By Stacy Noblet

The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. Rapidly decarbonizing this sector is essential to achieving the Biden administration’s commitments to reaching a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 and advancing smart fuel efficiency across the country. In order to meet these goals, steps can be taken across the public and private sectors to ensure fair and equitable access to electric vehicles (EVs). While low-to-moderate income (LMI) and minority communities are typically the most impacted by pollution and poor air quality, EVs are not always readily accessible to these communities, creating a catch-22.

I recently moderated an expert panel discussion presented by the ICF Climate Center about how communities can increase access to electric transportation in underserved communities. I was joined by industry veterans from Exelon EXC +1.6%, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), Greenlining Institute, and Highland Electric Transportation to dive into this topic. We aligned on several actionable steps and best practices to bring the benefits of EVs and other electric transportation technologies to underserved communities across the country.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

Community collaboration drives successful EV programs

It’s imperative that we not only shift our focus to helping communities on a localized level, but take a community-first approach to ensure everything that we’re doing is meeting their needs. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, so we need to invest in understanding the specific barriers to EV access at a city and regional level.

To start, engage with trusted community stakeholders – groups that understand the socioeconomic, policy, and cultural implications of their community better than anyone. These stakeholders are the key to developing and successfully implementing plans, policies, and programs that encourage EV adoption without perpetuating disparities.

The state of California provides one example of leading with community involvement. It created the Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group, a coalition of community-based organizations representing local underserved communities. This group is a way for California to ensure that disadvantaged communities are being heard and will benefit from proposed clean energy and pollution reduction programs.

As Román Partida-Lopez, Legal Counsel, Environmental Equity at the Greenlining Institute put it during the panel conversation, “We know if we address the impact for those that have the biggest barriers, we’re finding solutions for everyone else.”

Public and pupil transportation will fuel access at scale

While programs, incentives, and initiatives designed to raise awareness of and access to personal EVs are important, vehicle ownership isn’t practical for everyone, particularly people living in LMI and inner city communities. In these cases, we also need to focus on electrifying public transit fleets at scale.

LMI communities often rely more heavily on public transportation. For example, 60% of low-income students rely on school buses, while only 45% of higher income students rely on them. Of all the school buses in operation in the U.S., 95% are powered by diesel, adding to the pollutants and air quality pitfalls in communities relying more heavily on them.

“School bus electrification is designed to benefit all communities and has tremendous power to do so, but has outsized potential benefits for historically underserved communities,” said Matt Stanberry, Managing Director, Highland Electric Transportation, during the discussion.

Another example of public transportation driving increased EV access is with rideshare. Exelon is partnering with Lyft to provide Baltimore with 100 EVs for a rideshare pilot program beginning later this year.

During the panel, Denise Galambos, Vice President of Utility Oversight at Exelon said, “63% of all rides start or end in low-income areas, 83% of drivers identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, and 65% of all riders identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.” Bringing this program to communities in Baltimore will result in more EVs on the road, increased awareness of EVs, and greater access to income opportunities for community members.

While lower income communities may get more immediate benefits from the direct use of electrified public transportation, improved air quality and lower GHG emissions will benefit the wellbeing of the community as a whole.

Education accelerates equitable access to EVs

Education is one of the most important steps in advancing access to electrification, but it’s a two-way street. Policymakers, utility companies, and other program administrators need to educate themselves about the needs of local communities to best serve them. At the same time, these key stakeholders are well-positioned to lead the charge in education and awareness about the benefits of EVs, as well as the incentives and programs available to make EVs more accessible.

Education initiatives – from town halls to social media campaigns – will look different in every community, which is why engaging and listening to trusted community leaders is essential to their success. As Garrett Fitzgerald, Principal of Electrification at SEPA said during the panel, “Equity doesn’t just mean giving everyone the same tool or resource, but really understanding what it is they need to succeed, and in the context of transportation electrification, understanding how they are or are not being engaged in those direct benefits of transportation electrification.”

The key is to streamline access to educational resources about EVs so communities get a better understanding of the unique advantages and opportunities available to them. For example, Austin Energy created the Plug-In Austin campaign to educate the community about the benefits of EVs, as well as financial incentives, charging locations, and news about electrification in the city of Austin. This program includes interactive and straightforward content, making it easier for everyone in the city to learn about how they can take advantage of electrification.

At the end of the panel conversation, we received a comment from an audience member, reiterating the importance of education, saying, “The benefits of any program cannot be fully realized if people within the communities aren’t aware of them.” While new technology and policies are extremely important to the growth of electrification, education and community outreach are what make it truly relevant for everyone.

Driving equity and access into the transportation electrification space will directly impact lower income and disadvantaged populations, but it will also provide the entire community with benefits such as improved air quality and lower GHG emissions, making it a win-win for everyone.

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