The role of electric vehicles in the push for environmental justice

Take a moment and visualize: You’re walking down a street in a large city when you happen upon a bus stop.

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

Growing up in Chicago, public transportation was part of my everyday life and that of many others. As a young child, my whole family rode the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses—my sister and I to school, and my parents to work. Public transit helped us escape traffic, nap on the way to work or school, and avoid scraping ice or snow off a car in harsh winter months. However, by far the greatest reason that people on the south and west sides of the city opted for public transit was to save money. Driving a gas-powered vehicle can be costly if you’re low-income. But there’s an alternative, one that no one promoted in my community growing up: electric vehicles.

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So who did you picture getting on and off the bus? Who did you picture driving the electric car? The stereotypical electric vehicle driver is the high-income white environmentalist. But electric vehicles could be a crucial recovery strategy for low-income communities most impacted by pollution and unequal mobility accessibility. Folks in underserved communities make mobility trade-offs due to budgetary constraints, all while often living in areas with the poorest air and water quality.

This stems not only from direct vehicle emissions but also polluted runoff from highways, which have had a history of being inequitably placed through Black and Brown communities. Expanding electric vehicle access and educating communities about the cost breaks associated with electric vehicles will help improve air quality and mobility in low-income communities plagued by environmental racism.

High costs of gas-powered cars 

The limitations endured by low-income individuals without vehicles are deeper than mere inconvenience. Individuals without car access are limited in a number of ways. For instance, buses tend to operate on reduced schedules very late at night or very early in the morning, which hinders people with unconventional work schedules. Public transportation also has limited coverage, and doesn’t help everyone equally—service is often dependent on where you live and where you are going. Furthermore, traveling efficiently to emergency services—such as the hospital for immediate medical care—on public transportation is difficult, if not impossible.

Despite the benefits of car ownership, many low-income folks cannot afford gas-powered vehicles—and a primary consideration is the cost of gas itself. The cost per gallon of gas in Chicago has historically been higher than in surrounding areas such as Northwest Indiana or some of the Illinois suburbs. Some people even cross the border from Illinois into Indiana to fill up.

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

When I used to drive a gas-powered vehicle, there were times I did not have money for gas, or could only afford to put a few dollars into the tank. Other times I needed to visit the mechanic but couldn’t afford the costs, so I ignored the problems until I could afford to address them. However, despite what some people believe, there are more options for low-income people than public transit.

Saving money by going electric 

electric car environmental justice

electric vehicle environmental justice

A transportation alternative rarely spoken about in the context of low-income populations is electric vehicles. I understand that some people simply cannot afford cars of any kind, and that public transit will play a crucial role in urban mobility, but for those who are in the market for a new vehicle, I hope the following paragraphs give you something to consider.

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

For one, electric vehicles are no longer more costly than gas-powered vehicles. Many people think that Teslas are the only electric cars on the market and that they are cost prohibitive, but several car manufacturers have more affordable electric models such as the Chevy Bolt, Mini Cooper SE, and Hyundai IONIQ. Some manufacturers such as General Motors and Honda, have made the commitment to stop producing gas-powered cars by 2035 and 2040, which will only expand the options for car buyers.

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My car, a 2019 Nissan Leaf, was around $22,000, comparable to many other sedans on the market. I no longer worry about fluctuations in gas costs or even the availability of gas. While many drivers this year were scared at the prospect of a gas shortage, 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 turned out to be a gas station!

Meanwhile, publicly owned charging stations are usually free. Compared to the $50+ to fill a gas tank, the $7-$18 cost at a private charging station is much more affordable. I don’t have to worry about oil changes or emissions tests, and I receive a sizable federal tax break. Further, when I installed my own home charging station, I learned that I will be able to get more than half of that money back on my 2021 tax return. Electric vehicles can be accessible for individuals with limited budgets, especially as costs continue to decline over the coming years.

This experience, layered with my years as an urban planner and environmental educator, has empowered me to advocate for electric vehicles in communities like the one I grew up in.

Environmental justice from electric vehicles 

If low-income neighborhoods took up electric vehicles, those areas would also experience notable environmental benefits given that such vehicles have zero emissions. As it stands, there are an average of about two cars per U.S. household. Additionally, in 2013, transportation accounted for about half of the carbon monoxide emissions and a quarter of hydrocarbon emissions. Since we know that emissions exacerbate climate change, gravitating to zero emission vehicles such as electric cars will make a notable difference. For instance, a 2014 report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center details the prevented pollution in several states as a result of electric vehicles. So not only do electric vehicles have the potential to enhance mobility for low-income communities, but they could also bolster air quality.

One source that communities can turn to for information on enhancing e-mobility equity is EvHybridNoire, “the nation’s largest network of diverse electric vehicle drivers and enthusiasts.”

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

Footnote: While the suggestions in this article may be useful considerations for some, the author does not want to negate the lived experiences of those who are not merely low-income, but are experiencing extreme poverty. The author acknowledges that even the cost savings associated with EVs will not be enough to create access for all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Tatiana (Tots) Height is a doctoral candidate in Agricultural and Extension Education as well as a conservation and community development professional in North Carolina.

This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.

Banner photo: Electric Vehicle Charging Station Norwood, Bronx. (Credit: New York City Department of Transportation)