Despite New York state having some of the most ambitious climate targets in the world, New York City seriously lags other U.S. metropolitan areas in electric vehicle adoption.
Fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles made up only 3.4 percent of NYC’s new passenger vehicle sales last year, far behind San Francisco (22 percent), Los Angeles (11.9 percent) and Seattle (11.7 percent), according to Atlas Public Policy, a research group based in Washington D.C. New York even lags the national average of 4.4 percent.
To understand why a progressive, climate-conscious metropolis such as the Big Apple has so few EV drivers, consider this: Home to 2 million cars, NYC has a total of 100 public EV charging points, 86 of which sit on crowded curbs, among the loading docks, bike racks and outdoor dining structures. These curbside charging spots so often have non-electric cars parked in front of them, some of the city’s EV drivers refer to this regular occurrence as getting "ICE-ed" by an internal combustion engine vehicle.
The transition to electric vehicles requires a reliable, accessible network of chargers, and NYC is working on an expansion. But as a dense, highly populated urban area where available real estate sells at a premium — and the vast majority of residents live in apartment buildings without a private garage where they can plug in — it faces enormous challenges.
Revel, a Brooklyn-based electric mobility company founded in 2018, wants to help solve this electrification conundrum. The brainchild of Staten Island native-turned-Brooklyn resident Frank Reig — co-founder and CEO — Revel is best known for its sky-blue rental mopeds, which can be found in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Miami, in addition to NYC. Revel’s service works much like other shared scooter services: Using the company’s app, customers find a nearby moped, book it and ride to their destination, where they can leave the scooter parked in any legal spot. Due to accidents that resulted in two riders’ deaths in 2020, Revel requires a video training course and a selfie of the rider wearing a helmet before they can take off.
In addition to the moped rentals, the startup last summer kicked off an Uber-style rideshare service, with 50 Tesla Model Ys operating in Manhattan. At the same time, Revel opened an EV charging "superhub" in Brooklyn, in an easily accessible parking lot where 25 fast chargers are available to the owners of any EV brand on a 24/7 basis. Revel is slogging through the difficult process of opening additional charging centers around the city, Reig told me when we met recently at the superhub in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The following represents just a portion of that interview, edited for length and clarity. To hear more of Revel’s story, tune into the May 13 episode of the GreenBiz 350 podcast.
CJ Clouse: We’re sitting in a stark white room, filled with rows of industrial-sized metal power boxes. Tell me about this space.
Frank Reig: We’re in the power room at our first fast charging station, in the back of a former Pfizer manufacturing plant. So they used to make drugs and chemicals here, and because it was a large-scale manufacturing site, there are 35 megawatts of power here connected to the grid. So when we built this charging station, we didn't have to do an upgrade with [New York utility] ConEdison and wait two years to get power. The power was just sitting here. But these sites are unicorns. You don't find places like this very often. We really got lucky with this one.
Clouse: Do you get a lot of EV drivers coming here at this point? Do people know this charging station exists?
Reig: It's interesting, just anecdotally, how many folks have emailed our customer service, saying, "I live within 20 blocks of this station you built, I was deciding between an electric vehicle or a gas car, and your station pushed me over the edge."
Clouse: But you're not a charging company, right? You don't build these chargers or do you?
Reig: Our team project-managed this site and made it happen, but we're not building the chargers themselves. There are many other companies that do that. But our team is absolutely building infrastructure and more sites like this throughout New York City right now. For us as a company, we have a focus not just on fast charging, but fast charging at scale in urban centers.
Clouse: Can you tell me where those other sites will be?
Reig: We can't announce anything just yet, but there are a bunch more in the pipeline. Our entire thesis here is the EV transition only happens when there's a reliable infrastructure network in a city. So if we put two chargers here and two chargers there and two chargers there, in my mind, it's kind of meaningless. Because if you get an EV, and you drive to that site with two chargers, and one of them is being blocked by a gas vehicle and the plug on the other one doesn't work, that's not reliable. For us, infrastructure is at scale. You know when you come here to a site with 25 plugs, you're going to be able to charge your vehicle.
We're also trying to build these sites where rideshare drivers live. Because what is going to be the first vehicle type to electrify at scale? It's going to be taxis and rideshare. So when we think about where to build future sites, we really have two main considerations: Where is there a high throughput of vehicles? Think about where gas stations are. And let's make sure we build large-scale sites in neighborhoods where rideshare and taxi drivers live.
Clouse: Speaking of drivers, Revel drivers are actual employees, not contractors, correct?
Reig: Yes, the drivers that we have working with us, they are all W-2 employees. They get access to the same healthcare plan that I have. That’s been a core tenet for us as a company since we started. Even with the moped side of the business. We have over 200 people on the moped side, across four major markets in the U.S. From day one, every battery swapper, customer service agent, mechanic, they're all W-2 employees as well. I don't know, maybe it was the way I was raised. I just felt like it makes a lot more sense. Get somebody bought into your company, and make sure they care about the company. I don't think you're going to really get that if they're a gig worker.
Clouse: So, what about the power aspect? You said this site is a unicorn.
Reig: That's where the difficulty comes in with EV charging infrastructure at scale. You need the real estate, you need a landlord willing to rent you the right type of property at the right price, and you need to make sure there's power on the grid to supply that site. And that's another whole conversation [with the utility]. Sometimes it can take years to get power, and sometimes it doesn't matter how long your timeline is, you're not getting power for a variety of reasons.
So, we've got some serious constraints here. We've got a city where real estate is at a premium, and it's hard to find space anywhere. And then even if you can find space, most of the time you can't get the power. So again, in a city like New York, you’ve got 2 million vehicles. If they're all going electric in the next 15 years … I don't know where [all that infrastructure is] going to happen.
Clouse: Well that doesn’t sound very encouraging.
Reig: I will say, though, I've only been in the electric vehicle industry for a few years now. When I talk to folks who’ve been in the industry for 10-plus years, they always have horror stories of working with utilities back in the day. When calling a utility, you might as well have been calling customer service for an airline, right? You're not getting through, you're not getting help, they're not going to do anything for you. That is not the case anymore. For example, ConEdison has been a phenomenal partner for us. I think it's because, honestly, it’s the political pressure. We need to actually get stuff done.
We are sitting here in 2022, and nothing's happened on electrification and rideshare in a city like New York, because how can it? Nobody's bringing these things together. It's as simple as that. And the only way to bring it together is you’ve got to build infrastructure, you’ve got to run mobility services, in this case rideshare. The only way to do this is to actually go all in, roll up your sleeves and do it. Or else you will just be somebody talking about 2030.