gas car. But much of that advantage disappears if you mostly use fast chargers.

The expense of charging isn’t a deal-breaker if you’re buying an EV for other reasons, like an elegant and powerful driving experience or low environmental impact. But if you lack a garage and want low fast-charging costs, the best solution right now is to get an EV with years of free charging.

On The Scene: California's First Curbside Fast Charger

Other Options – Charging on the Street or at Work

Other potentially economical ways of charging without a garage include using public chargers on the street or at driving destinations like hotels or charging during the day at work. But right now the availability of those options is even spottier than access to fast charging.

Although some European cities have growing availability of street charging, in the U.S. it’s still rare. New York City has just begun an effort to install 1,000 curbside Level 2 charging ports by 2025 and 10,000 by 2030, with overnight costs as low as $1 per hour. Reliable public charging that can compete with residential electric rates still seems a bit far-fetched, but it would be a game-changer for urban EV adoption.

The infrastructure package that the Biden administration passed last year includes $5 billion for EV charging infrastructure, aiming to install 500,000 public charging stations by 2030, though it’s not clear how much that will help people who rely mostly on public charging. On Feb. 10 the administration announced that its first priority will be funding EV charging along the Interstate Highway System, which would do little to help people who lack home charging options. The Biden administration said it is planning a second competitive grant program to grow EV charging access in rural and underserved communities, with more details later this year.

Finally, if you’re lucky, your employer may offer EV charging options, and some even provide hours of EV charging for free. Still, in a recent survey of EV drivers, 43% said their employers don’t offer any chargers, and 78% said there aren’t enough charging options at work.

The Next Charging Frontier

The charging landscape has improved a lot since the early 2010s when charging at home was the only realistic way to own an early-model Tesla, Chevy Volt, or Nissan Leaf. Now, thanks to free fast-charging deals and new economical models with good range and fast charging speeds, it’s possible to own an EV in the city without a garage. But it’s not easy, and it’s not equitable. In cities like Chicago, maps showing the availability of EV chargers largely mirror longstanding residential boundaries of race and income. And the lack of easy or fast public charging is one of the main reasons people cite for not considering an EV.

Many things will need to happen for EVs to overtake gas-powered cars, but a key hurdle is to make EVs accessible to people of all means, offering an all-around experience that’s better than traditional options. Those goals are within reach if you own a garage. But making EVs the best choice for ordinary city dwellers is very much a work in progress.

About the author

This post was provided to InsideEVs by Jeremy Manier. Jeremy has covered science and medicine for the Chicago Tribune and currently works in communications at the University of Chicago. He lives with his family in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood. In addition to concerns about climate change, he believes the need to improve urban auto emissions and air quality is one reason why it’s important to make EVs a practical option in America’s densely populated cities.

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