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Driving an electric car in Boston, now with less pain

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  June 29, 2012 03:09 PM

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(Eliana Monteforte for Boston.com)

That's me smiling, because now I don't have cold sweats worrying about the city's nearest charging station.

In April last year, my neighbors thought I'd burn the building down while charging one of the first Nissan Leaf electric cars. Outside of the Charles Hotel parking garage in Cambridge, there were exactly zero public charging stations in the Boston area. It was cold, which meant the batteries had even less capacity than they normally do. I almost got stranded on my way to work. It was bad.

Now, after a week with a 2012 Nissan Leaf (base price $36,050), it's comparatively peachy to drive an EV here. Boston installed three public stations outside City Hall a month after my first test drive, and in October, Brookline placed two charging stations in Coolidge Corner, less than a mile away from my condo. The Boston Globe even has a high-voltage charging station, though it's not for public use. Thankfully, due to the recent 95-degree weather we've had, I didn't have to worry about the battery losing charge (in more extreme heat, it can).

Ordinarily, the Leaf and other electric cars like it have a range of up to 100 miles. It varies widely based on temperature, whether you're blasting the A/C or heat, and if you're on the highway or just putting around the city. Do a combination of all these things and you'll most likely see about 80 or so miles before the car begs you to recharge.

So how was it? Well, it's still a little frustrating, but all of the stress I had before was gone.

There are three metered spaces outside City Hall on Cambridge Street, pictured with me above, that are reserved for electric cars. After paying the standard $1.25 per hour, you have to call ChargePoint, the company that manages the stations, and give them your name and e-mail address. Then you have to tell them what car you're driving, whether you want 120 or 240 volts, and the ID number of the station.

After a few minutes, the station clicks and unlocks the charge connector, whereby you just plug in and walk away. If you have a ChargePoint card, which you can tap against the station, you don't need to call. Luckily, the spaces are almost always open (barring events like the Phantom Gourmet beach party), the electricity is free, and you're allowed to stay there for four hours versus the two in most parts of the city. I parked after 8 p.m., so it felt pretty special to nab this kind of a parking space for free.

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At the Babcock Street lot in Brookline, I not only had to call ChargePoint to activate the station, I called the police twice because multiple cars were blocking the station, despite a big sign that said "Electric Car Parking Only." I was still able to charge my Leaf, since the cables extended to the far right parking space, but I had to squeeze myself and the charging cable between a bush and a Range Rover.

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The easiest station, besides charging at The Boston Globe, is the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. This might be the best garage in the city. Not only is it roomy and easy to maneuver inside, but it's smart. Sensors at the front gate detect if you're driving a small car, to which you get reserved parking and a lower rate.

For electric vehicles, you have a choice of pulling up to a brightly-colored, walled-off space with a standard 120-volt outlet, or an open, white mat area that houses a 240-volt charging station. Both are near the garage entrance. Plus, if you're a guest, your EV entitles you to a free valeted night in the garage, which is no small change. Again, the purpose is to make you feel special -- smugger than Cambridge residents, even -- and it worked.

I knew I'd need several hours at the hotel to bring the Leaf up to full capacity, but I didn't want to take the T back home. So I folded the rear seats, threw my mountain bike in the back, and cycled home.

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In the evening, I took the 66 bus to Harvard Square, had a fine duck dish at Henrietta's Table, and took the Leaf back. Other than my heavy, out-of-shape breaths after the bike ride -- and barring a bowel movement (sorry, that counts) -- I didn't produce any emissions all day.

The takeaway is this: Do not repeat anything I did, unless you have a charging station mounted in your own garage. Even if you can afford a $40,000 electric car, you will still get annoyed on a regular basis for the scant amount of charging stations. The Nissan Leaf is a great second car when you don't have anywhere important to go. And when Southie gets some EV-dedicated spaces, God forbid if you park your gas-powered car there. Not everything is warm and fuzzy like Brookline.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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