Let's talk about the elephant in the room. fast chargers and, to a lesser extent, level-2 chargers are not being deployed equitably throughout the US and, in fact, the world at large. Many communities, mostly communities of color, are devoid of any access to public chargers. The same is true in rural areas. Because of this situation, communities of color and rural areas are often termed "charging deserts." A charging desert is an area that lacks significant level-2 and DCFC charging infrastructure.
The map above, obtained via the PlugShare app, shows a portion of Metro Atlanta. As it illustrates, there are lots of public charging opportunities north of I-20. That delineation has historically separated the haves from the have-nots in Atlanta. It just so happens that south of I-20 also tends to be what separates communities of color from more prosperous areas. There is a large cluster of chargers in the southwest corner of the area described, but those are installations at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. Most of those are in paid parking and are not readily accessible.
Take a look at Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, or any city that has established an EV charging infrastructure. There are significantly fewer installations in lower to moderate-income areas. And those happen to be, and not by coincidence, communities of color. Even communities of color with higher incomes are being left out.
Rural areas, which also tend to have lower incomes, have been left out as well. And, particularly in the Southeast US (though certainly not limited to), a higher percentage of those residents, on average, are people of color. And, there hasn't been much of a conversation going on about this problem until now.
Addressing the problem
Dr. Shelley Francis first experienced an EV in 2015 after having caught a ride in a Lyft that was operated by a LEAF driver. Ironically, she was on the way to pick up her Lexus SUV from the dealer where it was receiving an oil change. She noted, "The ride was quiet and very smooth." Asking the driver about the car, she discovered it was an EV. The driver told her about how the car didn't need oil changes. Her interest was piqued.
A short time later, she caught a ride in a LEAF taxi in Washington DC. It was now clear to her that these cars worked and combining that with the servicing aspect, or lack thereof, sold on the idea of an EV. She purchased a LEAF.
Dr. Francis, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a former Medical School professor whose research focused on health disparities, public health, and maternal and child health outcomes, also noted that "Communities of color are often those most afflicted with air pollution, translating to higher rates of asthma morbidity, chronic diseases, cancers, and other respiratory issues." However, as she drove into these communities at home and during her travels, it became clear that, as Dr, Francis puts it, "In black and brown communities, there is nowhere to charge."
At charging stations, she would occasionally meet other people of color who had driven long distances because of the lack of chargers and fast chargers in their neighborhoods. "We would chat about having long drives to get to a charger, and then using up a lot of that charge to get home. A sense of kinship began to form” and, as Dr. Francis puts it, "I began to wonder what I could do about this. I became motivated by the conversations that weren't happening."
Terry Travis also noticed that EVs were an ideal solution. But where Dr. Francis focused on the public health aspect, Mr. Travis interests point more towards technology and economics. "The cost of gasoline, especially on the west coast, can be hard to overcome. EVs, particularly in California, can save drivers a lot of money."
Mr. Travis, however, has been aware of EVs and other Alternative Fuel Vehicles for quite some time. During a Fellowship in Europe ten years ago, he’d seen the evidence. “I saw EVs and Fuel Cells Vehicles at the German manufacturers, and I saw that they could work.” He added, “EVs make economic sense and also make sense for the environmental benefits.”
Several years later they founded EVHybridNoire to address these issues. The organization focuses on increasing the number of diverse EV drivers and addressing the specific needs of disadvantaged communities through education, awareness, advocacy, data collection, and providing resources and access to underserved communities around affordable, clean, and sustainable transportation.
To do that, they created an equity framework that collaborates with stakeholders such as utilities, service providers, national and regional non-profits, and government agencies. By doing so, they address these barriers to EV adoption in diverse populations who are under-represented in the EV ecosystem. Mr. Travis goes on to say, "These communities need a safe space for like-minded individuals to have conversations, share resources, and common experiences." A topic that frequently comes up is infrastructure.
Unlike the more familiar regional EV clubs and associations, EVHybridNoire has members from all over the US, Canada, Europe, and South Africa. Not being focused on a region helps surface the issues surrounding infrastructure deployment and adoption on a macro level. And, being purpose-built as a diverse organization, as Mr. Travis puts it, "allows a more welcoming culture and better conversations about issues that affect communities of color worldwide."
Mr. Travis also notes that, in regional clubs, EV drivers of color often find themselves the target of microaggressions for reasons as simple as what they drive. "Just because someone drives a Tesla, doesn't necessarily mean that they don't live in a community of color." He goes on to say, "Sometimes those drivers aren't taken seriously when they bring up the lack of equity in regards to charging infrastructure in their community."
Living in a charging desert
Myah Adele is a 16-year-old high school/early college admission student who drives a Nissan LEAF. She lives in a rural area of west Georgia where there are no fast chargers and only a few level-2 installations. None of those are convenient or particularly safe places for the 16-year-old to wait the hours it would take to charge her car. Because of that, when asked if she uses public charging, the response was "Not very often."
Myah loves her LEAF because it’s a very efficient car to operate. Being a student, she doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on the gasoline that it would take to get her to school and all of her activities.
How does she cope? Myah carries a level 1 charger with her everywhere she goes. She says, "I plug in at home, during activities, and at friends' homes." She's become adept at knowing how much energy she uses to get to the places she needs to be. That allows her to plan, and that's a crucial skill because living in a charging desert can be inconvenient at best, treacherous at worst.
Jamar Jackson drives his LEAF 60K miles per year and is an expert at locating chargers. He knows where they are wherever he goes. And wherever means between Los Angeles, Lancaster, and Oakland, California. He's in each of these locations at least once a week. And, he gets there in his 2011 LEAF.
He drives an EV for economic benefits. "No gas, no oil changes, no service to speak of, and no brake jobs."
Mr. Jackson, who now lives in Lancaster was, until recently, a resident of South Central Los Angeles where there's very little in the way of charging. His old neighborhood only has one fast charger. That charger, located at the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, is only available during business hours. Other communities such as Watts lack fast charging and only just recently has ground broken in Compton on that community's first fast charger. Just like in other metro areas, the more affluent surrounding areas have, by comparison, an abundance of fast chargers.
Mr. Jackson points out that the reason for this stems from the fact that the utilities and companies that are installing infrastructure look at vehicle registrations to determine where to install chargers. As he puts it, "They use registration information to make the decision where to put chargers, and people in these communities tend to fear the unfamiliar" referring to EVs. He goes on to say, "But why would people in these communities change if there's nowhere to charge? What reason would there be to change?"
When asked if he thinks things will change, he says he does. However, he doesn't think it's going to be a fast transition. As for EVHybridNoire, Mr. Jackson shares his charging experiences-both good and bad. And, he's a loud voice in calling out charging inequity.
Dr. Tony Reames is an Environmental and Energy Policy Professor and JPB Environmental Health Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. He drives a Chevrolet Volt. Even though his car is an extended range EV, he still feels the sting of the charging desert effect.
He has his students conduct an ecological footprint analysis before his class at the University of Michigan School for Environment & Sustainability. "I typically had the highest footprint, and it was primarily because of my daily commute to campus. So getting an EV was one way I felt I could begin to walk the talk."
Because of the lack of infrastructure and a little "range anxiety," he chose the Volt. That means the battery covers 53 of his miles to and from work. And, while he does have access to chargers at the campus, they're not always available and difficult to access. Southeastern Michigan has limited charging infrastructure, so Tony does charge at home, and there are a few chargers in nearby business parks he can use.
Dr. Reames says he’s excited to be in the EVHybridNoire group because “The information shared is great for me and it’s an outlet to share information. As a social science researcher, the discussions in the group offer a rich entry into the world of EV drivers of color, often counter to prevailing narratives.”
His point regarding "prevailing narratives" is echoed by other members of EVHybridNoire. Another member says, "EVHybridNoire feels more like a family because we are connected by shared experiences. We are no longer the only "one," the only EV driver of color that we know. And beyond that, we are shifting the narrative from what an EV driver looks like." Another goes on to say, "We need to be part of the conversation from the beginning. We want to be a priority when key stakeholders are making decisions."
The scientific literature is clear on how air pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color. EV adoption and ownership can help mitigate the impact. However, communities of color first need to be educated about EV adoption, along with its benefits.
EVHybridNoire, a 501c3 non-profit, is actively working around the country to change this narrative. They work extensively to capture data around the area of existing narratives and facilitate awareness, education, advocacy, and events. And by doing so, empower members to facilitate this conversation at a local level.
At this year’s Roadmap conference in Portland, Oregon, EVHybridNoire won the Community Partnership Award for their work in transportation equity. The organization is now the nation’s largest network of diverse EV drivers and enthusiasts. They see their most important role in providing a safe space for its members. Those members connect across multiple platforms, and the organization grows organically by having its existing members invite like-minded individuals to join.
Taking a seat at the bigger table helps communities that are left out of the conversation, advance it in terms of equity. This matter is far too critical to the health and well-being of underserved communities to be ignored.
EV drivers know that getting the word out is hard. When communities are left out, that only serves to make the overall process harder. Dr. Francis and Mr. Travis are working to level the playing field so that every community has access to information to make informed decisions and the infrastructure that makes EVs truly useful.
To find out more about EVHybirdNoire, visit their website (however, it's currently down) or email them at email@example.com for more information.