Although increasing efficiencies in the power and building sectors and alternative energy sources have driven down the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, mobility has continued to increase, making transportation the largest contributor to nationwide greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the United States is one of the few developed nations in the world where the energy intensity of transportation is worsening. The subsequent air pollution resulting from combustion emissions is responsible for approximately 5 to 10 percent of premature mortality in the United States every year.
Such emissions disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, with documented disparities persisting even as decreases in overall national air pollution levels are observed. These disparities are attributed to a history of neighborhood disinvestment, inequitable housing policies, and planning that often places large traffic thoroughfares near minority and low-income neighborhoods. Vehicular traffic, including light-duty and heavy-duty gasoline-powered vehicles, are often among the largest sources contributing to these impacts. Such findings underscore the value of transportation electrification as a meaningful strategy to achieve significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and also an opportunity to transform communities and reduce disparities. Without broad-based transportation electrification in all communities, it is increasingly unlikely that communities will be able to achieve the deep carbon reductions necessary to meet emissions reduction targets.
The likelihood of transportation electrification having wide-ranging benefits—and equitable impacts on the population at large—is reinforced by evolving consumer attitudes toward electric vehicles (EVs) and technological advancements, such as increased EV model availability, longer vehicular range, and shorter EV charging times. If transportation electrification does not account for equity, broad-based transportation electrification will not only be impossible, but the many benefits of electrification will not extend to the most vulnerable communities, further exacerbating existing inequities. To achieve goals of equitable impact, transportation electrification efforts must make equity a focal point by using data-driven decision making, enabling lower-cost markets for EVs, offering innovative program structures and incentives, investing in public charging networks with accessible siting locations, and partnering with utilities and local governments to collectively advance these goals.
The Value of Equitable Transportation Electrification
Increased transportation electrification and the resulting decarbonization advantages cannot be realized without first addressing the existing inequities in the mobility landscape. Studies show that a long commute can be one of the biggest barriers to escaping poverty. The inability to afford a vehicle or the lack of simple and efficient mobility options can make it difficult to access critical services, employment, job training, continuing education opportunities, and community events. The impacts of access disparities are significant, and the long-term effects may be felt in communities for multiple generations.
An equitable electric transportation ecosystem is one in which all populations have electrified transportation options that enable sustainable and reliable access to services. Equity prioritizes the needs of marginalized communities (e.g., historically disinvested and legacy inequities) and vulnerable populations (e.g., special needs populations), as well as fair and just distribution of infrastructure investments. Low-income communities, communities of color, and vulnerable populations stand to benefit tremendously from vehicle electrification. While transportation electrification can empower communities, transit agencies, and utilities to reduce emissions and meet climate targets, equitable electric transportation has the added value of improving community livability and mobility access as well. Reducing emissions helps to alleviate adverse health impacts associated with air pollution, and reducing transportation costs helps alleviate transportation cost burdens, both of which disproportionately impact marginalized communities and vulnerable populations.
Existing Electrification Barriers
To ensure equitable adoption of EVs, policy makers, utilities, community organizations, and vehicle manufacturers must understand the specifics of EV adoption barriers and how they may present differently in disadvantaged communities. Broadly, the barriers that limit purchase and adoption of EVs fall into three categories: infrastructure and technology considerations, economic considerations, and social factors. Particularly in vulnerable communities, these barriers will require policies, programs, funding, and outreach strategies specifically targeted to address each of these categories in a way that promotes equity.
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