3 Ways Congress Can Improve Access to Electric Transportation

A pay and charging station for BlueLA was unveiled in Los Angeles on June 9, 2017.

Fossil fuel-powered transportation is a major source of harmful air pollution and the leading source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. With a bicameral and potentially bipartisan infrastructure effort on the horizon, Congress has the opportunity to invest in electric transportation solutions—such as electric vehicles or electric buses—to help drive down pollution in communities living with unhealthy air, as well as mitigate climate change. As policymakers develop these investment ideas, they should prioritize options to expand access to electric transportation infrastructure that benefits low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities and communities of color in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

This column looks at three ways in which Congress can use its forthcoming infrastructure package as an opportunity to align 21st century transportation solutions with community-centered planning that will help build healthy and climate-smart communities.

1. Support community charging to expand electric vehicle use to more people who do not own homes

Slashing climate pollution and air pollution in the time necessary to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change will require most personal vehicle owners to switch to an electric vehicle (EV) in the near future. Yet electric vehicles remain unaffordable for many LMI people, and states and local governments are exploring ways to provide financial support to any driver who wants to make the switch. Outside of the affordability question, however, another barrier remains: Private property ownership, and in many cases access to personal curb space or a driveway, can be a prerequisite for installing an at-home EV charger. In the United States, LMI residents and people of color are less likely to own a home than higher-income and white residents because of the high upfront costs of purchasing a home and historic and current racial discrimination. This not only exacerbates wealth inequality but also creates a steep barrier to participation in the EV market for these communities.

If Congress intends to invest in EV charging infrastructure, policymakers should ensure that any grants to state and local governments or the private sector support public charger access by providing funds to install public charging stations in community spaces and workplaces. Public transportation access points such as bus or rail stations, parks, community centers, libraries, and schools can all serve as places for charging, along with privately owned community assets, such as grocery or convenience stores, commercial strip malls, general stores, clinics, places of worship, and gas stations. Alternatives to at-home charging would allow more people to become EV drivers, as they could charge their cars as they go about their day if chargers were widely available.

2. Improve mobility and air quality by investing in public and shared electric transportation

Car ownership does not work for everyone due to expense or ease-of-use concerns. Therefore, an infrastructure package also should incentivize the electrification of shared transportation options, such as swapping existing diesel-fueled municipal and school buses for electric ones. These investments allow governments to recoup their money and start saving in a short period of time due to the low cost of electricity compared with diesel fuel. Electric buses are already transporting passengers and improving air quality for riders and pedestrians in cities across the country, including Chicago, Denver, and San Antonio. Congress can expedite deployment of electric buses in LMI communities by expanding the Low or No Emission Vehicle grant program and the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grant program.

Policymakers also can create grant programs to support state and local projects that provide access to shared electric vehicles, shuttles, or vans in specific LMI communities. In Los Angeles, for example, the BlueLA electric-car sharing program helps low-income residents reduce the time it takes to run errands—relative to the time it would take with the bus. In Sacramento, three on-demand electric micro-shuttles will soon provide low-cost transit for residents in the Franklin Boulevard community. In the rural Central Valley, community leaders and farmworkers started electric ride-sharing programs that provide important grassroots-based mobility solutions for their communities. In all of these cases, electric transportation helps affordably improve mobility for LMI residents in areas with high levels of pollution. It also provides a good financial option for cash-strapped local governments that may not be able to afford a full bus or rail system, while still reducing traditional car dependence and helping LMI residents save money.

3. Fight inequality and smooth the road for electric transportation with community partnership grants

Infrastructure investment in neighborhoods working to make ends meet can inadvertently have adverse effects. For example, developers and landlords can use new transportation infrastructure investments as an excuse to raise housing prices and displace the residents that policymakers intended to help.

Early community engagement is central to avoiding these unintended consequences. When developing new transportation plans, policymakers must engage community leaders and residents from the outset of program idea formation and throughout implementation. Cities such as Seattle are putting racial justice principles into practice by forming plans for citywide EV charging infrastructure in collaboration with a city Environmental Justice Committee.

Congress should issue community partnership grants to help city policymakers collaborate directly with low-income communities and communities of color to find the best fit among electric transportation options and ensure that development is tailored to meet local needs and account for the realities of LMI communities. In order to support equitable partnerships, funding would allow cities to hire community partnership leads to maintain engagement with community members and support communication with city leaders and agencies; hold regular community meetings in LMI neighborhoods to gather input on desires and concerns, as well as organize meals, child care, stipends, and transportation for attending community members; and establish processes or equity checklists, such as those used in King County, Washington, to ensure that plans for electric transportation investments are being transparently developed with maximum community input.

In the years to come, infrastructure investments to lower transportation sector climate emissions are likely to be historic and to reach all corners of the country. Equitable partnerships in each U.S. community would ensure a greater chance of investment success and shared benefit.

As of 2017, electric transportation represented only 1 percent of U.S. transportation use overall. By supporting community EV charging and public and shared electric transportation options, as well as helping local policymakers productively engage with members of LMI communities and communities of color, Congress can advance the electric transportation revolution, maximize taxpayer dollars, and create fairer and healthier communities.

Miranda Peterson is a research associate for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress.