As part of its plan to reduce carbon emissions, San Francisco leaders want to transform parking lots, gas stations, and other automotive spaces into charging hot spots for electric vehicles. But details in The City’s Planning Code are complicating their ability to do so.
That could soon be changing. This week, Mayor London Breed introduced a proposal that would streamline the permitting process and expand The City’s capacity to install charging in more places, making plugging in more convenient and accessible for residents.
“Right now, it’s a straightforward process to build a conventional gas station, but there aren’t sufficient planning codes to allow an equivalent development for EV charging stations,” said Joseph Sweiss, spokesperson for The City’s Department of the Environment.
Specifically, the current code does not provide an explicit land use category for stand-alone charging locations – which are separate from EV ports in existing lots, like those at grocery stores – and instead requires projects to comply with regulations written for gas stations or auto services facilities.
If approved, the proposed legislation could pave the way for San Francisco to transition its fossil fuel-dependent transportation sector to an all-electric future, and help convert more private vehicles from gas to electric by 2040, a goal outlined in The City’s latest Climate Action Plan (CAP).
While the move is being celebrated by environmental groups and EV enthusiasts, it raises questions about San Francisco’s plan to reshape itself into a truly transit-first city – a promise it laid out nearly 50 years ago and redoubled in December with the release of the CAP.
“The electric push does deliver a lot of benefits,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of transit advocacy group Livable City. “But if we’re continuing to lose the battle on ‘mode shift’ – getting people to walk, cycle, take transit – then we’re not going to meet our goals.”
Still, many say converting cars to EVs can make a meaningful difference in cutting emissions. “It’s absolutely critical to do this,” said Elena Engel of 350 San Francisco, an environmental non-profit.
“There are about 26 million registered cars and light trucks in the state of California. And at the end of 2020, there were about 425,000 EVs,” she said. “That means we have 25.5 million cars to go and a very short time to do it in. This is something we cannot afford to not do.”
San Francisco’s transportation sector accounts for nearly half of The City’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority coming from private vehicles, and ranks fourth in the country for urban congestion.
“Transportation accounts for the single largest portion of emissions,” said Rafael Reyes, director of energy programs at Peninsula Clean Energy, an electricity service provider in San Mateo County. “That means that if someone goes electric, that they are dramatically reducing their greenhouse gasses. There’s a huge opportunity for emissions reductions.”
EVs also provide a substantial economic opportunity, he added. “People can save a substantial amount of money by moving from a gas vehicle to an electric vehicle,” said Reyes, who estimates his family saves around $150 per month by owning an EV. “This is real money that gets reinvested in the local economy as opposed to going out the door out of state for petroleum.”
But even as growing demand propels EVs into the mainstream, San Francisco has a long way to go to meet its goals. EVs currently account for about 11 percent of new car registrations, and The City estimates that number needs to jump to 50 percent in just four years.
“Cities are in a position where they can’t regulate a whole lot about cars,” said Engel, referring to the federal and state laws like Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. “So, you know, what can the city do? Well, a city can certainly try to make it easier to install EV charging.”
The proposed legislation will free up roadblocks in the permitting and planning process, but challenges with infrastructure and access remain. “Obviously, if you have an electric vehicle, you need to plug it in,” said Reyes. “And many people today don’t have ready access to charge at all.”
Those who own single-family homes can plug into walls or driveway outlets, but residents of multi-family homes — nearly 70 percent of San Franciscans — often lack the same access to off-street parking or home charging. And installing ports in multi-unit buildings can cost thousands of dollars, noted Reyes.
“Public charging anxiety is a very real obstacle to EV adoption,” said Sweiss.
At the moment, charging stations are not evenly distributed across The City. San Francisco has around 1,000 public charging stations to date, but few exist in the Excelsior, Hunters Point, Bayview, or Outer Richmond neighborhoods, according to the website Plugshare.
City officials acknowledge that not everyone will be able to give up their cars completely, and thus expanding City’s Planning Code to include green infrastructure like EV charging stations will help San Francisco achieve a more equitable and lower carbon future.
“We want to get people out of cars, but for those that must remain on the road, we want them to be zero-emission,” said Sweiss. “Increasing EV charging accessibility helps make this a reality.”