Beyond the MTA, an Outer Borough Food Tour by Electric Car

For the weekend of our Food Loves Tech event, Chevrolet lent me a 2018 Bolt EV. Sunday, I managed to fit in an outer borough food tour. Photo credit: Stephen Munshin

I like to think I’m a polite person, truly. But driving near the Barclays Center on a recent Saturday morning, I managed to flip three birds in all of about 20 minutes.

In my defense, I don’t regularly drive in New York, so I’m not like going around shaking my finger Mr. Bean–style. For the weekend of our Food Loves Tech event, though, Chevrolet lent me a 2018 Bolt EV to drive from my home in Crown Heights to Industry City in Sunset Park. And despite my apparent road rage (where am I keeping all that anger??), I was actually very grateful to have my own ride since I would’ve probably missed the event entirely if I’d taken the subway (Ok, I probably would’ve called a Lyft, but I’m ignoring that option for the sake of this exercise).

First and foremost, and no real shocker here: there’s really no easy breezy reliable way to maneuver this city; driving is just a horse of a different color compared to taking the subway. But—after finishing my work and making time for an outer borough Sunday food tour (more on that later)—having a car turned out to be a welcome option for getting where I wanted, (mostly) when I wanted.

The car offers some very fun data for energy nerds. Screens both behind the wheel and in the dashboard give you a global perspective on the overall vehicle and detailed energy specs, including how the car distributes power down to the very last kilowatt hour. Photo credit: Facebook/Chevrolet Electric

The fact that the car was electric was a whole other layer. I didn’t know what to expect but I still jumped on the opportunity since, environmentalist that I am, I pine for a post-fossil fuel future and wanted a free test drive.

Of course electric cars aren’t a perfect, complete solution to our transportation emission problem by any means—they still take energy to make and charge, and for this piece, I don’t have the time or resources or expertise to run a full comparative life cycle analysis and/or investigate whether New York charging stations are powered by renewable sources. And using public transit is almost always best from an environmentalist perspective.

Keeping all this in mind, though, the Union of Concerned Scientists has done a seemingly extensive amount of investigating into these questions, and using the resources on their website (including this handy calculator), my superficial research tells me that driving electric is a better alternative to a gas-powered one in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (please @ me if you have research suggesting otherwise!). That alone made me feel better while idling on the BQE.

Some folks online call the “kinetic blue metallic” model I got “dorky” with a judgmental tone, and they’re not wrong, but I was into it. The color felt consistent with the car’s more offbeat features and quirky style that are immediately apparent when you enter.

Some folks online call the “kinetic blue metallic” model I got “dorky” with a judgmental tone, and they’re not wrong, but I was into it. Photo credit: Ariel Lauren Wilson

One could drive the Bolt EV without a smartphone, but I opted to connect my iPhone via cord and doing so immediately made the rest of my driving experience feel like an actual extension of the device—I felt like I was actually sitting inside my phone. The Apple CarPlay compatibility mirrors the connected device on the touchscreen dashboard and the car’s built in Wi-Fi hot spot did not discourage me to cut back on Spotify browsing out of fear of eating up my data—wasn’t gonna happen.

Granted the car has safeguards in place to hopefully minimize phone distraction, but it ultimately felt bizarre to directly transfer the apps that are usually in my pocket (never mind eating up my regular, daily consciousness) to an immersive and physical experience. The playful, curious side of me felt like Chewbacca steering the Millennium Falcon. The cynical side felt like I had officially entered a tech dystopia where not just the car but my phone was driving me. I still go back and forth.

That aside, the car offers some very fun data for energy nerds (hi). Screens both behind the wheel and in the dashboard give you both a global perspective on the overall vehicle as well as detailed energy specs, including how the car distributes power down to the very last kilowatt hour. Check out the Chevy site if you want to drill into the minutia; seeing how much either turning on the heat or cranking up the AC docked my battery life made me more conscious of my energy use, and I appreciated the reminder. I also want to shout out to the car’s “surround vision”—aka strategically placed cameras—that actually improved my parallel parking. That seems like a feature more cars could use.

Back to the battery life, though: I did experience a brief moment of terror when I realized I had no idea where the hell I would charge this sucker if I needed to. As I learned more about existing electric car infrastructure, though, turns out there are a surprising amount of stations that are pretty easily found using apps like PlugShare. My car’s battery was nearly full when I picked it up, though, and had more than enough power than I needed for my weekend excursion.

That said, if I had had to charge the car, it would have needed to sit at a fast charging station for 30 minutes to get an additional 90 miles. Obviously that time adds up and becomes even longer if you charge from home. Conclusion: If I were going to buy an electric car, I’d make sure I lived in an area with easy, fast charging access, whether that’s at home or work. Thinking all of this through really turns my ingrained five-minute gas station routine on its head.

I decided to spend my limited time with wheels going to peripheral and MTA-neglected neighborhoods. After the initial Chelsea drive to Crown Heights, as well as the two round-trips I did from my place to Industry City for Food Loves Tech, my partner, Tommy, and I decided that we had enough power to take a circuitous route to Brighton Beach. After a gusty boardwalk stroll amid topless and unfazed Russian-speaking men committed to their November sunbathing, we drove to Midwood so I could try my very first Di Fara’s slice. Dom DeMarco unfortunately wasn’t working during my visit, and it turns out that doesn’t affect the notorious wait time. Tommy and I were happy to sit on the corner, though, submitting to a rare New York line that’s actually worth the wait.

From there our still over-half-charged EV battery could take us to Flushing: unquestionably one of the city’s best food neighborhoods. We cleaned house at H-Mart (“We’re getting it—I have a car”) before taking a while to find a parking spot near Main Street. Rookie mistake to be sure, but the battery life was no concern. The kimchi in the trunk was only slightly fragrant by the time we finished dinner at Dumpling Galaxy and had fortunately dissipated by the next morning when I needed to return the EV. There was still plenty of battery life to spare, and by the time I handed over the keys back in Chelsea, it was just under a half tank (When will that be a dated phrase?).

All told, I had a lot of fun driving the car for a few days. It did what I needed and was comfortable to boot. And as best I understand it, I also felt better about the relative environmental impact since almost anything seems preferable to burning fossil fuels (of course the charging stations have to get their energy from somewhere, too…). I’m not going to become a New York City driver any time soon—have you ever tried parking in this town?—but my test drive at least helped demystify the electric car experience. And, for what it’s worth, Cuomo does seem interested in making driving electric cars easier—don’t even get me started on the subway, though…

Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren is the former editor-in-chief of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.