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Why electric cars make sense for Uber, Lyft drivers in San Francisco

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Uber and Lyft rides represent a growing portion of The City and state’s transportation network. To electrify this network, it’s necessary to increase access to charging stations. (Courtesy photo)

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On a recent cold, San Francisco day, Marcel Espia picked me up in a new Ford Focus electric. As we rode west, the Lyft driver talked excitedly about using an electric car for a ride-hail company.

He estimated his old 2014 Toyota Corolla cost him approximately $700 per month for gas. Charging his new ride only costs him $200 per month. Espia uses a public plug in a Whole Foods garage to juice up the battery while he eats his lunch.

“There’s a bunch of stereotypes about electric vehicles,” Espia told me. “But it makes me feel very safe.”

Espia isn’t the only California driver who has come to appreciate the benefits of electric cars. Operating costs are lower than traditional, gasoline-powered cars, and range, reliability and options continue to improve. From 2013 to 2017, the number of electric car registrations more than doubled, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.

But to meet The City and state’s ambitious climate goals and reduce air pollution, the number must grow even more significantly. In California, the transportation sector accounts for almost 40 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. In San Francisco, it’s approximately 45 percent.

Uber and Lyft rides represent a growing portion of The City and state’s transportation network. To electrify this network, it’s necessary to increase access to charging stations. In 2019, there may be new opportunities to help more drivers follow Espia down the road to zero emissions.

“Our drivers facilitated almost three times more rides in electric vehicles over the past year,” Lauren Alexander at Lyft told me. “We are committed to seeing that number grow.”

Increasing access to public charging would help. While there are about 570 charging stations publicly available in The City, there were more than 5,700 ride-hail cars operating on San Francisco streets during the average weekday in November 2017. The number of Uber and Lyft rides has likely grown.

The companies have asserted that most of the drivers using their platforms do not have access to home charging and, like Espia, would be reliant on public ports. At some of these stations, it can take an hour or more to charge a battery, which can represent a lost earning opportunity for the driver.

High-speed chargers, which can re-power a battery in approximately 30 minutes, are even more rare due to the expense of installment. Scott Mercer, the CEO of San Francisco-based Volta Charging, told me ride-hailing drivers use his company’s free, high-speed chargers at the Stonestown Gallery, often returning several times a day.

“Fast charging is a premium service,” he told me. “The businesses that stand to profit should be the businesses that participate in the deployment of the infrastructure.”

In addition to paying for charging, properly locating them is also a challenge. This month, legislation authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting went into effect, which requires the California Energy Commission to assess the state’s current infrastructure and needs. The assessment will be used to identify useful areas for development.

In San Francisco, new residential, commercial and municipal buildings must have sufficient electric infrastructure to simultaneously charge vehicles in 20 percent of parking spaces. While the “EV Readiness” ordinance, which was signed by former-Mayor Ed Lee in April 2017, will increase the number of charging ports, not all of them will be publicly available.

City officials are continuing to talk with industry leaders, such as Uber and Lyft, on other ways to expand access to infrastructure in The City.

“Going forward we expect the number of charging stations to increase in The City,” Charles Sheehan at the San Francisco Department of Environment told me. “Adding more charging stations will facilitate our transition away from fossil fuels toward cleaner electricity and that’s one of the most important environmental actions we take as a City.”

Agreed. In 2008, under now-Governor Gavin Newsom’s mayoral administration, San Francisco announced bold plans to make the Bay Area the electric vehicle capital of the United States. Ten years later, getting a ride in an electric Lyft still feels novel.

But City and state policymakers have voiced their commitments to building the public infrastructure drivers need to electrify. If they are successful, 2019 could be a big year for electric vehicles.

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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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