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Biden wants an electric vehicle revolution. Will communities of color be left behind?

While the White House is driving a proposal to accelerate electric vehicle usage to combat carbon emissions, advocacy groups say Black and brown neighborhoods must benefit, too.
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Bill Williams, a real estate developer on Chicago's West Side, was an early adopter of electric vehicles, at first leasing a Tesla Model S before recently upgrading to a Taycan, the first electric car made by Porsche.

His motivation to drive an electric vehicle, or EV, was largely that the technological novelty intrigued him, he said, although there was another reason: "I'm not saying I'm an environmentalist, but I do think about the Earth, and I do care about the future of the planet. So if it's not too late, I'd like to be someone who's part of the solution."

But persuading more Americans to swap vehicles that run on internal combustion engines for cleaner, battery-powered rides presents a greater challenge. And in places like Chicago, where neighborhoods of color have been combating pollutants and the ill effects of a warming world, providing access to electric cars and charging stations in historically underserved communities so residents benefit from improved air quality and health must not be overlooked, experts say.

"You can factor in the history of this country and how interstates were built right through our Black and brown neighborhoods and the harmful legacy of that," said Billy Davis, the general manager of JitneyEV, which advocates for electric vehicle transportation and charging stations in Bronzeville, a historically Black neighborhood of Chicago. "Just as a matter of justice, the corrective measures to increase electrification and the benefits of that should start in those areas that are greatly impacted."

Clean air and electric vehicle advocacy groups are looking to the White House for a road map: President Joe Biden signed an executive order this month that seeks to cut carbon emissions and tackle the effects of climate change.

The federal government plans to do that by working with the auto industry so that 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030 are electric, and it is pushing automakers to slash tailpipe emissions and increase gas mileage for new vehicles through model year 2026 — nonbinding goals that go beyond what the Obama administration wanted, which were watered down by the Trump administration.

Transportation vehicles, including diesel- and gas-powered cars and trucks, are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

​But the federal government's initiative must go further by guaranteeing that communities of color get the same benefits from the White House's electric vehicle targets, advocacy groups say. They said that can be done by equitably distributing charging stations in areas that would benefit from more use of electric cars and offering grants to those communities, providing car buyers with financial rebates upfront and expanding tax credits so buying vehicles is not as financially burdensome, and working with communities to support electric car-sharing programs like one in Minneapolis-St. Paul that has partnered with Somali-, Hmong- and Karen-speaking organizations.

"Climate change impacts Black and brown communities first and worst," said Terry Travis, a co-founder of EVNoire, a national environmental consultancy organization that advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in the transportation sector. "From our vantage point, there's an urgency of now. We're not talking about suburban communities where the air quality tends to be a lot better."

Changing Americans' attitudes toward electric vehicles and making them more accessible and cost-effective for car buyers is only one part of Biden's proposal.

Experts say the infrastructure also needs to be firmly in place, meaning charging stations must be as common as gas stations on every corner.

"Investment to date has focused on higher-income areas, so that's a challenge here," said Shruti Vaidyanathan, the transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit organization that analyzes federal energy policies. "We need to see government investments supporting new chargers, specifically in low-income and environmental justice communities and communities of color. That's a big part of what we need to ensure that EVs are a reliable option for these residents."

A study last year by researchers at Humboldt State University in Northern California reviewed the state's census data and found "stark disparities" in the availability of public electric vehicle chargers across socioeconomic and ethnic groups, with Black and Latino drivers likely to have the least access.

"Public charging stations have primarily been deployed at, and more accessible to, wealthier and whiter" communities, the study found.

In Chicago, data analyzed last year by Northwestern University revealed that while electric vehicles are registered in all of the 77 community-designated areas of the city, the majority of public charging stations were in the mostly white and affluent North Side, while mostly Black and Latino communities in the South and West sides were "charging deserts" with no access to public charging stations.

A bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate last week includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, only half of what Biden initially wanted in support of 500,000 new charging stations.

Vaidyanathan said the White House will need to be "much more aggressive" not only to meet his climate targets but also "if he expects to drive EV deployment at the scale we need."

Overall, Americans are mostly tepid about electric cars, with 39 percent of respondents in a poll in June by the Pew Research Center saying they were "somewhat likely to seriously consider" buying one as their next vehicle, while 46 percent said they were not too likely to consider it or would not at all.

A report in 2019 by researchers from the University of California, Davis examined consumers who buy new and used electric vehicles and found that while Black and Latino car buyers account for 41 percent of gas-powered vehicle purchases, they account for only 12 percent of electric vehicle purchases.

Travis, who bought his first electric vehicle — a pre-owned Nissan Leaf in 2014 — said a "psychological shift" among consumers could help convert more to electric vehicles. That includes not only increased visibility of charging stations in places like strip malls and parking lots but also the right kind of messaging.

Terry Travis is the co-founder of EVNoire, an environmental consultancy organization that advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in the transportation sector.
Terry Travis is a co-founder of EVNoire, an environmental consultancy organization that advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in the transportation sector.Courtesy Terry Travis

"I don't look like the typical profile of an EV driver," said Travis, who is Black. "So when I go on a grocery run and someone sees me get out of my car, I allocate time if they want to ask questions."

He said he fields plenty, including questions about the cost of electric vehicles (for instance, a lower-end Chevrolet Bolt can start at around $31,000, and some EV models are eligible for tax credits) to how long they take to charge (a completely drained Bolt may need about 9½ hours) to whether they can be driven in the rain (yes).

"Once you get somebody to understand what they're like, the light bulb flips on and they say, 'Why isn't everybody talking about this?'" Travis said.

Travis said his group has been engaging with students at historically Black colleges and universities and with Native American communities to help them learn about the benefits of electric vehicle technology.

A smattering of cities and communities across the country have also been taking into account accessibility of electric vehicles and infrastructure in their planning.

In 2020, Chicago officials passed a landmark ordinance that requires new residential construction with at least five units and onsite parking to include charging stations.

Because not everyone owns a home where they can readily charge an electric vehicle, it is that forward thinking that will help change perspectives, Travis said.

"We're dealing with more than 100 years of habit with internal combustion vehicles," he said. "Things won't just change overnight."