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Innovative Twin Cities car-share project to democratize electric vehicles

Car sharing and electric vehicles are both big ideas that could transform transportation in the Twin Cities. So why not combine them? That’s the plan for an ambitious pilot program.

A widespread network of chargers throughout the central Twin Cities will especially help people with older, smaller-range EVs.
A widespread network of chargers throughout the central Twin Cities will especially help people with older, smaller-range EVs.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Car sharing and electric vehicles are both big ideas that could transform transportation in the Twin Cities. So why not combine them? That’s the plan for an ambitious new program that will bring a fleet of shared electric vehicles (EVs) to the heart of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Especially in working-class parts of town, the new one-way car share is aimed at democratizing EVs and connecting the car technology to a new audience.

“The timeline we’re looking at has the initial launch next summer with the first 50 EVs,” said Samantha Henningson, who is the project manager for the St. Paul effort. “Most likely in the spring, and the bulk of construction in 2021, with about 150 vehicles by about mid-2022.”

The project — awkwardly called the Twin Cites Electric Vehicle Mobility Network — is a new collaboration between St. Paul, Minneapolis, Xcel Energy, the American Lung Association and the car sharing nonprofit Hourcar. Drawing on a whole nest of grants from foundations and the Met Council, the effort will attempt to start to dramatically shift transportation emissions in the core cities away from fossil fuels. The EV share pilot will fund “hubs,” dedicated chargers and parking where the EVs can “fuel up.” Members purchase an annual membership from Hourcar — rates vary — and would pay by the hour to use one of the new EVs.

The program could a big deal because ditching a gasoline car can be a big step for people used to relying on gas stations. And for many people, switching to an electric vehicle is a somewhat frightening commitment, as many of the cars offer less driving range, leading to “range anxiety.” The trick this time, however, is that the cars can be used for one-way trips and parked (legally) anywhere within the zone.

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Driving within the zone

“There’s a 35-square mile zone,” said Henningson. “You pick up it anywhere within the zone, at a hub or parking spot, and then can take the car out of the service area — but it needs to be returned to the area.”

At least if you follow Elon Musk’s Twitter account, electric vehicles seem like the province of elite consumers, (mostly) men who like technology and are comfortable driving with a limited range. Yet as electric vehicles improve, they’re becoming more mainstream and accessible. While the Chevy Bolt or the Nissan Leaf can cost close to $40,000 (before any tax credits), at least on the West Coast where tighter regulations are common, there are often more affordable options.

Orange dots are existing Hourcar hubs, while blue stars represent rough areas for new EV charging hubs; exact locations are still being determined.
City of St. Paul
Orange dots are existing Hourcar hubs, while blue stars represent rough areas for new EV charging hubs; exact locations are still being determined.
In this case, the program boundaries are purposely designed to overlap with the least wealthy parts of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, places with a high percentage of people who don’t own cars or often rely on transit. In St. Paul, that means the neighborhoods on both sides of the Green Line, along with the North End, West Side, and parts of the East Side. In Minneapolis, it’s the swath of south Minneapolis from Whittier to Phillips, along with parts of the near north and northeast.

The one-way flexible nature of the new program will be a welcome sight for anyone who recalls the Car 2 Go program, an effort funded by German automakers that operated in the Twin Cities from 2013 to 2016. To this day, if you mention Car2Go in conversation with urbanists, you get a barrage of sighs from people who dearly miss the service.

The new EV sharing program will bring back the best feature from Car2Go, the one-way trip. Imagine the automobile equivalent of the “dockless” bicycles or scooters, with members picking up and dropping off the cars anywhere, and finding the nearest car from a location on a smart phone app.

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“While Car2Go had 500 cars, it was trying to serve the entirety of both cities,” said Henningson, pointing to the smaller size of the project. “Hourcar [with 150 cars] will be doing system rebalancing as part of the operation of the fleet.”

A lot of the rebalancing will focus on the program’s “charging hubs,” two parking spaces reserved next to “level 2” chargers. One spot will be just the Hourcar EV, and the other open for anyone driving an EV to pull up and plug in. According to Henningson, the program just got additional funding from the Department of Energy for a few “fast chargers,” which operate at triple the speed of a regular kind.

One spot will be just the Hourcar EV, and the other open for anyone driving an EV to pull up and plug in.
City of St. Paul
One spot will be just the Hourcar EV, and the other open for anyone driving an EV to pull up and plug in.
Fast-changing EV tech

Diving into the details of EVs is a bit of a wormhole, as the technology varies quite a lot from car to car, and is constantly changing with each new model that appears on the landscape. Keeping tabs on all the evolution takes a bit of a car nerd, like Scott Berger, a St. Paul attorney and one of many EV owners who obsesses over tech details.

“There are two classes of EVs,” said Berger. “One of them is something that’s trying to make money and one is a compliance car, largely sold in CA and ZEV [zero emissions vehicle] states.”

Berger recently went to the West Coast to purchase a Kia Nero, one of the newer EV models impossible to find in Minnesota. As Berger explains it, today’s higher-end EVs feature a much larger range than the first generation of cars, and most EV owners do just fine charging at home.

At the same time, a widespread network of chargers throughout the central Twin Cities will especially help people with older, smaller-range EVs. Especially in winter with diminished battery range, having a charger nearby is nice, as cold weather can really impact performance.

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“Working at home now means I don’t drive much, so home charging is plenty,” said Jonathan Schroeder, a cartographer who lives in Saint Paul and drives a Chevy Bolt. “[However,] I get a low of about 100 miles in coldest weeks, and a high of more than 250-mile range for city driving in the warmest weeks.”

By the time the program launches in the spring, it should provide a new transportation option to a large swath of Minneapolis and St. Paul. If enough people start using them, the project would pilot carbon-neutral travel for a far larger group of people. Especially during a pandemic, as more people remain cautious around groups, that might come in handy.

“One of the forgotten benefits of EVs during COVID is that if you don’t like being around other people or in a filthy gas station, you drive right by,” said Scott Berger, who drives his EV about 50 miles a day on his round-trip commute.

“The state definitely needs to incentivize more public chargers for people who don’t have a garage or parking space,” said Peter Wagenius, who works as a policy director for Sierra Club, and owns a 2019 Chevy Bolt. He remains enthusiastic about the future of EVs and believes the new program will help.

However, he added the caveat that EVs are not a silver bullet.

“There is no data to support the idea that we can meet our climate goals in the transportation sector through electrification alone,” said Wagenius. “Electrification appeals to a desire to believe that technology alone can save us, but in reality electrification is just one of the things we need to do, including dramatic reductions in driving.”