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Columbus, Ohio, Takes Multi-Strategy Approach to EV Adoption

In the four years since Columbus was awarded a multi-million-dollar transportation grant, the state’s capital city has steadily taken a multi-prong approach to growing electric car adoption.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The rapid rise in the number of electric vehicles humming down the streets of Columbus is not an accident. The growth has been part of a deliberate four-year effort to accelerate next-generation mobility, not only for this city, but also for others like it.

Ohio's capital region has set a goal of increasing EV adoption five-fold. In 2015, less than half of 1 percent of cars sold there qualified as EV. The aim now is to get that number to more than 2 percent by 2020, doing so through growing partnerships with the car dealership community, local electric providers, businesses and others.

This strategy, guided by Smart Columbus, has led to a 121 percent increase in EV registrations from the beginning of 2017 to end of 2018, according to Smart Columbus statistics. This compares favorably to the 82 percent growth of EV registrations throughout the Midwest during the same period. There are also plans to install some 900 EV chargers across the metro region.

“The answer comes from multiple places,” said Norman “Bud” Braughton, Smart Columbus project manager for the city of Columbus, when asked how to describe some of the approaches the city has taken to increase EV adoption. “It’s the work we’ve done with the dealers. Because if the dealers didn’t have the cars, the people wouldn’t be able to buy them.”

Other stakeholders agree. 

“The success came through creating a market,” said Zach McGuire, manager of Smart Mobility Adoption project at the Columbus Partnership, a business group leading the Smart Columbus project. “And that isn’t done through one silver bullet. It’s a collective approach.”

Smart Columbus was born four years ago when the region was awarded a $50 million Smart City Challenge grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which includes $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The projects being pursued explore a list of technologies like connected vehicles, micro-mobility transportation and other approaches to address particular city needs around transportation.

Smart Columbus also opened a facility known as the Experience Center as a central location for public engagement in the form of showcasing electric vehicles, as well as serving as a workplace for the dozens of software developers and others involved in the various Smart Columbus projects.

When it comes to electric vehicles, the local government itself has transitioned some 200 of its fleet to EVs. And since electric cars require charging infrastructure, a large part of the project’s focus was the buildout of public charging ports, particularly in places of employment. American Electric Power, (AEP) a large electric utility in the area, is investing $9 million into a charging infrastructure pilot, which will likely inspire other utilities to make similar investments, said Smart Columbus officials.

“It’s rather pioneering in our state to have a regulated utility participate in charging infrastructure,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership, speaking with Government Technology this week.

The initiative also looked at large companies and the efforts they could take to encourage EV adoption within their workforces. The Columbus Partnership focused on its 75 biggest members, all of which are large employers in the region. The Partnership worked from that membership base to create a program to encourage EV adoption as well as alternative transportation.

“A great example is a company like Chase,” said Davis, noting that the banking behemoth has some 22,000 workers in the region, with half of those at one location. “They had no charging infrastructure whatsoever.”

Chase is now in the process of installing chargers at all of its campuses in the region, as well as installing rooftop solar generation. And that's just one business. Smart Columbus also began working with car dealerships to ensure staff was well-versed on the ins and outs of electric cars, and that they were well-supplied with EV models.

There have also been many ride-and-drive events held at workplaces, festivals, community events and any other location with a captive public audience where Smart Columbus brought EVs for test drives.

“Everyone has dealers. That’s how cars are sold,” said McGuire, commenting on how other cities can copy Columbus’ EV strategy. “And when people are behind the wheel of a car, they’re more likely to buy the car. And people need to be educated on the technology.

“If there’s three things, I think it’s education, butts in seats and engaging in sales experience."

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.