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Why equity must be central to EV infrastructure planning

A charging station in NYC

An EV charging port in New York City. Courtesy of nyc.gov.

nyc.gov

As the U.S. reaches an inflection point in the use of electric vehicles, the buildout of EV charging stations and how low-to-moderate income communities as well as communities of color are kept in the discussion will be critical. 

Since 2016, there has been steady growth in the use of electric vehicles with over 1 million electrified cars and about 41,400 EV charging stations across the country. Expanding the charging infrastructure to support them is necessary to make a significant move away from GHG emission vehicles. 

In late March, the Biden administration even took a major step in supporting the development of EV infrastructure when it proposed a $174 billion investment.

But as the U.S. moves forward to expand EV Infrastructure there is still a concern about creating what amount to charging station deserts that leave out BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of color — and low-to-moderate income communities.

Some of the guys don’t like coming this way, because they do not have options to charge their cars if they need to, but on the other hand we make good money making deliveries from here, so what choice do we have.

BIPOC communities should be front and center when it comes to EV charging infrastructure planning, argue transportation and energy advocates.

"The adoption and advocacy of zero-emission vehicles for Black and brown communities is necessary, because for these communities access to clean air, and clean transportation is a matter of life and death," said Terry Travis, co-founder and CEO of EVHybridNoire, a nonprofit working at the intersection of transportation, energy and environmental equity. "The communities impacted worst and first by air pollution should be prioritized not just with access to EV charging infrastructure, but with education and incentives."

The rise of EV charging deserts

When looking at cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Oakland, California, you begin to see a trend of certain neighborhoods that have been prioritized over others. 

For example, in the Bronx, which has a population of 1.4 million with a median household income of just $40,000, there are only 17 EV charging stations. 

That oversight has real implications for community health. The Bronx is also home to "Asthma Alley," a portion of the borough that adopted the name because asthma hospitalizations are five times the national average and at rates 21 times higher than other neighborhoods in New York City due to their proximity to four major highways.

Even in Manhattan's neighborhood of East Harlem, only seven EV charging stations are available, with four specifically for Tesla model electric vehicles. Over 25 percent of East Harlem’s population resides in public housing with a median income of just above $33,000 a year. Meanwhile, in the neighboring Upper East Side, a community with a median household income of about $130,000, there are about 70 EV charging stations.

Charging station map

A charging station map shows the inequity of approach in deploying charging stations in New York City.

NYSERDA

This neglect isn’t just shortsighted, it also has economic implications. East Harlem is also home to East River Plaza, one of the city’s busiest shopping centers, with super-stores including Target and Costco. Hundreds of vehicles come in and out of the plaza daily, and a portion of them are electric vehicles used for delivery services. 

"I had one incident where I needed to end my day early because I wasn't able to charge my Ioniq in this neighborhood, and it has happened to other drivers here," said Aldo Velez, 32, of Washington Heights, who drives an EV to make deliveries because it's more cost-efficient and allows him to save from his earnings doing deliveries. "Some of the guys don’t like coming this way, because they do not have options to charge their cars if they need to, but on the other hand we make good money making deliveries from here, so what choice do we have?"

Advocates believe that creating these charging deserts represents a significant impediment to making a stronger transition to clean energy. To them, equity really begins with removing any preconceived notions that low-income or BIPOC communities are not interested in sustainability. 

"There is a huge misconception that our communities do not care about clean energy, but we do and we always have. For starters we’re not wasteful people. We have never been wasteful people," said Kameale C. Terry, CEO and co-founder of ChargerHelp!, an on-demand repair app for electric vehicle charging stations. "Think about the idea of single-use plastic bags. We never had single-use plastic bags in our communities, because we would reuse those bags for so many reasons — for our recycling, for our perms, for carrying our Tupperware to and from work. This is why we have to include more people of color in these conversations about clean energy, because the industry needs more perspective on how these ideals have been intrinsic to Black and brown folks' lives."

Bringing BIPOC communities into the dialogue

Black-owned companies such as EVHybridNoire and ChargerHelp! bring that perspective to the industry and are actively working to close the gap in charging deserts with an emphasis on how to approach and educate the public about the long-term benefits of making the transition to electric vehicles.

"It’s going to take some really nuanced thinking around it, because there is a research component as well as an education and outreach component that starts with engaging and listening to those communities instead of going in with preconceived notions about what you think is best for them," said Travis, who has been involved with New York City’s Parks Department on the construction of EV charging station for the Underserved Communities Act.

That legislation will provide over 200,000 charging ports across the country in BIPOC, rural communities and low-income communities. "It's a very complex problem, and it's going to take a very complex solution, because we didn’t get here overnight and we won’t get out of this overnight, but you have to look at this through their lens, not yours," continued Travis.

Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York and Oregon are already urging their regulated utilities to pursue equity policies that will ensure low-to-moderate income and communities of color are considered in the buildout of EV infrastructure. However, according to a study done by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, among the 36 states pushing for more consideration of those communities, only six have a law or commission order directing utilities to incorporate equity into their investment plans. 

Tesla charger, East Harlem

A Tesla charging station in a Park & Go parking lot in East Harlem.

A complex array of considerations and definitions

Equity considerations also vary by state, especially when it comes to how they define the communities in need of help as well as in the type of investment. Some are focusing more on personal vehicle charging for residents of multi-unit dwellings, while others stress the need for medium and heavy-duty electrification. The three most common community designations are LMI communities, environmental justice communities (EJ) and disadvantaged communities (DACs). Unfortunately, these designations are inconsistent across states, and have ramifications for who benefits from the investments. 

In California, for instance, communities are designated as disadvantaged communities if they meet certain economic, health and environmental criteria, while the California Public Utility Commission uses a broader term, Environmental and Social Justice communities. The latter includes DACs as well as all tribal lands and low-income areas in the state. California also has developed its own tool, CalEnviroScreen, to choose census tracts as DACs based on poverty rate, unemployment, pollution, the presence of hazardous waste and health outcomes. 

This definition beyond racial makeup or even income or the designations created by the state, and what it signifies may direct investment into different communities than would receive funding under a simpler criteria. According to Travis, this may cause communities with slightly higher incomes but that are severely burdened by pollution to be included at the expense of lower income communities.

What we know is ... that having worked in the more mature markets across the country, it really takes not just one thing, but a series of things to increase every adoption of electric vehicles in those diverse communities and sectors.

Although the complexities of how these states set a criteria can lead back to specific communities continuing to be left out, it still comes back to how policymakers, utilities and urban planners understand the history of these marginalized communities. 

"Planners definitely need to understand the history of environmental racism in communities of color, especially as it relates to health impacts from vehicle emissions," said Tara Duvivier, a senior planner at the Pratt Center for Community Development. "Planning for more open space is fine but if we also aren’t working towards reducing emissions for communities of color, then we aren’t going to make a real dent in the issue and that is at the core of the disconnect with those marginalized communities.”

While progress is still to be made, companies such as ChargePoint, one of the largest EV charging technology companies, keep their ear to the ground to understand what changes need to be made so that equity is a real part of this transition to electric vehicles. 

"An important question is how do we really bring electrification to people that don’t have the access to a passenger vehicle. Because not everyone has a car or access to a car, so we have to start looking at bus electrification, tractor electrification, port electrification and bringing incentives to these newer technologies that are coming to market right now can help broaden the equity for specific communities," said Anne Smart, vice president, public policy for ChargePoint. "It is important for everyone to think regionally and make sure that we’re designing the policies that are really going to enable the kind of equity necessary for clean air."

States such as New York and California already have made great strides in bridging the gap with those communities. Both have created incentives for EV charging stations as well as pushing the electrification of their own transit bus systems, a major culprit in creating GHGs in these communities. 

California is heading towards having zero-emission vehicles by 2035 or 2040, which potentially would create a standard for other states to follow. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the "EV Make Ready" bill, which would develop 50,000 charging stations by 2025 and increase the number and range of EV programs to stimulate $1.5 billion in new investment and provide more than $2.6 billion in consumer benefits and economic opportunities. New York state will also set aside $206 million to benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. That amount includes an $85 million investment to fund three innovative clean transportation prize competitions. In New York City even school buses will be electrified.

This is all great news for the U.S as it transitions to an EV model, but supporters of EVs are already swimming against the current when it comes to educating the general public about the problem with GHGs. If BIPOC communities continue to be left out of the discussion, it only serves to make the overall process for clean energy and equity harder. 

"What we know is … that having worked in the more mature markets across the country, it really takes not just one thing, but a series of things to increase every adoption of electric vehicles in those diverse communities and sectors," emphasized Travis. "We know that it starts with engaging in listening, and the approach we take is we don’t know everything. We go into these communities and listen to what they need."

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