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Cambridge legalizes EV charging across the sidewalk

The city requires a permit and the use of a ramp or swing-arm for safety

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A possible solution for electric vehicle charging for many city dwellers is taking shape under a small ramp laid across a sidewalk in Cambridgeport.

Russell Keziere, who lives in a condo without parking spaces in the Cambridge neighborhood, is running a power cable under the ramp to charge his new electric BMW, which he parks on the street in front of his home. Unlike most residents who are draping charging cords across the sidewalk in violation of city rules, Keziere has a permit; his setup is legal and doesn’t present a tripping hazard.

While EV owners with driveways or garages have easier access to recharging, options are more limited for the growing numbers of owners who live in more densely built areas, including in progressive redoubts such as Cambridge.

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“You’re more likely to find a MAGA Republican than a driveway where I live,” Keziere joked.

Charging an EV is a challenge for the one-third of Massachusetts residents who lack access to off-street parking, sometimes referred to as “garage orphans.” Cambridge, Boston, and other cities are installing hundreds of charging terminals on streets and in parking lots, but the effort will take several years to catch up with the expected demand. The state’s climate plans call for almost tripling the 70,000 EVs currently on the road over the next two years and getting close to one million by 2030.

Boston, like most Massachusetts localities, does not allow charging over the sidewalk. In a recent case, the city’s Transportation Department forbade a Dorchester EV owner from charging his car across the sidewalk, leading him to a years-long campaign to build a mini-driveway.

“We are evaluating the idea,” said city spokesperson Anne Roach. “We want to encourage the transition to EVs while maintaining sidewalk accessibility and the availability of public parking spaces for all.”

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Cambridge, with more than 5,000 EVs registered to residents, began a pilot program last month allowing people to apply for permits to charge their vehicles across sidewalks.

“We don’t know what the future will hold, but we do know many people in Cambridge would not buy an EV because they didn’t know where they would charge,” City Councilor Patty Nolan, who pushed for the pilot program, said. “The hope is that this won’t be needed five to 10 years from now because we’ll have so many curbside chargers.”

Climate advocates agreed the sidewalk charging program could encourage EV ownership.

“This is a very good first step,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of environmental advocacy group MASSPIRG and a resident of Cambridge. “But not far down the road, I hope there will be EV charging available to all that won’t have to be done house by house.”

Under the Cambridge program, EV drivers who live more than one-eighth of a mile from a public charger can seek a sidewalk charging permit for $200 per year. Residents must either cover the cord with a removable ramp that complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act or install a swing-arm 9 feet off the ground to hold the cord (useful for second-floor residents wanting to string a cord down to the street).

The city, which has received five applications and approved three since the program kicked off at the end of July, sends an inspector to review the setup of all applicants.

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Russell Keziere is the first person in Cambridge to be granted a permit to allow him to charge his EV by stringing a cord across the sidewalk, as long as he covers it with a ramp or strings it at least 9 feet overhead. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Keziere, who bought his electric SUV about a year ago, initially set up a ramp similar to ones he’d seen used to cover cables on sidewalks around the MIT campus. But Cambridge inspectors said the ramp wasn’t ADA compliant, which could create a hazard on the sidewalk for people in wheelchairs. To get the permit, Keziere, a 70-year-old retiree, paid $700 for a ramp that met requirements. (The city has a list of acceptable ramps with starting prices at $150.)

Over time, as Cambridge and privately owned charging networks such as Electrify America install more chargers in the city, fewer residents will qualify for permits based on the one-eighth of a mile rule. The city has installed 20 “Level 2″ charging stations with a total of 39 ports so far, which can add about 15 to 30 miles of range to an EV’s battery per hour. And the city’s plan is to reach 100 Level 2 ports by 2027.

Midway through April, more than 1,200 different EV drivers had charged some 4,752 times at the Cambridge-installed chargers, according to the city. That was an increase from 767 drivers who charged 2,758 times in the same period of 2022.

The city also adopted a so-called “right to charge” law that took effect in January. The law generally prevents homeowner and condo associations from blocking apartment owners who want to install EV chargers at or near dedicated parking spots.

Cambridge’s own chargers installed so far are at ground level next to street curbs. The city would also like to install chargers attached to telephone poles, as Melrose did in a pilot program starting two years ago, City Councilor Nolan said. But Eversource, the city’s electric utility, said the pole-mounted chargers are no longer permitted under rules from the state’s Department of Energy Resources.

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“Eversource recognizes that there is a need for curbside charging for customers that don’t have driveways or garages,” Sean Tully, manager of electric mobility at the company, said. “We are establishing a lot of partnerships with a lot of municipalities to address that need.”

Under a $400 million program approved at the end of last year, Eversource and other utilities will fund expanded charging infrastructure statewide. So far this year, the Eversource funding is helping add nearly 1,000 public Level 2 ports in Massachusetts, Tully said.

Cambridge’s EV sidewalk charging permit does not provide residents with any special rights to reserve a parking space. That hasn’t been a problem for Keziere, who sometimes asks a neighbor to “scooch up” their cars out of the way.

Since he doesn’t have a daily commute to work, he typically only needs to charge his SUV for a few hours per week. While on trips to visit friends or go on vacation, he relies on fast chargers at highway rest stops and other spots, which suffer from well-known reliability problems. Keziere uses specialized EV apps to find the most reliable stations.

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“You have to plan ahead,” he said. “And don’t be in a hurry.”

Russell Keziere, who lives in a condo without parking spaces in Cambridge, is running a power cable under a ramp to charge his new electric BMW, which he parks on the street in front of his home.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff



Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him @ampressman.