Chicago Charging Deserts Highlight The Racial Divide Of EVs

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There are 77 different neighborhoods or “community areas” in the city of Chicago, with millions of people — and cars! — making their way to and through these areas every day. 77 communities, yet as of 2018, nearly 70% of all publicly available electric vehicle charging stations were located in just three, predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods. Of the 74 communities and neighborhoods splitting the remaining 30%, meanwhile, 47 predominantly BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) had no public EV charging available at all.  What gives?

“There is still a cost differential [between] electric vehicles and gas vehicles. And unfortunately, the market presumption is to mostly go to wealthier majority-white neighborhoods and communities,” said Susan Mudd, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.

Map of Chicago’s EV Charging Deserts, from Energy News.

There has been a persistent belief in Chicago’s BIPOC communities that owning an EV is more expensive than owning a conventional car. At least part of that comes from the fact that electrification, even in 2020, hasn’t yet reached, or reached out to, most of these communities in any meaningful way, and that’s a problem that affects all of us.

“Just as resources such as grocery stores, bike lanes, banks, cultural institutions and public transit are often less prevalent in Black and Brown neighborhoods,” writes sociologist and legal scholar, Audrey Henderson, “(EV) advocates say that ‘charging deserts’ represent a significant impediment to making the transition to clean energy.”

Ms. Mudd seems to agree with that sentiment, offering that, “we need to address both the charging and the vehicles in terms of more equity.”

If electric vehicle adoption is going to “go mainstream” and genuinely become ubiquitous, it has to be accessible to lower income communities, and in this writer’s opinion, that’s going to be difficult without a significant municipal investment that doesn’t get caught up in “chicken and egg” scenarios. Still, there is an opportunity here in lower-income neighborhoods to make huge inroads towards widespread EV adoption, according to Billy Davis, the general manager at Jitney EV, based in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

“Industry attention, societal attention, the public’s attention is all focused on [climate change] because the planet is on fire,” he told Energy News. “Now is the opportunity, when it is most visible, to encourage people to act because we can see that climate change is happening … there have to be community [charging] stations, not just in private parking lots that you have to pay to get into, but on city streets that are accessible,” says Davis.

Matt Teske, the founder of Chargeway and co-host of the Electrify Expo podcast, echoes a similar sentiment about public perception. “Consumers fundamentally understand cars, they really do,” he told Bloomberg in a July, 2020 interview. “So, it’s not like we’re trying to get people to understand electric cars, we’re really trying to get them to understand electricity as fuel. That’s the psychological hangup with trusting an electric car. If you jump in one and make assumptions, like you do with gasoline, you’re going to get into trouble.”

Chargeway Schema for Simplifying EV Charging

So, what’s the way forward? Just like there was in those 3 rich white communities getting 70% of the EV charging network, there is going to have to be some investment into other communities as well. “The work that we are doing is really to address this, to help folks understand that there are electric vehicles at every price point,” explains Terry Travis, co-founder and CEO of EVHybridNoire, an Atlanta-based organization devoted to promoting electric vehicle ownership among African Americans. “There are used electric vehicles for sale starting at $5,000,” he says. “So, the single mom, single dad, or grandfather, uncle– the community can benefit from any transportation that requires less maintenance, requires lower operational fuel costs … we do a lot of work around ensuring that communities are included in the conversation before infrastructure is deployed, so the community can see the asset and understand that it’s a community asset.”

“It [works] more subliminally. You see more acceptance; you see more mental reinforcement,” says Jitney EV’s Billy Davis. “Having that subtle reinforcement before you’ve even purchased it, when you see more EVs on the road and you see more charging stations on city streets and on highways, then you have that reassurance that you’re not going to run out of [charge], like you would run out of gas between stations.”

What do you guys think? Is increased access to public vehicle charging the best way to encourage EV adoption in lower income and/or BIPOC communities– in Chicago or anywhere else! Or, is there a more proven model for widespread EV adoption that would work out better? Scroll on down to the comments and let us know what you think about the topics discussed here, and share your views with the rest of the class.

SourcesBloomberg Quint, Energy News Network, Chargeway.

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