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The Worsening Urban-Rural Divide: The Role of Local Government in EV Charging Infrastructure

July 9, 2024

By Nathan Lee, Victoria Starbuck and Christine Dean

With intellectual contributions from from Elisabeth Gerber, Bruce Cain, Susan Miller, Daniel Klein, Samantha Sekhar, Alex Breckel,  Max Baumhefner, Earnest Salgado, Michael Hotard, and Daniel Farmer

This report is part of a larger collaboration between CivicPulse, Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, and the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. We acknowledge the Bill Lane Center's generous financial support. 

Executive Summary

Whether the transition to EVs in the United States is successful will depend on the integrity of the charging infrastructure system currently being built. While the private sector remains responsible for the majority of charging stations, the dispensation of $7.5Bn from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill has made the federal government an essential player in the buildout of this system. Likewise, states across the country have initiated their own grant-making programs for building additional stations. 

 

Yet despite their importance as the last-mile system of governance for this once-in-a-century infrastructure investment, very little systematic data and analysis exists on the role of local government in the EV rollout. To address this gap, CivicPulse fielded a nationally representative survey of local officials in February 2023 to better understand the role that local governments have taken and intend to take in the future in developing EV infrastructure. We coupled this data collection with a location analysis of existing charging stations as well as the location of recent local government grant recipients.  

 

We found that proactive local government action so far has been limited. Only 16% of city, township, and county governments had incorporated electric vehicle charging infrastructure into their land use, transportation, or other planning documents. Far fewer have streamlined permitting for charging stations (3%) or created wiring (3%) or parking (3%) requirements for new buildings (Table 1). Additionally, only 18% had applied for funding for EV infrastructure. 

 

However, many more local governments report intent to act in the future. An impressive 68% of officials said that their local government was likely to apply for EV funding (Table 2). Notably, local governments going forward are equally likely to apply for federal funding as for state funding (Figure 4). Almost two-fifths (38%) indicated an intent to streamline permitting. Future action on requiring EV compliant wiring (24%) and parking (20%) for new builds likewise overshadows past experience (Table 2).  

 

Looking at both past action and intent to act in the future, the same pattern emerges: pervasive urban-rural and liberal-conservative discrepancies in local government action (Figures 2, 5). Local governments taking action on EVs represent more liberal, higher-population communities. This pattern is reflected in the existing pattern of EV charging stations. We find that counties in the top population tercile have 40% more charging stations per capita than counties in the bottom population tercile, and the most liberal third of counties have 250% more charging stations per capita than the most conservative third of counties. We see this pattern reflected in the first round of funding from the Federal Highway Administration’s Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program as well (Figure 6). 

 

The reasons for these discrepancies are, at least, threefold. Smaller, more rural governments face unique barriers: they are less likely to have the staff and technical knowledge to pursue pro-EV policies, and they are likely to have to cover larger land areas. Second, conservative governments are less likely to have the interest due to partisan divide in demand for EVs. The third reason is that path dependency perpetuates existing inequities. Even controlling for other factors, local governments with existing charging stations are more likely to take action in the future to procure additional stations (Figure 7).  

 

Consequently, if state and federal policy- and grant-making entities do not explicitly take corrective steps to mitigate these divides, urban centers will outstrip rural areas in per-capita access to locally-supported charging infrastructure. Such a future would present both technical and political challenges to the successful rollout of a nationwide EV charging infrastructure system. 

Report Background

A variety of efforts are underway to ensure that EV drivers have reliable access to charging infrastructure across the United States. To date, the largest investments in EV charging stations come from the private sector, which increased its allotment to EV charging from under $200 million in 2017 to almost $13 billion in early 2023 (The White House, 2023; Atlas Policy, 2023).  

 

Meanwhile, government spending on EV charging stations has ramped up, particularly at the federal and state levels. For example, the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided $7.5 billion in direct spending to create a nationwide network of EV charging stations. Plus, all 50 states have incorporated federal funding into the development of their EV charging infrastructure, with some creating their own incentives (The Verge, 2021; Edison Electric Institute, 2024).  

 

Yet despite their importance as the last-mile system of governance for these infrastructure investments, very little systematic data and analysis exists on the role of local government in the EV rollout. To address this gap, CivicPulse fielded a nationally representative survey of 505 local officials to better understand the role that local governments have taken and intend to take in the future in developing EV infrastructure. The officials invited were drawn randomly from a comprehensive list of all municipalities, townships, and counties with communities of 1,000 or more. 73% of respondents to this survey were elected officials (governing board members and top elected officials), 16% were top appointed executives, and 10% were heads of planning, zoning, or building departments. The sample was broadly representative of US local governments in terms of type, size, and region.  

 

We asked questions regarding existing EV usage, actions regarding promotion of new EV charging infrastructure, and intent to act in the future. To ensure the local context was taken into consideration, we segmented the survey findings along several jurisdiction-level community characteristics from the U.S. Census as well as jurisdictional voter data. In addition, we conducted a location analysis of existing charging stations based on data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) coupled with U.S. Census data and voter. Finally, we examined the list of grant recipients from the Charging and Fuel Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program (CFI Program) that is led by the Department of Transportation with implementation support from the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. 

 

The remainder of the report proceeds in five sections. The next section, “Past Local Government Action,” talks about past actions local governments have taken to implement EV charging infrastructure in their communities. The following, “Prospective Local Government Action,” discusses the steps that local leaders believe their governments will take to implement or improve local EV charging moving forward. Next, in “Federal Grant Recipients So Far,” we delve into trends found in the most prominent ongoing federal discretionary grant program for local governments. Then, in “Path Dependency and Existing EV Infrastructure Inequity,” we bring together past and future action, examining the relationship between the two. Finally, we finish with a conclusion that paints a picture of the emerging problem that cuts across these sections and what can be done to fix it.

Past Local Government Action

Though the federal government, and many state governments, have dramatically stepped up their involvement in the development of EV charging infrastructure, our data indicates that the role of local government has been very limited so far. For example, according to our nationally representative survey, only 16% of city or county governments had incorporated electric vehicle charging infrastructure into their land use, transportation, or other relevant government planning documents at the time of data collection (see Table 1).  

 

When it comes to more specific regulatory actions, the numbers were far lower. Based on our survey, we estimate that only 3% of local governments serving communities of 1,000 or more had streamlined their permitting processes for charging stations as of February 2023. Likewise, only 3% had required new commercial builds to have electrical wiring that is compatible with EVs, and the same percentage had required new commercial builds to have a certain number of EV charging ports.  

 

A higher number of local governments—though still only a relatively small minority—had applied for funding for charging stations in early 2023. At the time of data collection, approximately 18% had applied for funding of some kind.  

Table 1. Percent of local governments who have applied for funding for charging stations, by target source.

Table 1
Local government action so far. 18% applied for funding, 16% incorporated into long-term planning, 3% streamlined permitting for charging stations, 3% wiring requirements for new buildings, 3% parking requirements for new buildings

The most common target source was state government (10% of local governments), with 4% having applied directly to the federal government (though most state government funding is from federal block grants). 5% of local governments had applied to funding directly from companies, and only 3% had pursued funding from philanthropy. Note that some respondents applied for multiple funding sources.

applications by target source. 10% state government, 5% companies, 4% federal government, 3% philanthropy
Figure 1

Consistently, the local governments most likely to have acted we found to be the ones serving larger and more liberal communities. To illustrate this most clearly, we homed in on the most common action: having applied for funding. Using this measure, we estimated the proportion of local governments that had applied for funding, segmented by two different dimensions: (1) population size and (2) presidential vote share. For each dimension, the average was computed for the lowest, middle, and highest terciles (see Figure 2). 

 

We find that, while only 2% and 4% of smaller- and medium-sized local governments had applied for funding, respectively, 14% of the largest third of local governments had applied for funding. Likewise, while only 3% of local governments in the more conservative two thirds of counties had applied for funding for EV charging stations, 15% of local governments in more liberal counties had applied for funds.  

Past finding applications. By population: 2% for 0 to 23k, 4% for 23k to 79k, 14% for 79k+. By Democratic Vote share: 3% for 0% to 31%, 3% for 31% to 46%, 15% for 46+%
Figure 2

While the majority of charging stations in the United States were privately procured, this disparity in local government actions along the urban-rural divide is reflected in the location pattern of existing charging stations as well. In Figure 3, using data from the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, we looked at the number of stations per capita segmented by county population size and presidential vote share. We find that counties in the top population tercile have approximately 40% more charging stations per capita than counties in the bottom two thirds of the population distribution, and the most liberal third of counties have 250% more charging stations per capita than the most conservative third of counties.

Stations per 10k. By population: 0.91 for 0 to 23k, 0.95 for 23k to 79k, 1.28 for 79k+. By Democratic Vote Share: 0.58 for 0% to 31%, 1.05 for 31% to 46%, 2.05 for 46%+
Figure 3

Prospective Local Government Action

In our survey, we also asked local officials about their intent to act going forward. The picture that emerges suggests a great deal more ambition from local governments in the future than what has occurred to date.  

 

Specifically, we asked officials to identify how likely or unlikely they were to complete each of the actions reported in Table 1 (except for the strategic planning). Table 2 displays the percentage of respondents who reported their local government was "Somewhat", "Very", or "Extremely" likely to take each of the respective actions. 

Table 2. Percent of local governments who intend to act, by action type.

Planned government actions. 68% apply for funding for stations. 38% streamline permitting for stations. 24% wiring requirements for new buildings, 20% parking requirements for new buildings.

Far more local governments indicated an intent to act for each possible action type compared with the numbers for who had already taken action. Specifically, 68% of local governments intend to apply for funding for charging stations, 38% intend to streamline permitting, 24% intend to pass new requirements for wiring for new buildings, and 20% intend to pass new requirements for parking. 

 

We also broke out respondents’ intent to apply for funding by target source (Figure 4). When compared to patterns of past applications, the most notable change likely to occur moving forward is an increase in applications for federal funding. In Figure 1, we saw that local governments have historically been more than twice as likely to apply for funding for charging stations from their state government than the federal government. However, going forward, they are approximately equally likely to be planning to apply directly to the federal government as to their state government (see Figure 4). This makes sense, given the new direct funding opportunities that are becoming available. 

Intent to apply by target source. 64% state government, 63% federal government, 44% companies, 43% philnthropy.

Furthermore, the observed disparity in past action is reflected in the disparity in future action. In particular, our survey shows that local governments intending to act are, on average, serving communities that are larger and more liberal. 

 

To illustrate this disparity in intent to act most clearly, we again home in on the most common action: applying for funding. Using this measure, we estimate the proportion of local governments that report the intent to apply for funding by population size and Presidential vote share of the county (Figure 5). For each dimension, the average is computed for the lowest, middle, and highest terciles. 

 

Consequently, if future funding applications are consistent with the intent reported from our survey, the existing divides from past discretionary action from local government will be exacerbated by future action.

Intent to apply for funding. By population: 10% for 0 to 23k, 19% for 23k to 79k, 44% for 79k+. By Democratic Vote Share: 17% for 0% to 31%, 19% for 31% to 46%, 37% for 46%+.
Table 2
Figure 4
Figure 5

 Federal Grant Recipients So Far

Our data presented previously was on the local government action side. However, when it comes to funding local governments to build charging stations, it’s also important to look at who ultimately gets funded, not simply who applies. After all, it’s possible that the discrepancy in likelihood of applying for government grants would be mitigated by the choices of the grant-making body. 

 

To do so, we investigated the grantee recipient list from the first round of the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program (CFI Program). In this first round, $623 million was allocated across 47 recipients (FHWA, 2024). Grants ranged from $500,000 to $70,000,000 for public projects aimed at building publicly accessible charging stations and alternative fuel infrastructure. Grant recipients included state, regional, county, and subcounty governments as well as two tribal nations and two universities (see Table 3).

Table 3. CFI Program grants by grantee type.

16 grants or 34% to subcounties. 12 grants or 26% to regions. 8 grants or 17% to counties. 7 grants or 15% to states. 2 grants or 4% to universities. 2 grants or 4% to reservations.

The same discrepancies we saw in the survey show up in the grant recipient list. Excluding any recipients which crossed county boundaries, we compared the community characteristics of the counties in which the recipients are located with a list of all counties on the two previously examined dimensions: population size and presidential vote share. We find that federal allocation of EV charging funds highly favored counties that are larger and more liberal. 

 

85% of CFI grant recipients came from counties in the top third tercile on the population distribution as well as the top third tercile in terms of Democratic vote share (see Figure 6). Meanwhile, only 4% of grant recipients came from the bottom third of the population distribution; likewise, only 4% came from the most conservative third of counties. In other words, the CFI Grant program reinforces the existing urban-rural divide on this issue.

CFI program county and subcounty grant recipients compared to all counties. Grant recipients by population: 4% to 0 to 23k, 12% to 23k to 79k, 85% to 79k+. All counties by population: 47% 0 to 23k, 31% 23k to 79k, 22% 79k+. Gran recipents by Democratic vote share: 4% for 0% to 31%, 12% for 31% to 46%, 85% for 46%+. All counties by Democratic vote share: 52% for 0% to 31%, 27% for 31% to 46%, 20% for 46%+.
Table 3
Figure 6

Path Dependency and Existing EV Infrastructure Inequity

A clear picture emerges when comparing our data on past and future actions. Though local governments have so far played a minimal role in the deployment of EVs, local government authorities see themselves playing a much greater role in the future. While this emerging “bottom up” leadership from local governments clearly presents benefits to more effective local deployment of national resources, it also presents problems.  

 

If trends continue, our survey data suggests that selective local government activity may ultimately exacerbate rather than mitigate the existing infrastructure inequity that falls along the urban-rural divide in America. Both from the standpoint of past applications for funding EV charging stations and future intent to apply, the most active local governments tend to be those situated in left-leaning, larger cities (see Figures 2, 4). As evidence from the first round of CFI Program funding shows, allocation of federal funding for EV charging is on track to significantly exacerbate the urban-rural and the conservative-liberal divides.  

 

What explains this consistent disparity? The most obvious explanation is asymmetric demand. There is a significant partisan discrepancy in demand for electric vehicles. A 2023 poll found that 68% of Democrats were likely to consider buying an EV as compared to 20% of Republicans (Pew, 2023). Another explanation for this pattern is the unique barriers faced by local governments in rural America. For example, one respondent from a municipality in Minnesota explained, “our community at this point doesn't have any dealer that would be able to service an electric vehicle. There are also many miles before the next charging station which would make it very inconvenient for charging.”  

 

But regardless of the initial reasons that larger, more liberal local governments took proactive action on encouraging the construction of EV charging stations, this initial pattern will perpetuate itself without corrective action due to something known as path dependency. For example, a lack of demand for cars undermines the cases for chargers, but a lack of chargers makes buying EVs less attractive. Likewise, local governments who invested technical expertise in pursuing pro-EV policies or applications for funding will find it easier to do it again. 

 

This path dependency is borne out in the data. In particular, local governments serving communities that already have at least one charging station are much more likely to take additional action than local governments serving communities that don’t have existing stations (Figure 7). For example, 86% of respondents from communities that have at least one publicly accessible charging station stated that they were likely to apply for funding for additional EV infrastructure, compared with 60% of respondents from localities with no existing chargers. 

Likelihood of taking action. Apply for funding: 60% no stations, 86% has stations. Streamline permitting: 36% no stations, 53% has stations. Wiring requirements: 19% no stations, 40% has stations. Port requirements: 14% no stations, 36% has stations.

To better understand this pattern, we asked officials about the barriers their community faced when it comes to installing EV charging stations. Overall, officials serving communities that do not already have an EV station were more likely to say that they faced challenges to EV station deployment than officials who represent communities with EV stations. Breaking down these responses to look at specific barriers shows a more complex story, with our data indicating that communities with stations are more aware of the challenges that permitting processes and parking regulations can pose. It is possible that past experience is key to understanding the limitations that can be imposed by processes and regulations. One of the most notable differences was access to technical expertise, with 30% of officials whose communities do not have an EV charging station selecting this as a barrier while only 14% of those that have at least one station face this obstacle (see Figure 8).

Barriers to EV charging station deployment. Technical knowledge: 30% no stations, 14% has stations. Permitting process: 20% no stations, 23% has stations. Constituent opposition: 18% no stations, 10% has stations. Parking regulations 10% no stations, 13% has stations. Support of local officials: 8% for both.

As communities with EV stations continue to expand their infrastructure, it is likely that their pre-existing knowledge, expertise, and willingness will decrease barriers for these communities. However, communities that continue forward without an EV station will likely face the barrier in Figure 8 at similar, if not greater, rates than they do today.

Figure 7
Figure 8

Conclusion

While local government action to date has been limited, our nationally representative survey indicates that the majority of local governments in America intend to proactively act in the coming years to facilitate the construction of new EV charging stations. Such actions include permitting reform, building code changes, and direct application for funds for new charging stations. This is good news. 

 

However, in numerous places in this report, we have documented how both past and future local government actions are unevenly distributed along the urban-rural divide. In particular, local governments representing higher population, more liberal areas are far more likely to be taking steps to facilitate the development of EV charging infrastructure.  

 

Worse still, this unequal distribution of local government action is exacerbating the geographic pattern that already exists, largely due to the private sector going to where existing demand is (Harvard Business School, 2024). It is precisely in these rural EV deserts that proactive local government action could be most impactful in moving the needle. For example, rural local governments could use a discretionary grant program like the CFI Program to install their first charging station which, in turn, could provide the initial effort needed to spur further private investment. 

 

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be what has occurred so far. On the contrary, the majority of municipal and country recipients of federal discretionary money to date represent the urban communities that are most likely to already have charging stations. This is not necessarily the fault of grant-making entities, like the Federal Highway Agency’s CFI Program. It’s very possible, if not likely, the applicant pool has disproportionately come from urban communities. 

 

But more must be done to recruit applicants from rural local governments to redress this discrepancy. Grant-making entities could be forgiven for assuming the reason such local governments are not applying for funds is because their constituents simply “aren’t interested.” To be sure, constituent opposition to EVs can be a barrier for rural local governments in EV deployment, but it ranks third behind having the requisite technical knowledge and the appropriate permitting process (see Figure 8). 

 

This divide, if it is allowed to continue, could undermine the national transition to EVs both in the private sector and in the public sector. In the private sector, local charging deserts will undermine consumer confidence in buying EVs. In the public sector, the perception that discretionary grants for EV charging stations are primarily benefiting liberal, higher-population areas could undermine bipartisan support for the continuation of such grants. Focus on building EV chargers in rural areas and communities without public EV chargers will help alleviate these problems. 

Table A1: Respondents by Government Type

Government Type
Respondents
County
78
Municipality
301
Township
126
All
505

Table A2: Respondents by Role

Role
Respondents
Elected Policymaker
371
Head of Buildings
36
Head of Planning/Zoning
15
Top Appointed Executive
83
All
505

The tables below describe the representativeness of the sample, compared to the sampling frame. We also use probability weights in our analyses to increase sample representativeness.

Table A3: County Officials

Area Characteristics
Sample Median
Sampling Frame Median
Democratic Vote Share 2020
0.32
0.30
Population Size
26,700
25,750

Table A4: Municipality Officials

Area Characteristics
Sample Median
Sampling Frame Median
Democratic Vote Share 2020
0.44
0.39
Population Size
5,550
3,960

Table A5: Township Officials

Area Characteristics
Sample Median
Sampling Frame Median
Democratic Vote Share 2020
0.44
0.39
Population Size
5,550
3,960

We asked questions regarding existing EV usage, actions regarding promotion of new EV charging infrastructure, and intent to act in the future. To ensure the local context was taken into consideration, we segmented the survey findings along several jurisdiction-level community characteristics from the U.S. Census as well as jurisdictional voter data. 

 

NREL Data 

 

In addition, we conducted a location analysis of existing charging stations based on data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) coupled with U.S. Census data and voter data. The NREL data, which is compiled from various sources including trade media, public reports, and network data from EV operators, provides detailed information on electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the United States. CivicPulse processed this data by cross-referencing station locations with U.S. Census FIPS county codes using cartographic boundary files and the latitude and longitude of each station. This allowed for the integration of additional county-level Census and voting data into our analyses. 

 

A key feature of this analysis was the creation of a binary measure to identify public sector ownership of charging stations. This was accomplished by combining information from two NREL data fields: "Owner.Type.Code" and "Facility.Type." Through a combination of conceptual classification and targeted research on ambiguous cases, CivicPulse developed a coding scheme to determine whether each station was likely owned by a government entity or a private organization. This approach accounted for various forms of public ownership, including ownership of the charging equipment, the parking facility, or the underlying land. 

 

CFI Data 

 

Finally, we examined the list of grant recipients from the Charging and Fuel Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program (CFI Program) that is led by the Department of Transportation with implementation support from the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. To determine whether grants were to be implemented at the county or subcounty levels, we reviewed project name, lead applicant, and project description information. Given the geographic scope of this report, we excluded the one grant to Puerto Rico from our overall count of grant recipients. 

Appendix: Methodology

National Representative Survey of Local Leaders 

 

The survey began on February 3, 2023 and was closed on March 2, 2023. There were a total of 505 respondents. The sample of respondents consisted of elected policymakers and civil service leaders that were randomly drawn from all township, municipality, and county governments serving populations of 1,000 residents or more. Elected policymakers include top elected officials (e.g., Mayor, County Executive) and governing board members (e.g., Council Member, County Legislator), and civil service leaders include heads of building, planning, and zoning departments as well as top appointed executives (e.g., City Manager). 

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