The role of electric vehicles in the fight for environmental justice

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Take a moment and visualize: You are walking down a street in a big city when you come across a bus stop.


You see a few people waiting for the bus. The bus rolls, passengers get off and those waiting at the stop get on. Who do you see As the bus pulls away, you see vehicles behind you. One is an electric car. Who do you see driving it?

Growing up in Chicago, public transportation was part of my daily life and that of many others. As a young child, my whole family rode Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses – my sister and I to school and my parents to work. Public transit helped us escape traffic, take a nap on the way to work or school, and avoid scraping ice or snow from a car during the harsh winter months. However, by far the main reason people in the city’s south and west switched to public transit was to save money. Driving a gasoline vehicle can be expensive if you are on a low income. But there is an alternative, which nobody promoted in my community growing up: electric vehicles.

This essay is part of “Agents of Change” – see the full series

So who did you imagine getting on and off the bus? Who did you imagine driving the electric car? The stereotypical electric vehicle driver is a high-income white environmentalist. But electric vehicles could be a crucial stimulus strategy for low-income communities most affected by pollution and uneven accessibility to mobility. Residents of underserved communities compromise on mobility due to budget constraints, while often living in areas with the poorest air and water quality.

This comes not only from direct vehicle emissions, but also from polluted runoff from highways, which have had a negative impact. the story to be placed unfairly in black and brown communities. Expanding access to electric vehicles and educating communities about the cost reductions associated with electric vehicles will help improve air quality and mobility in low-income communities plagued by environmental racism.

High costs of gasoline cars

The limitations faced by low-income people without a vehicle run deeper than mere inconvenience. People without access by car are limited in several ways. For example, buses tend to operate at reduced hours very late at night or very early in the morning, which annoys people with unconventional working hours. Public transport also has limited coverage and doesn’t help everyone the same – service often depends on where you live and where you go. In addition, it is difficult, if not impossible, to effectively reach emergency services, such as the hospital for immediate medical attention, by public transport.

Despite the benefits of owning a car, many low-income people cannot afford gasoline vehicles – and a primary consideration is the cost of gasoline itself. The cost per gallon of gasoline in Chicago has historically been higher than in surrounding areas such as northwest Indiana or certain suburbs of Illinois. Some people even cross the border from Illinois to Indiana to refuel.

For those who don’t drive, it’s much cheaper to spend $ 10 and get a day pass for the bus than to deal with gas costs. In addition to gasoline, there are regular maintenance costs for oil changes, tune-ups and vehicle repairs. Those dollars add up quickly, on top of things like auto insurance, parking fees, annual emissions tests, toll roads, car payments, and more. When money is tight, it makes sense to avoid these costs by simply opting for the bus or train.

When I used to drive a gasoline vehicle, there were times when I had no money for gasoline, or could only afford to put a few dollars in the tank. Other times I needed to visit the mechanic but couldn’t afford the expense so I ignored issues until I could afford to fix them. However, despite what some believe, there are more options for low-income people than public transit.

Save money by going electric

Public charging stations are generally free. (Credit: Tatiana Height)

electric vehicle environmental justice

Author Tatiana Height at a charging station. (Credit: Tatiana Height)

A transport alternative rarely mentioned in the context of low-income populations is the electric vehicle. I understand that some people just cannot afford a car of any kind and that public transport will play a crucial role in urban mobility, but for those who are looking for a new vehicle, I hope the following paragraphs give you something to consider.

Again, when people think about who drives an electric vehicle, they tend to imagine wealthy environmentalists driving Tesla cars. However, there is a plethora of electric vehicle models, and many are viable options for low-income people. I personally made the switch in December 2020, and what I’ve learned since has been invaluable.

On the one hand, electric vehicles are no longer more expensive than gasoline vehicles. Many people think Teslas are the only electric cars on the market and cost prohibitive, but several automakers offer more affordable electric models such as the Chevy Bolt, Mini Cooper SE, and Hyundai IONIQ. Some automakers such as General Motors and Honda have pledged to stop producing gasoline cars by 2035 and 2040, which will only expand options for car buyers.

This essay is also available in Spanish

My car, a 2019 Nissan Leaf, cost around $ 22,000, comparable to many other sedans on the market. I no longer worry about fluctuations in gas costs or even gas availability. While many drivers this year were afraid of running out of gas, I was able to rest easy. I drove down the road and saw a line of cars around the block waiting for what I thought was an event, but which turned out to be a gas station!

During this time, public charging stations are generally free. Compared to $ 50 and more to fill a gas tank, the cost of $ 7 to $ 18 at a private charging station is much more affordable. I don’t have to worry about oil changes or emissions testing, and I receive significant federal tax relief. In addition, when I installed my own home charging station, I learned that I will be able to recover more than half of that money on my 2021 tax return. Electric vehicles can be accessible to individuals with limited budgets, especially since costs continue to fall over the next few years.

This experience, added to my years as an urban planner and environmental educator, allowed me to defend electric vehicles in communities like the one in which I grew up.

The environmental justice of electric vehicles

If low-income neighborhoods adopted electric vehicles, these areas would also enjoy significant environmental benefits since these vehicles are zero-emission. Right now, there are on average about two cars per U.S. household. In addition, in 2013, transport represented around half of carbon monoxide emissions and a quarter of hydrocarbon emissions. Since we know that emissions exacerbate climate change, moving towards zero-emission vehicles such as electric cars will make a noticeable difference. For example, a report from 2014 by the Environment America Research & Policy Center details the pollution avoided in several states due to electric vehicles. Thus, not only do electric vehicles have the potential to improve the mobility of low-income communities, but they could also improve air quality.

One source that communities can turn to for information on improving equity in electric mobility is EvHybridBlack, “The country’s largest network of drivers and enthusiasts of various electric vehicles. “

Although electric vehicles are not the absolute solution to mobility choice and climate justice, they must be part of a larger strategy for transport equity and environmental justice.

Footnote: While the suggestions in this article may be helpful considerations for some, the author does not want to deny the experiences of those who are not only low income, but who experience extreme poverty. The author recognizes that even the cost savings associated with electric vehicles will not be sufficient to create access to all levels of the socio-economic spectrum.

Tatiana (Tots) Height is a doctoral candidate in agricultural and extension education and a conservation and community development professional in North Carolina.


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