By Melanie Curry

California has been investing a lot of money towards trying to shift the state’s transportation towards a system that contributes to the well-being of the planet and its people, rather than its headlong just-build-more-highways tradition of the last fifty years.

A key stated component of many of the state’s programs has been making sure they benefit everyone, not just those who can afford to take advantage of the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, for example. That program offers CA residents a financial incentive for buying an electric or hybrid vehicle, but the price of an EV, even with an incentive, is out of range for many California residents.

And since low-income communities of color typically suffer from disproportionate air pollution and inadequate mobility options, focusing funding and program efforts on them not only is the right thing to do, it can benefit everyone. If done right, fighting climate change, cleaning up air quality, and providing more mobility choices can reduce traffic and car dependency, improve health outcomes, make communities better places to live and work, and help reduce the racial wealth gap.

And there’s a growing recognition that without doing all of this, the fight against climate change will go nowhere. “The evidence clearly shows that a clean transportation revolution will fail to adequately address climate change if it does nothing to wean us off of automobile dependency; fails to liberate us from traffic; continues to expand highways at the expense of walking, biking and public transit; and if we do not drastically reform the way that we fund transportation,” according to a new report from The Greenlining Institute, Clean Mobility Equity: A Playbook.

It’s all new territory. Many of California’s “clean mobility” programs are still in their pilot phases, in the midst of experimenting with innovative strategies. California has been trying out new ideas based on research and public input, but not so much on experience.

The Greenlining Institute’s report is focused on where these programs are working, where they need adjusting, and which should have major overhauls to help the state reach its goals. The information is meant both for California policymakers as well as decision makers in other states and the federal government. It’s an invitation to learn from California’s experience so far.

The report identifies ways California’s existing programs work well to improve equity, presenting these as “best practices” for other programs to follow. As an example, it’s important to take a “multi-sector” approach. This is because equity is integral to other goals, such as good health outcomes, and a holistic approach is the only way to efficiently meet all those goals. One best practice noted is to “require clean mobility programs to integrate approaches beyond greenhouse gas reduction, improved air quality or vehicle-miles-reduction” by considering things like “sustainable land-use patterns, use of vehicles during off times for community needs and emergency response, improved active transportation infrastructure, workforce development and quality jobs.”

Other best practices include requiring community-driven anti-displacement strategies; fund community capacity building and technical assistance; build off existing programs; streamline and coordinate outreach for overlapping programs, and target funding towards communities most harmed by systemic racism, and establish paths towards wealth-building.

These are all things that California is doing, or trying to do, with spotty success.

The report makes three basic recommendations derived from its analysis. First, scale up programs that are working to increase equity and are led by communities, such as the Sustainable Transportation Equity Project. Second, coordinate and standardize programs to avoid duplication, and target funding towards those who need it most. For example, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project “has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, yet it disproportionately benefits middle and higher-income white people. Our limited federal and state funds should instead be designated for more equitable programs like Clean Cars 4 All and the Clean Vehicle Assistance Program that are designed to reduce transportation disparities, not widen them.”

A third recommendation from the report is to phase out programs that entrench dependency on single-occupancy vehicles.

California has disproportionately funneled dollars into the programs that subsidize electric vehicle purchases—yet this is not sufficient to solve the climate crisis. Governments at all levels should still continue to facilitate a transition to vehicle electrification focusing on the people who face the most barriers to access, but in the long run must foster policies that reduce congestion, vehicle trips and unsustainable land use patterns. While some regions are indeed inherently more car dependent, in these areas state and federal funds should fund programs that reduce the need for costly car ownership, such as Our Community CarShare, Green Raiteros, Ecosystem of Shared Mobility, the Agricultural Workers Vanpool Project, the Rural School Bus Pilot, and more.

But this is just the beginning. The report details Greenlining’s standards for equitable investments, and then analyzes 21 state programs. They include the Air Resources Board’s Sustainable Transportation Equity Project, the Clean Mobility Options Voucher Pilot Program, car-sharing at affordable housing, community car-share, the Agricultural Workers Vanpool Project, the California Energy Commission’s School Bus Replacement Program, and the community-owned mobility project, Green Raiteros.

Recommendations include: incorporate a vehicle purchase price cap in the EV incentives program; clarify and reduce the tax consequences for low-income households of receiving a voucher; allow all participants in Clean Cars 4 All to opt for a voucher for a “mobility option” such as an e-bike or transit pass (only one region has introduced the e-bike option so far).

The report concludes:

The case studies included within this equity evaluation are innovative, exciting programs and many had never been tried before. As with most pilot projects, things have not always run smoothly—understandably there have been delays, missteps and, most importantly, lessons learned. Yet this experimentation has allowed program administrators, advocates and other stakeholders to continuously evolve our understanding of how to develop and deploy clean mobility programs that truly center equity.

After centuries of injustice, society owes it to low-income communities of color to eliminate the programs that are not delivering on equity, improve existing ones, and allocate more funding to the most equitable programs. However it is critical to think in the long term to sustain the most equitable clean mobility programs past the pilot phase. To get there, we will need comprehensive strategies to secure long-term funding mechanisms and to cultivate community capacity.