Midwesterners take great pride in their cars and no state more than Ohio, which claims 83 percent of U.S. automobile production either inside its borders or within 500 miles. Seventy-six of Ohio’s 88 counties have at least one motor vehicle industry establishment, including the Honda manufacturing plant in Marysville, just 40 miles northwest of the state’s capital, Columbus. Leaning into its automotive heritage, the city of Columbus won a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) challenge and was named America’s first smart city in 2016 for its Smart Columbus plan to get Ohioans moving more safely and sustainably.
The national DOT award infused $40 million into testing better transportation policies in Columbus, with an additional $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation for increasing the adoption of battery-electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Smart Columbus Director Jordan Davis told us “Vulcan [the company overseeing charitable activities of the late Paul Allen] saw it as an opportunity to take electric vehicles to new markets, mid-sized markets outside of the coasts, and I think they selected Columbus for that value proposition. If we can find new and effective ways, or reinforce best practices and interventions where we can really stimulate and grow an electric vehicle market here, we can take those learnings and carry them into other parts of the country.”
The value lies in “the heart of it all,” Ohio’s motto from the 1980s that still rings true today. Davis, a native to the region, says: “The essence of what Columbus is has always been a test market, whether in politics or consumer goods. Where public opinion and consumer behavior live in Columbus is very relatable to what will work around the country, and we believe that to be true in how you think of an electric vehicle market.” The numbers support Davis’ claim. Through Smart Columbus, the city set out to increase new battery electric vehicle (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) sales to 3,200, a lofty goal in 2016 when EVs were at just 0.4 percent of cars sold in the seven-county region. From the launch of the electrification program in April 2017 to March 2020, Columbus well surpassed the goal of 1.8 percent increase, with 3,323 new BEVs and PHEVs on Ohio roads. Plug-in sales reached as high as 2.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 and managed to stay at 1.6 percent by the end of 2019, a down year for EV sales nationwide.
To get Columbus residents to make the switch to EVs, the city developed a multi-faceted strategy. First, they took the show on the road, assembling a “ride and drive” fleet of 12 BEVs and PHEVs to visit communities and places of work where folks could try them out for themselves, something that 12,000 people did during the two-year program. The city also built an experience center with a second fleet of EVs, which offered folks the opportunity to test drive everything from a Tesla Model X BEV to a Mercedes-Benz GLE550e PHEV. The Smart Columbus Experience Center has educated more than 30,000 visitors on alternative powertrains and shared mobility. Davis–who does not own a car and prefers e-mobility devices like bike shares or electric scooters, along with good old-fashioned walking–has driven many EVs at the Experience Center. Among her favorites are the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt:“It’s comfortable and it goes really fast.” Davis says a key component in their program was an online education campaign geared toward 35 car dealerships in the area, energizing staff to sell EVs. With the help of local utility company AEP Ohio, Smart Columbus built out public level 2 and DC fast charging infrastructure to support the new influx of EVs in the region. AEP, along with utility partners IGS, and Columbus’ municipal power utility began to offer rebate funding for public, multi-unit residential, and workplace chargers as well.
The Smart Columbus program is projected to cut carbon emissions by 1,850 tons over 10 years. It’s also contributing to a significant shift in the way Ohioans view electric vehicles. From October 2017 to March 2020, favorable perceptions of BEVS increased from 48 to 62 percent. Back in October 2017, only a third of those surveyed said they were somewhat or extremely likely to purchase a BEV or a PHEV. By March 2020, that number had grown to just over half. Paul Keating, senior director of philanthropy at Vulcan, says: “We’re thrilled to see the progress and success of the smart city program over the years. Columbus has demonstrated how a region can develop new transport systems through innovation to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. And in doing so, Columbus has created a model that can be replicated nationwide.” It’s a statement the city does not take lightly, says Jennifer Fening, director of marketing and communications at Columbus Partnership. “One city won the Smart Cities Challenge, 77 cities didn’t. We needed to reflect our learnings out to them so they could benefit.” From the get-go they realized, Fening says, that “the 10 million grant awarded to Columbus could have a tremendous impact in Columbus, but if we could find a way for the learnings to go farther, that’s when it becomes a transformational investment.”
The result of this pilot: accelerateyourcity.com, a virtual playbook of lessons learned with the goal of inspiring “radical collaboration across sectors to move cities toward electrification and smarter transportation.” As Davis points out: “That level of investment allowed us to try interventions along the entire customer journey, beginning with a general awareness of EVs, and the messaging is probably different than what the early adapter cities would have used that have been in the EV game longer, like Portland for instance.” What works for Portland might not work for Columbus, but what works for Columbus could work for a whole lot of Americans that are ready to drive something fast, fun, and efficient.