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America Should Create Thousands of EV Charging Rest Areas

Gordon Chaffin
Gordon Chaffin
This is an EV charging station at the University of Toledo campus, Parking Lot 2. There aren't any bathrooms around and visitors are not welcome in campus buildings. So, I've had to find bushes to pee near the stream there.(Photo by Gordon Chaffin)
I want America to invest in thousands of new places for you to poop, get free potable water, and buy affordable, healthy food. That’s because we all have to do our business, stay hydrated, and work to provide more accessible food access. I want there to be a rest area every <50 miles on every major interstate and state highway in this Country. I think these are major public infrastructure and public health goals. This effort should receive massive federal investment. America doesn’t need more or wider highways more than it needs places to poop, access the internet for an hour in a dry, warm/cool place, and for your kids to play for that hour.
Growing up in Michigan and vacationing in the Midwest/Northeast via travel trailer, I didn’t know frequent rest areas were rare. I just assumed it’s a no-brainer — part of best-practices tourism and recreation programming — to place frequent rest areas along thoroughfares like I-75 in Pure Michigan or I-81 tracing the St. Lawrence Seaway of Upstate New York. It wasn’t until I drove DC->Phoenix that I discovered the rest of America is filled with interstates bereft of basic necessities. Love’s Truck Stops and hokey Southwest tourist traps are the only places with bathrooms. I-40 has maybe 10 total public rest-areas West of the Mississippi. Almost all of the famous roadside attractions along Route-66 closed long ago.
I know there’s been a debate about the privatization of roadside attractions, and whether public land should be leased or sold so some corporate service plaza company could gobble up tourism money. For today, I’m setting that debate aside and asserting the basic human need and right to these basic services. It’s not a sexy issue. It hasn’t gotten much attention, but I think this needs to be an incredibly high priority in line with rural broadband and electrification in Native American communities. A lot of those indigenous peoples could benefit from these rest areas if we structure the programs well and rightly place them as stakeholders and primary beneficiaries since their land covers much of America’s vastness.
I want a WPA-scale effort for rest areas with electric vehicle charging, public library-like seating, community space, and internet amenities. Local history, wildlife, and culture could be on display. I want dog runs, stormwater infrastructure, on-site solar panels and batteries, and even places to sleep and take showers. Some truck stops have these amenities, and a few of the nicest rest areas have these features. I think they should be universal and comprehensive, with living wage work to build and maintain the facilities.
The electric vehicle charging part is key. I think that’s the legislative impetus for all of this. America has been dumb as Hell with the rollout of electric charging infrastructure. The public fast charger pictured above is typical. They’re almost always placed in the dark corners of parking lots, garages, and abandoned malls. It’s hard to find the chargers from the entrance. Unlike gas stations, with giant glowing canopies visible from the highway, electric vehicle chargers are tiny specks with no or little cover from the elements and certainly no roof.
We want something like Gridserve’s Electric Forecourt in Britain or FASTNED in the Netherlands and expanding quickly. What America has is a giant mess of incompatible charging networks entirely opaque for beginner EV drivers and mediocre at best among highly-experienced and patient early adopters. There’s on the order of a dozen charging networks where you need a separate keycard or RFID fob to activate the chargers at a huge premium to household electricity. The chargers depend on internet connectivity, which often fails — and/or a mobile app, which often fails to communicate with the charger and the internet.
If President Biden’s plan to increase EV charging is to replicate what Electrify America is doing now — our biggest, best-funded charging network — then we are screwed. Electrify America sucks. So does its big competitor EVgo. Their chargers are mostly installed in big box store parking lots that have the aforementioned wayfinding problems and amenity deficits. Even Tesla’s ahead-by-5-years Supercharger network lacks welcoming public bathrooms, potable water, and affordable, healthy food. Sometimes Superchargers are at a Wawa. Wawa is the reason those experiences are pleasant, not Tesla.
Finally, and this is sadly not surprising, it’s like they didn’t talk to any women when they designed these stations. As Becca Farsace says in Verge’s review of the Mustang Mach-E, it’s like no one considered whether the motorist would feel safe charging there. Important to note here that the auto and tech industries combine for heavy white male workforces less likely to consider many basic things — like personal safety or what to do with your children during charging sessions. It is *not* safe to be alone as a vulnerable person charging at most, nearly all, of these public chargers. Hence, the desperate need for lighting as safety in addition to wayfinding and charging clusters to attract multiple people at once for safety-in-numbers.
I don’t want electric car charging to become like gas re-filling, where society seems fine with super shady situations with the kids in tow because “you’ll only be there for a minute.” We are 10-40 years away from affordable electric vehicle charging and car batteries that take five minutes going from 0% to 80%. The faster the charging, the more expensive the charger, and the less reliable. Those are exponential, rather than linear relationships. I’ll save you the technical stuff, but it’s diminishing returns: getting from an hour to 25-35 minute charging is affordable and possible today, but that last 20 minutes down to 5 is a generation or two down the road.
It’s utter madness from a public health standpoint that we’ve stumbled haphazardly into the situation that I’m peeing in the corner of a Pennsylvania mall parking lot or highway off-ramp. I have irritable bowel syndrome, along with almost a majority of Americans with disorders and sensitivities that make bathroom access critical. No one should feel the shame and embarrassment of finding and using fast food bathrooms. And our country needs to get serious about providing more than gas stations and fast food as nourishment for travelers.
America needs more places for you to poop and interstate rest areas focusing on reasonable, affordable electric vehicle charging is a huge need for our country right now. It would be an incredible missed opportunity to add lots of electric vehicle charging without public amenities and local tourism revenue opportunities that rest areas provide. As my mother noted to me today, most of the rest areas we’ve used over decades of traveling in America were built in the New Deal/WWII era. America needs big public projects again and I think poop should be a high priority.
P.S. There are similar charging station problems on surface streets and in cities — and a need for public bathrooms nearby. But, the rest area network is low-hanging fruit given all the land next to the highways. The urban charging and on-street parking charging issues are long and for another day.
Cool New Tool: WMATA’s SmartTOD Data Clearinghouse
“Hey transit-oriented development-a-verse,” wrote WMATA’s head of planning Shyam Kannan on LinkedIn. “Do you need:
  • Instant access to site selection stats for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail?
  • Estimates for how projects might perform at Metrorail stations?
  • Info on the DC transit-adjacent development pipeline?
Well, here you go. One-stop shopping. We hope you like, and that you’ll make excellent use of this brand new toolkit to keep crafting a more sustainable, more equitable future. Enjoy”
The webpage intros the tool thusly:
“Welcome to WMATA’s System for Mapping and Analyzing Regional Trends in Transit-Oriented Development – SmartTOD. As the region’s transit authority, Metro is the backbone of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the National Capital Region. With SmartTOD, we are providing a set of data-driven tools for exploring development trends and opportunities near Metro. Bn, smart for business, smart for the environment, and smart for equitable growty clicking the links below, you will see for yourself why TOD is smart for the regioh.”
  • About TOD: Understand what TOD is and how it affects you
  • TOD Metrics: Explore Existing Transit Orientation and Future TOD Potential across station areas
  • Projects: Identify pipeline projects that are proposed, under construction, and under renovation​
  • Scenarios: Estimate the potential impacts of land-use changes on ridership and revenue
Public Feedback Near Deadlines [Full List]
Notable Upcoming Events [Full Calendar]
  • Sat 3/13; 10:30 AM: West Hyattsville-Queens Chapel (Prince George’s County, MD) Sector Plan Virtual Visioning Workshop [Details]
  • Sat 3/13; 11 AM: Minnesota Avenue NE/SE Ward 7 Corridor Improvement Summit [Details]
Recommended Reading [Full List]
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Gordon Chaffin
Gordon Chaffin

This is Gordon Chaffin's newsletter featuring commentary on life in Washington, D.C., and tourism on a bike as the primary means of functional and recreational transportation. If society does not replace car-based infrastructure with public transportation and safe-for-everyone (e-)bike lanes, the planet will be destroyed by climate change. Gordon moonlights as a 5-star dog-sitter and freelance photographer, video producer, and audio technician. #GoBlue #RaiseHigh #ForksUp #DCStatehood

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Gordon Chaffin, 680 Rhode Island Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002