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EV Programs Need to Remember Disadvantaged Communities

Making equity a central goal is essential when devising successful and inclusive electric vehicle programs. Too often, programs miss less fortunate communities and the benefits that come with boosting mobility.

Electric vehicle car-shares, charging ports and other pieces of the green mobility future may go unused in many communities if the projects fail to understand the communities that they hope to serve.

“I think it’s important that this is just not about, lets put some electric vehicles where they’re going to improve the air-quality for folks who have been most impacted by bad air,” said Jeff Allen, executive director of Forth, a nonprofit trade association and advocate for electric mobility based in Portland, Ore.

“That’s part of the equation,” said Allen, speaking during a Feb. 12 webinar hosted by Forth. “But it’s also about, how are we going to use these technologies to actually improve mobility options for people, and how are we actually going to use this growing industry to create job opportunities and economic opportunities for folks?”

“Equity” is often a rallying cry by advocates of transit, micro-mobility programs like bike- or scooter-shares, as well as promoters of smart city projects. The point, said Joel Espino, environmental equity legal council for The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, Calif., is to devise programs that “grow justice and fairness” in cities.

“So, sometimes that means making sure that the neediest and most vulnerable people in society who are facing systemic disadvantages … have the resources to catch up,” Espino said during the webinar. “So, that’s really what we’re trying to do with these programs.”

A number of smart mobility programs in cities across the country have taken on equity in various forms. When San Francisco granted operation permits to Scoot and Skip to introduce electric scooters, the city’s transit officials made that decision, in part, based on their commitment to serving low-income residents.

The Charge Ahead California Initiative — passed by the California Legislature in 2014 — helped to kickstart the EV equity ecosystem in California, said Espino.

Those efforts have spurred more than 17 projects at various stages of development, attracting some $280 million of investment allocated from the state’s cap-and-trade program. Since 2015 the state has secured $540 million, in part from the Electrify America program, which has been invested in the charging infrastructure in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

“A lot has been happening since 2014,” said Espino.

An electric car-sharing program in affordable housing areas in the Bay Area received $2.25 million in funding. The project is still in development and is set to launch later this year. Part of the project is a more thorough needs assessment to see what else is needed to improve the community’s mobility. These could include bike-share memberships, transit passes and more.

And then there’s the so-called “scrap and replace” program in Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley, which provides a voucher of up to $9,500 to help low-income drivers purchase a new or used EV. The program has received $112 million from the cap-and-trade program, with $85 million awarded.

“That’s been a really successful program. And the hope is that we’re expanding that program to the Bay Area region later this spring and also to the Sacramento region later this year,” said Espino. In the Bay Area participants will be able to scrap their car in exchange for vouchers valued at up to $7,500 which can be used toward transit passes or other mobility options.

Other projects like a $10-a-day car-share program in Portland, Ore., which used donated electric-powered Honda Fits, taught organizers that it was a good idea to put child car seats in the vehicles.

And when thinking about mobility projects for undocumented immigrants, keep in mind they may not have access to driver's licenses, which prompted organizers in Portland to develop an e-bike-share program, said Allen.

The project differed from the more standard Portland e-bike project, which is described as typical “Portland liberal.”

“Can we use e-bikes to get more people biking to work? Because that’s what we want,” said Allen. “And this project really turned it around and said, 'No, can we use this technology as a transportation option for people who don’t have other options to get to work, to get to the grocery store, or to get to medical appointments.'” The program has since closed, in part, due to lack of funding. Organizers are exploring options to restart it.

In all of these, a central effort was made to thoroughly understand the neighborhoods and communities and come up with sustainable mobility options that would grow avenues of opportunity.

“One of the things I want to emphasize, really, by listening to the community and starting to an equity lens, shapes and changes the way you do the work,” said Allen. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.