Sympathy for the electric-car-owning devil

OPINION: If cities don’t start making room for electric vehicles, the province will have to take the wheel, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on November 6, 2017
Electric car buyers are still waiting for cities or the province to install approved charging infrastructure. (3alexd/iStock)

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James Scarrow has a problem: he put money down for a Tesla Model S without checking to see whether he’d be allowed to string a charging cable from the front of his house to the curb — his house, like many in the older parts of the city, doesn’t have a driveway or garage, so he parks on the street. But the City of Toronto won’t give him a permit to run a cable underneath the sidewalk, so now he may have to cancel his deposit.

“How entitled are these electric car–buying snobs?” thundered my Twitter feed last week when the CBC reported on Scarrow’s plight. (He isn’t alone, either.) The answer, of course, is that they’re exactly as entitled as the other motorist-homeowners in the city, all of whom have been trained by decades of policy to assume that Toronto will make it easy and convenient to own a car here and that when it doesn’t, they can raise hell with their local councillor.

They’re not wrong. To take the most obvious example, the city will let you take up overnight road space with your personal two tons of steel and rubber for less than two dollars daily, and that’s as expensive as it gets. When we’re giving away road space for the next best thing to free, it’s hardly insane to think the city might also let car owners charge their electric cars conveniently.

And it’s not like the city makes other options easy, either. According to the city, you may be allowed to borrow a parking space from your neighbour if they’ve got a charger, but anyone trying to be more entrepreneurial is out of luck. Renting a parking space to the general public is illegal in a residential neighbourhood — which is why parking space­–sharing apps like Rover are trapped in legal purgatory.

Okay, but the number of people trying to shoehorn electric cars into pre-WWII neighbourhoods without big driveways is relatively small. At least people who’ve bought one of the GTA’s many new shiny condos and have a parking space should be fine, right? No: condo corporations are also leery of electric charging infrastructure and are throwing up roadblocks.

So electric car buyers are left waiting for cities or the province to install approved charging infrastructure, but governments aren’t setting any speed records: Toronto’s own councillors are calling their efforts “pretty timid,” while the province’s program is months behind schedule.

This is an irritant for people who’d like to someday own an electric car but can’t swing a home with the two-car garage. But it’s also a problem for provincial policy going forward. Both the province’s Climate Change Action Plan and the Long-Term Energy Plan envision millions more electric cars on the road (the LTEP calls for 2.4 million by the 2030s), but that’s not going to happen unless the province get serious about the kind of detailed rules that are going to be needed to speed adoption.


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This isn’t simply environmental do-goodism. Manufacturers have done a lot to bring electric cars within shouting distance of affordability, and now policy needs to catch up. Building a large fleet of electric cars in Ontario is nearly a no-brainer: charging overnight, when the province’s electricity is cheapest and when we continually have the largest surpluses (some of which get sold to other jurisdictions at a loss), is a great way to soak up excess demand. Electric vehicles are likely to be a priority even if a different party decides to scrap the Liberal climate change plan after next year’s election.

Which is why Queen’s Park can’t let cities or condo boards keep laying down speed bumps for electric cars. Indeed, the climate plan explicitly called for new rules that would force condo corporations to allow charging infrastructure, and the hammer may have to come down for municipalities, too. The province is unlikely to let EV owners obstruct sidewalks with extension cables, but it could, for example, force cities to legalize shared off-street parking spaces in neighbourhoods.

Such a move would, no doubt, be unpopular with city councils that are offended by any reduction in local control, but there’s a pretty fundamental principle of government at work here: scream as they might, municipalities exist only under provincial law, and they’re not allowed to thwart provincial policy.

All of which is to say: actually, the smug, entitled people putting deposits down on electric cars aren’t wrong. They’re just acting prematurely. It’s the law that needs to catch up.


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