Over the past five years, the number of electric vehicles (EVs) in Columbus, Ohio, has increased by around 500 percent, thanks to an ambitious program that harnessed the collective resources of the local government, business, and nonprofit communities.

This dramatic growth points to an important resource for decarbonizing the US transportation sector, the nation’s largest source of emissions: municipal electrification programs. Although federal infrastructure policy receives more attention than its state and local counterparts, cities like Columbus have a vital role to play in getting gas-powered vehicles off the road.

Given the imperative to cut emissions quickly to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, this role is more important than ever. According to a recent report by Energy Innovation and The University of California Berkeley, technological advances and falling costs mean that every new car sold in the US could conceivably be electric by 2035. But with EVs currently accounting for only a small percentage of automobile sales, market forces alone can’t produce the dramatic growth required, the authors claim. Achieving meaningful emissions reductions will require bold action from all levels of government – including cities.

Building an urban EV ecosystem

In 2016, when Columbus’s EV initiative began, less than half of 1% of new vehicles purchased in the Ohio capital were electric. Aside from the occasional Tesla, EV sightings were rare, according to Jordan Davis, the executive director of Smart Columbus, which led the electrification effort. Even if residents wanted an EV, their options were extremely limited. “There was no market infrastructure to establish or support EV adoption,” she said. “The utility wasn’t prioritizing putting electric chargers in. Dealers weren’t going out of their way to bring inventory on the lot or install charging stations.” Meanwhile, manufacturers sent most of their battery-powered or plug-in hybrid vehicles to the coasts, skipping the Midwest altogether.

Smart Columbus, a collaboration between the municipality and various local private and institutional actors, set out to change this after Columbus beat out tech heavyweights like San Francisco and Austin to win the US Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart City Challenge. A substantial portion of the prize money went toward increasing EV adoption, with a goal of making 1.8% of all new light-duty vehicles registrations electric. Last spring, at the conclusion of the EV grant program, the city announced that it had hit its target, with more than 3,323 electric models sold between April 2017 and February 2020.

Smart Columbus’s EV strategy focused on building an ecosystem for electric cars. This required careful consideration of every link in the chain, from charging infrastructure and vehicle availability to consumer demand and renewably powered electricity. If any of these factors failed to materialize, widespread adoption would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Developing and maintaining such ecosystems is one area where local governments have an advantage, Davis said, because of their deep understanding of, and connection to, the people, places, and institutions that ultimately determine whether EVs take hold on the ground.

Take charging infrastructure, for example. “Charging is probably the biggest investment that a local community can really influence,” she said. “You’re going to see national networks like Electrify America or Tesla … But when it comes to localized use cases of ‘Where do you need charging?’, that’s definitely the role of the local community.”

To answer this question for its own city, Smart Columbus worked closely with local electric utility AEP and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to create a map of priority charging locations. After the regulatory body that oversees Ohio’s utilities granted AEP the ability to invest in charging infrastructure – a significant achievement, according to Davis – Smart Columbus helped connect the utility to specific sites where the chargers could be installed. “That’s really important for a local community to do, because nobody [else] has those relationships,” she said. “We know which developers and which business owners are willing and what the localized use cases are, where people want to charge, et cetera.”

Another way that municipalities can increase EV use is by procuring them for their own fleets – police cars and maintenance vehicles, for example. To date, Smart Columbus has placed 200 electric vehicles in city fleets, in addition to helping other local groups purchase EVs. As part of this process, it developed an innovative procurement strategy that reduced the upfront cost of the cars – a model that it then made available for other public agencies to use.

To spur adoption on the consumer side, Smart Columbus drew on its network to organize 120 roadshow events that allowed employees at large companies, in addition to visitors at public events, to test drive EVs and learn about the technology in a convenient, low-pressure setting. To produce the desired atmosphere, it hired a local marketing firm to manage and produce the events.

EV Ride & Drive event at OhioHealth. (Photo credit: Smart Columbus)

Smart Columbus also worked with large employers to offer financial incentives for staff members to purchase electric cars. In 2018, for example, marketing services firm Alliance Data ran a program enabling employees to claim a $2,000 rebate after purchasing an EV; half of this amount came from a Smart Columbus matching fund.

Spreading the word

These examples represent only a portion of Smart Columbus’s multipronged efforts to build a sustainable ecosystem for EVs in the city. During the Smart City Challenge term, “we took an all-of-the-above approach,” said Davis. But this was possible only because of the funds and expert assistance that came from winning the competition; most US cities don’t have the ability to implement programs on this scale.

From the outset, Columbus’s program was intended to serve as a test bed for municipal transportation electrification and a resource for other cities to learn from. “It was all seen as a demonstration-and-deployment-style program: do some deep, dedicated work, capture it, and be sure that it’s digestible, so that anyone else could take that playbook,” said Matt Stephens-Rich, a program manager for the Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit that partnered with Smart Columbus on many aspects of its work.

In practice, this took the form of extensive online documentation, along with frequent webinars and speaking engagements by project leaders. It also included an EV showroom and education center in downtown Columbus that proved particularly successful in facilitating knowledge exchange, attracting delegations from 80 cities and 20 countries, according to Irene Alvarez, a communications executive at the local economic development organization.

The Smart Columbus Experience Center, an EV showroom and education center in downtown Columbus. (Photo credit: Smart Columbus)

These efforts have directly influenced at least two EV initiatives outside the region, Alvarez wrote in an email. Colorado incorporated insights from Smart Columbus into its statewide EV initiative after meeting with the local team, while Canada’s version of the Smart City Challenge drew on lessons from the Ohio capital.

Columbus itself benefited greatly from other learning about cities’ experiences with electrification. “When we got in the game on EVs, we were pretty late to the party,” Jordan Davis said. “Portland, Seattle, the coasts have been at this for a while, and they have a lot of lessons learned – like how to maintain charging stations,” for example, or how to develop outreach programs targeting groups that were likely to be early adopters. Her team also visited European cities with high EV adoption rates to better understand how they handle issues like charging infrastructure planning and incentive structures. With her peers in other regions, she has worked to develop strategies for promoting equity in the transition to electric cars.

Knowledge-sharing of this kind is particularly important at the municipal level, since local governments often struggle with tight budgets and growing challenges related to climate change. “Cities, even the largest ones like Seattle, face resource limitations when it comes to this kind of work—or any kind of work related to climate issues—because it was never a traditional item on their list,” said Eric Huang, a program manager at transportation-focused nonprofit Forth. “It’s a newly rising topic that requires a lot of resources.” 

Huang also noted that the growing roster of climate solutions municipalities are considering, from natural gas bans to EV readiness programs for new building construction, creates additional competition for attention and resources, making it even more important for cities to share best practices.

Groups like Forth, the Electrification Coalition, and the nonprofit Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) play an important role in helping city officials around the country exchange information about their successes and failures. As head of mobility initiatives at USDN, Tracy Morgenstern facilitates peer-to-peer learning sessions for municipal leaders. “Creating the opportunity to understand what is and isn’t working—and, critically, why—directly from other cities accelerates progress across the entire field,” she wrote in an email. “By working together as a community of practice, city staff keep current on the latest innovations, and also inspire and support each other.” 

Editor’s note: This post was lightly edited on September 5, 2021.

Sarah Wesseler is an Ohio-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.