Seattle joined with three other major West Coast cities to ask automakers for information on buying electric trucks and vans, which aren’t currently in mass production. Twenty-seven other cities quickly joined.
There aren’t a lot of electric cars out there. They account for about 1 percent of U.S. auto sales. Still, if you want one, you can get one. There are Teslas and Volts and Leafs and Bolts.
That’s not the case with trucks and vans. There are virtually no larger electric vehicles available on a mass-production basis.
That’s part of why Seattle has joined with 30 other cities across the country to ask automakers about the cost and feasibility of providing electric vans, pickups and trucks to, gradually, replace the cities’ fleets of vehicles.
In January, Seattle joined with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland in sending to automakers a request for information — the first step in a formal bidding process — indicating the cities’ eagerness to buy or lease larger and heavy-duty electric vehicles for their fleets. They’re looking for electric police cars, SUVs, vans, pickups, dump trucks and garbage trucks.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
The four West Coast cities were quickly joined by 27 other cities, including New York, Chicago and Boston, whose officials wrote to automakers about the “high demand for electrified transportation in municipal fleets.”
The cities have received responses from nearly 40 companies, touting their electric capabilities, according to Michael Samulon, a policy analyst in Los Angeles’ Sustainability Office.
The cities have an obvious interest in adding electric vehicles to their fleets, but there’s also a secondary motivation to their request — to use their combined market weight as a financial incentive for automakers to kick-start more electric-vehicle development.
“Besides reducing the pollution that we’re directly accountable for as a city government,” said Chris Bast, climate and transportation adviser for Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, “we want to get as many of these vehicles out there and available so that our residents have experience and they’re available for purchase.”
“Leading by example with our fleet is a key thing we’re doing.”
The cities’ actions, intended as a prod and in preparation for a future purchase, are just a request for information. They’re not committed to doing or buying anything.
But their purchasing power is significant.
Combined, the 31 cities have about 114,000 vehicles worth more than $10 billion.
That’s equal to nearly three-quarters of the approximately 157,000 electric vehicles sold in 2016, according to EV-Volumes, an industry analyst.
Seattle has about 3,000 vehicles in its fleet, with plans to purchase about 850 over the next three years, Bast said. About 25 percent of the city’s passenger sedans are electric, but passenger sedans make up only about 500 of the city’s 3,000 vehicles.
Since Seattle’s electricity comes from hydropower, a higher percentage of its emissions come from transportation — gas-burning vehicles — than in other cities that rely on fossil fuels for electricity.
Bast said the cities’ request to automakers has been in the works for about a year and is not a response to the climate-change policies of President Donald Trump.
Still, the contrast is hard to ignore.
Trump last week announced that he would look to roll back Obama-era regulations that require cars and trucks to improve their fuel efficiency by 2025. And Trump’s federal budget blueprint, also released last week, contains severe cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and to climate research.
“We’re not spending money on that anymore,” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said about climate change. “We consider that to be a waste of your money.”
Seattle, obviously, disagrees.
Mayor Ed Murray announced last year a goal to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from the city’s vehicle fleet in half by 2025.
The city’s current budget includes about $1.7 million for electric-vehicle charging stations: 20 scattered around the city for public use, and 150 in the city’s municipal tower for its fleet.
“The urgency of the climate challenge doesn’t change with whoever is president,” Bast said. “I think, especially in the context of the current administration, the role of cities to lead on climate is more important than ever.”