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How to make electric mobility work for all

An EV charging station sign in British Columbia.

An EV charging station sign in British Columbia.

SalHar

EV adoption is accelerating, which, in addition to driving less, is critical to reduce carbon emissions (and local air pollution) to meet global climate goals, as transportation contributes the lion’s share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

However, without focused EV policies for low- to- moderate-income families, we risk excluding many communities that stand to benefit the most from this transition. In addition to subsidizing the cost of personal EVs to make them more accessible to low-income communities, we can also create specific electric mobility programs for these communities, leveraging improved transportation technologies and innovative business models.

Connecticut is leaning into this idea, with the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) taking a proactive approach to exploring how such programs can be developed, funded and implemented — including what role electric utilities should play. On behalf of PURA, RMI recently completed a feasibility study of different electric mobility options for low- to- moderate-income residents in the state, finding ample opportunity to promote innovative, equity-focused programs and also that the electric utilities will be critical partners in making this happen.

Defining the challenges

We began our study by asking simple but important questions of communities in Hartford, New Haven and other parts of the state: How well do current transportation options meet your needs? What could be improved upon? How important or essential is car ownership?

What we learned — unsurprisingly — was that transportation needs are universal: reliability; safety; convenience; affordability; and optionality. Yet many of these needs are unmet in low- to moderate-income communities. Some residents frequently must take multiple connecting buses to reach basic services such as grocery stores and doctor’s offices — hardly convenient. Others can’t easily get home after work because their shifts end after transit services do, highlighting a lack of reasonable options. In more rural areas, long wait times between buses leave residents overly reliant on personal vehicles, which are often unaffordable. Using alternative options such as biking can also be challenging, as many of these communities lack stores selling spare parts and basic maintenance equipment.

Improving mobility services

The combination of improvements in electric mobility technology (longer-range vehicles, faster re-charging times), decreasing costs (largely due to battery cost declines) and innovation in business models for mobility services presents new options to augment and improve upon traditional mobility services.

Comparing the needs identified by the communities with the electric vehicles and business models that are becoming increasingly prevalent led us to three promising modes: electric microtransit services; electric carsharing; and micromobility programs.

  • Electric microtransit services provide pooled, on-demand transportation using electric vans and/or shuttles operating outside of fixed routes. This offers a middle-ground between traditional bus service and smaller, private on-demand options such as ridehailing services, and may be a viable option for improving service coverage and frequency.
  • Electric carsharing programs offer access to hourly and daily rental of light-duty EVs, providing some of the flexibility of personal car ownership while avoiding most of the financial burden.
  • Micromobility programs such as traditional or electric bikesharing and electric scootersharing offer convenient options for short trips, with programs potentially able to be developed at significantly lower costs than other modes.

After exploring these transportation options in detail, we provided recommendations for Connecticut:

  • Develop micromobility programs in Hartford, New Haven and other urban areas of the state
  • Implement carshare programs in these urban areas and the suburban regions surrounding them
  • Establish microtransit programs in rural areas of the state as well as within more urban areas with specific routes or extended service hours to augment existing transit options

Electric utilities have a critical role

Electric utilities have a critical role to play in supporting the transition to a predominantly electric transportation system. They can also play a direct role in developing affordable electric mobility options for low- to- moderate-income communities. Our analysis of the three modes described above — including business models for developing programs using these modes — highlights three general categories for utility support, leveraging their core competencies.

  1. Program administrative support and operations, such as dedicated staff, technical assistance, educational and marketing materials and/or helping identify low-cost locations for infrastructure deployment to charge vehicles used in the program.
  2. Capital expenditures such as supporting EV infrastructure through installation, operation, ownership, or a combination of those roles; this can also potentially cover the cost of the program’s EVs.
  3. Electricity rate design, which can lower the cost of operating EVs.

The specific type of support provided will vary depending on mobility program goals, business model, local jurisdiction and other factors. At a minimum, however, having a dedicated utility point of contact for program coordinators to work with during the design and implementation phases can make or break prospective programs.

Now is the time

We risk leaving some communities behind in the transition to cleaner, quieter electric vehicles. But it doesn’t have to be that way. New approaches to providing mobility services — using EVs and innovative business models — present us with an opportunity to address many legacy transportation access problems. Community leaders, utilities, policymakers and businesses can work together to thoughtfully design and successfully implement creative solutions that provide affordable, electric mobility to all communities. Let’s get to work.

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