Electric Road Trip

In Memphis, EV acceptance takes its time

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Change happens slowly in this Mississippi River town.

The city's population has grown at a plodding pace since the 1970s, and Memphis recently published its first comprehensive plan since 1981. It includes chapters on planning for the challenges of climate change and the electrification of cars and buses.

Like a lot of people who are involved in infrastructure planning, leaders in Memphis are taking that slow too, waiting to see what vehicles roll out of factories far away. There are already electric scooters humming around Memphis, along with a bike-share program and the local transportation authority has ordered battery-powered buses.

When it comes to electric-powered passenger cars, one of the city's goals is to make sure that low-income residents and apartment dwellers have an opportunity to charge electric vehicles. There are also questions of funding — always an issue with local governments — and making sure that any new infrastructure doesn't just cater to tourists, said Vivian Ekstrom, sustainability manager for the city and surrounding county, over coffee in a converted bank building on Memphis' Main Street.

"How can we serve residents first?"Ekstrom said. "If your residents are served, tourists are going to be served, too."

Memphis, founded on the east bank of the Mississippi in 1819, has certainly seen transportation get faster. A young Abraham Lincoln drifted down the river on a flat boat in 1828, in a time when most cargo moved at the same sluggish pace as the water. Samuel Clemens chugged up and down the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot in the 1850s.

In 1916, the Harahan railroad bridge over the river opened, just as automobiles became popular. The bridge was later redesigned to hold car traffic on two wood-paved lanes on either side of the train tracks.

In the 1970s, Federal Express (now FedEx Corp.) opened up a cargo operation at Memphis' municipal airport, presaging a revolution in freight delivery. The company, now a global logistics powerhouse, still calls Memphis home and is experimenting with battery-powered vans.

Today, traffic zooms over the river on two interstate highway spans, with motorboats and barges leaving wakes beneath. One of the old lanes alongside the railroad bridge has been converted to a hike-and-bike path.

The electric-vehicle revolution may soon arrive at one of the city's best-known tourist attractions. Today there are no EV charging points at Graceland, which draws 600,000 visitors a year, although EV drivers can plug in at the complex's nearby RV park.

But Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. plans to add chargers. Christian Ross, a public relations and marketing specialist for the company, said they are in the process of coming to the mansion's main parking lot and to a nearby company-operated hotel.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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