An electric vehicle (EV) future might seem like a far-away dream. But with the right investments, smart policies and clever design, we can get more EVs on the road faster than might be expected.

In December, Ontario announced that it would be investing $20 million from the new Ontario Green Investment Fund to build more public charging stations for electric cars. This is an encouraging sign that the province is putting its recently announced Climate Change Strategy into action.

Ontario’s transportation sector accounts for over one-third of the province’s global warming pollution. That means Ontario won’t be able to meet its carbon reduction targets without significantly cutting emissions from transportation.

A big part of the solution is investing in public transit, building smart-growth communities, and encouraging people to walk and bike more often. But let’s be honest: the car isn’t going anywhere soon. So if we’re serious about cutting pollution, we need to get more electric cars on the road.

Already, there are some significant personal and environmental benefits to driving an EV. Electric cars require less maintenance than conventional cars and you don’t have to pay for gas. They might cost a little more up-front, but thanks to inexpensive new models and rebate programs, they’re increasingly affordable. And in places with a clean electricity grid like Ontario, they’re practically emissions free.

Some people still have concerns about range – the distance the cars can go between charges—but with improved EV models and most drivers making short trips, it’s not actually an issue for daily commuters. If Ontario wants to get more EVs on the road, it can help by creating a provincial network of fast-charging public EV stations next to office complexes, shopping centres, apartment buildings, transportation hubs (think GO stations), and 400 series highways (think ONroutes).

Some jurisdictions are already doing this. Quebec is Canada’s EV leader, with 1,600 charging stations and 6,000 EVs across the province, and intends to increase that number to 100,000 by 2020. California is home to about half of the 330,000 EVs in the United States, with plans to increase that number to 1.5 million by 2025. And in Norway, incentives and supportive policies, such as the instalment of over 1,000 public charging stations in Oslo, have already put 66,000 EVs on the road, with nearly a quarter of new cars purchased being electric.

These dramatic increases in electric car use haven’t been without challenges as drivers experiment with driving and charging electric cars for the first time. If Ontario wants to invest $20 million in public charging stations smartly, the province should learn from these EV pioneers. A new report out of Harvard offers some useful recommendations:

  • Place charging stations between parking spots, rather than in the corner of a lot so they can reach four vehicles.
  • Install “octopus” chargers that charge multiple EVs one after the other, in the order that they were plugged in. “Octopus” chargers can display when an EV finishes charging and displays a “1” or a “2” to indicate where parked EVs stand in a queue to be charged.
  • Avoid locating charging stations in prime parking spots. Placing EV charging stations in a prime location only encourages non-EV cars to park in this space. Clear signage should be present to discourage non-EV users from parking in these spaces.
  • Install charging stations that are compatible with different models of EVs, or consider installing adapters for different models.
  • Consider charging a small hourly fee to discourage drivers from occupying a spot for an unnecessarily long time. This will help encourage turnover of fully-charged EVs from parking spots and free up space for EVs that need charging.
  • While a small hourly fee will help free up EV parking spaces, don’t set time limits on EV charging stations. This may not be fair to some drivers because some EV models take longer to charge than others. Time limits also add confusion and difficulty of enforcement to a situation that needs to be simplified.
  • Ensure that it is legal and acceptable for another driver to unplug a fully-charged car. Additionally, provide courtesy cards at charging stations that can be placed on EV windshields and give permission to other drivers to unplug the vehicle at a certain time.

Some of these best practices might seem like common sense, but Ontarians are used to filling up at the gas pump and parking their gas-powered vehicles wherever they want. The experience of driving, parking and charging an electric car is new. Public charging stations should be designed to make this transition as smooth and convenient as possible.

The shift from gas vehicles to electric ones won’t happen overnight. But with the right policies, incentives and designs, we can get Ontarians into EVs more quickly. Well-designed public charging stations are a good place to start.

A clean, low-carbon EV Ontario is within reach. So get outta my dreams, and into my (electric) car!

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