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Extension cords across sidewalks: Charging an electric vehicle in Philly is a challenge

Electric vehicle owners without dedicated parking spaces stretch wires, and the limits of legal codes, to keep their EVs charged.

Ilya Knizhnik and his son Yofi, 10, plug in their electric vehicle for charging outside their house in West Philadelphia. Knizhnik has one of only 68 legal EV-Only parking spaces granted by Philadelphia before City Council canceled the program in 2017. He shares the charger with neighbors.
Ilya Knizhnik and his son Yofi, 10, plug in their electric vehicle for charging outside their house in West Philadelphia. Knizhnik has one of only 68 legal EV-Only parking spaces granted by Philadelphia before City Council canceled the program in 2017. He shares the charger with neighbors.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Anthony Wong and Robert Berkowitz waited several years for a back-ordered Tesla, the popular electric vehicle brand. By the time the new car was delivered in 2018, Philadelphia had canceled its controversial program to set aside curbside parking spots for EVs. That left the Bella Vista residents with few options for charging their new Tesla at home.

Like many urban EV owners without off-street parking, Wong and Berkowitz improvised. They’re retired and say they have more time to charge the Tesla’s battery at public charging stations at such destinations as stores or casinos.

“If we drove the car every day for work, then we might need to charge overnight to keep the car going,” Wong said.

But sometimes they need to charge their car at home. Their solution: Run a cable out the second-floor window of their rowhouse to their car parked in the street. They prop the cable atop a street sign to allow pedestrians to pass underneath. “It’s not really that noticeable, and it’s not in somebody’s way,” Wong said.

It’s also not really legal, nor safe, according to experts. But as electric vehicle sales surge, an increasing number of Philadelphia EV owners appear to be taking similar measures to charge their vehicles at home.

» READ MORE: Where are public EV charging stations in Philadelphia?

“I don’t think it’s legal to put things across the sidewalk,” said Tony Bandiero, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation. “But until they start enforcing it, people are going to do it.”

Indeed it is not legal to string a cable across a sidewalk in Philadelphia, even if it is covered with a mat or a cord protector, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s office. The city is unable to account for any enforcement actions taken against violators for sidewalk charging. EV advocates say most people don’t complain.

The challenge for EV drivers who park on the street

If curbside parking is allowed in front of their home, property owners can apply to install an electrical line beneath a sidewalk and install a charger no closer than 18 inches from a curb. The Department of Licenses and Inspections can issue an electrical permit for the job, which “also needs to be approved by the Streets Department and Art Commission since it requires installing an EV charger device in the right-of-way,” according to a city spokesperson.

The city does not separate permits granted for curbside chargers because there is “no way to differentiate” the EV charging permit from other electrical permits, according to a city spokesperson.

But the current permit to install a charger includes no special parking privileges, so it is of limited value to EV owners in densely developed neighborhoods. Restricted parking was the centerpiece of the city’s former EV parking policy, which allowed vehicle owners to get a reserved EV parking space in front of their residence. The city issued only 68 of those permits before non-EV owners complained about an unfair perk for their neighbors, who were frequently characterized as privileged and affluent. City Council abruptly canceled the program in 2017.

Electric vehicle advocates say that Philadelphia cast EV owners adrift when it abandoned the on-street parking program.

“There’s no infrastructure and no effort to create the infrastructure,” said Ilya Knizhnik, an EV evangelist who secured one of the 68 city-sanctioned parking spots. He erected a legal charger in front of his West Philadelphia twin, replacing the wire he had previously suspended over the sidewalk to a tree. Knizhnik shares his charger with several neighbors who own EVs or plug-in hybrid vehicles.

After the city abandoned its EV parking program, a task force recommended that the city encourage the use of mass transit and the buildout of public charging stations rather than use its scarce resources to support private electric vehicles.

“In the grand scheme of sustainable transportation priorities, personal vehicles are still kind of low in the hierarchy in terms of what we want to be encouraging people to do,” said Christine Knapp, the city’s former sustainability director. “I don’t think anyone’s vision of a truly sustainable city 30 years from now is that we have the same number of cars on the road as we do now, but they’re running on electricity instead of gas.”

The city’s position ignores the realities of a consumer market that is rapidly embracing electric vehicles, said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, the advocacy organization.

“The market is moving so much faster than the policy,” Masur said. “Electric vehicles are coming, and the city’s either going to be prepared for it, or it’s not.”

How other cities handle EV charging

Registration of EVs was up 60% nationwide in the first quarter of this year as the price of gasoline and diesel fuel soared, according to Automotive News. IHS Markit projects that 25% to 30% of new-car sales could be electric by 2030. General Motors plans to end the sale of gasoline and diesel passenger vehicles by 2035. California in August banned the sale of new gasoline vehicles after 2035.

Boston requires that 5% of parking spaces in new construction projects be equipped with EV chargers and an additional 10% have infrastructure to install chargers. San Francisco mandates that 100% of parking spaces in new residential and commercial construction or major alterations to residential be EV-ready. Other cities provide free or discounted EV charging slots in municipal garages. Others are exploring curbside chargers powered from existing streetlights.

But surveys indicate that most EV owners prefer the convenience and price of charging at home rather than at public chargers, even though high-speed commercial chargers, such as the Tesla Superchargers, can get the job done much more quickly.

Philadelphia is not the only city wrestling with an upsurge in rogue sidewalk EV charging. Social media discussion boards are abuzz about the practice.

A Maryland EV owner, posting last year on the Tesla Motors Club website, said he got pushback from his homeowners association for running an extension cord across a sidewalk, though it was concealed under a rubber safety mat. In Cambridge, Mass., the city solicitor issued an opinion in 2019 recommending that the city not allow residents to run cables over or above sidewalks to avoid causing a tripping hazard or an impediment to people with disabilities.

But several large cities have relented to public pressure and permitted EV owners to stretch charging cables over sidewalks, as long as they’re encased in ramped protectors.

“I think that cities need to be encouraged to allow charging in the right of way,” said Joe Wachunas, a sustainability expert for the nonprofit New Buildings Institute in Portland, Ore.

Wachunas last year wrote an article headlined “Confessions of a Sidewalk Charger” for CleanTechnica, in which he admitted to running a charging cable across the sidewalk illegally for four years. His main concern about the practice is that some people use undersized extension cords, which are not recommended and may overload. “My neighbors’ 14-gauge extension cord melted and fused with their car charger, and mine overheated a couple times, too,” Wachunas wrote.

Portland later relaxed its prohibition on sidewalk charging, but only for Level 1 chargers, the slower 120-volt chargers that are included with new electric vehicles. Cords that cross the sidewalk must be encased in a brightly colored low-angle cable ramp that can be traversed with a wheelchair. No parking spaces are allowed to be reserved for EV charging, according to the Portland policy.

Vancouver, Canada, also licenses the use of covered extension cords over sidewalks as long as property owners can demonstrate that they have insurance, and indemnify the city from any responsibility for tripping injuries.

In condo complexes, who should pay for wired parking spots?

The challenges of residential vehicle charging also confront EV owners who live in apartments or condominiums.

The Bingham Court townhouse complex in Society Hill, which has one parking space allotted for each of the 27 condominium units, is undergoing a debate in its homeowners association about whether to allow some of its parking spaces to be wired with EV chargers. The move is driven by several homeowners who have electric vehicles, who say EV chargers will enhance the value of the condo units. Other homeowners are doubtful.

“If you’re interested in people adopting electric cars, you really need to find a way to electrify the parking spaces so that people can charge at home,” said Chuck Hadley, a retired venture capitalist, ardent climate advocate, and owner of a Ford Mustang Mach-E. “Otherwise, I think there’s a huge impediment to the adoption of electric cars in our community.”

Hadley said Bingham Court residents are exploring the availability of tax credits and utility grants to help underwrite the project, which could cost $50,000 to install underground wiring in one of three parking lots in the complex. The debate centers on which parking spaces would be wired, and who should pick up the cost: homeowners or the HOA?

Peco, the electrical utility serving Philadelphia and surrounding counties, offers an array of incentives and advice for EV owners on its website. The company also plans $6 billion in infrastructure improvements over five years to its electric and gas distribution systems, including upgrading many neighborhood electric circuits to improve reliability and to increase capacity for expected changes in demand.

But Peco does not anticipate problems accommodating new electrical vehicle charging, said Brian Crowe, vice president of technical services. Most homeowners charge their vehicles at night during off-peak hours, which does not stress existing grid capacity. And Peco can plan for the power needs of new public charging stations. “It’s really not for us a capacity constraint,” Crowe said.

Too many vehicles for too few parking spaces

Electricity may not be in short supply. But in some Philadelphia neighborhoods, parking sure is.

The problem with Philadelphia’s ill-fated EV parking program is that on-street parking in the city is free or underpriced, costing a resident only $35 a year for a parking, said Erick Guerra, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania who coauthored a 2020 study that examined the relationship between parking and the city’s EV program.

That creates a climate where too many vehicles are chasing too few on-street spaces. Allowing dedicated EV parking spaces exacerbated an already bad problem.

“In the case of Philadelphia’s discontinued policy, complaints that residents purchase EVs in order to get a dedicated parking space appear to have merit,” wrote Guerra and his coauthor, Cornell University’s Ricardo Daziano.

“The short answer is there’s no easy solution to this problem,” said Rob Graff, a transportation electrification consultant who served on the city’s EV Policy Task Force in 2017.

“It may be the case that if you live in the city and you have no place to charge your vehicle, you shouldn’t be buying an electric vehicle,” Graff said. “You should be buying a hybrid vehicle that will work on gasoline or a plug-in hybrid that you can plug in when you have a chance.”

Such skepticism does not deter the community of Philadelphia EV enthusiasts, who offer supportive advice for owners seeking curbside charging work-arounds.

Meenal Raval, an environmental advocate who charges her electric vehicle in the garage of her Mount Airy home, has documented several improvised chargers on the Philly EV Club page on Facebook, which she co-manages with Knizhnik. She doesn’t identify the locations but offers the posts to help new EV owners who don’t have off-street parking.

“I’m not telling you what to do,” Raval said. “But do what you got to do.”