City of Los Angeles

A new electric vehicle pilot would provide access and savings to those who need it most.

For all their social benefits, electric vehicles have so far remained the province of the rich. Snazzy Teslas start at $70,000, BMW’s i3 will set you back $43,000, and even the relatively cheap Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf cost around $30,000. That’s nowhere near economy car prices, and given how new the fleet is, it will take a few years to build up a used EV market.

That means low-income families, who tend to live in parts of cities more vulnerable to pollution, can’t always access the tremendous advances in clean transportation technology. L.A. wants to level the playing field with a new pilot program to subsidize EV car-sharing. The city just won a $1.6 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to put 100 car-share vehicles, at least 80 of which are electric, into the low-income neighborhoods ringing downtown L.A. The city still needs to figure out who will operate the service, but it hopes to get the new cars rolling by early next year.

The project addresses both economic and environmental sustainability. Low-income families spend a higher share of their paychecks on transportation than wealthier families, but have less access to car-sharing services, because they aren’t close enough or the cost of membership is still too high. Poor neighborhoods often suffer worse air pollution, but the economic barriers make it hard to ditch old cars in favor of cleaner electric ones.

The collaborative effort came together with help from the Chicago-based Shared-Use Mobility Center, a nonprofit that wants to make it possible “to live well without owning a car,” in the words of executive director Sharon Feigon. She’s got over a decade of experience setting up and running car-share services in cities around the country. She likens establishing affordable car-share in a disadvantaged neighborhood to opening a grocery store in a food desert: it taps into underserved demand.

“Our experience is doing something like this can work really well,” she says. “Take really good electric cars and make them affordable and accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money for transportation—of course that can work.”

Neighborhoods that need it

L.A. is known as a driving city, but public transit has drastically expanded there in recent years. That same transit expansion has had the unfortunate effect of pushing low-income residents out of the improved areas as property values rise, says community organizer Sandra McNeill. As executive director of T.R.U.S.T South L.A., she works to stabilize housing and transportation for the communities getting displaced by new development. She supports car-sharing as a way to keep down costs of living so low-income residents avoid being displaced.

“If they can then defer purchase of a vehicle or sell off a vehicle, there can be tremendous savings that can help stabilize a family,” McNeill says.

Some of the cars will go into South L.A., where McNeill works. It’s a part of town where almost everybody rents—around 85 percent, she says. A family of four there earns $25,000 a year, half the city’s median income. The car-share program will also focus on Westlake, Pico-Union, Boyle Heights, and Koreatown, areas home to large numbers of new immigrants. Many people in all these neighborhoods work in garments, restaurants, or construction, all areas highly vulnerable to wage theft and sub-minimum wage compensation. Healthy food and park space are limited but rates of asthma and cancer are extremely high.

The EV car-share program will go into low-income neighborhoods around downtown L.A., where almost everyone rents and works low-wage jobs. (City of L.A. Sustainability Team)

Those challenges made the neighborhoods ideal candidates for CARB’s grant funding, composed of revenue from large-scale emitters buying carbon allowances from the state. California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León, who represents L.A., authored a bill that designates cap-and-trade funds for neighborhoods disproportionately harmed by climate change and poor environmental quality. In a speech on July 24, de León praised policies that “democratize” climate change progress; “all individuals deserve access to electrical vehicles,” he said.

Community groups like T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. will play a key role in shaping the on-the-ground details of the car-sharing setup, says McNeill, because local knowledge will be vital to the program’s success. Unlike wealthier neighborhoods where car-sharing has already thrived, the new program operator can’t assume everyone in the target area has a bank account, or a cell phone, or an internet connection. That’s quite a departure from the typical car-share system, where users sign up online and locate and book cars on their phones. The program might need to include a call center to help people reserve cars, for instance, but operators there had better speak more languages than English.

That grassroots participation also can be attractive to car-share companies because it helps them ease into a new market, says Feigon. “Part of what I think makes it interesting to the operators is that these community groups will be involved, so they’ll have support,” she says. “From the company’s point of view, it’s all about utilization: if the cars are used in the right numbers then it works for these companies.”

California has set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals—like putting 1.5 million EVs on the road by 2025—and achieving that requires mass participation, says CARB spokesperson David Clegern. “We need the help of everyone and we don’t want to leave anyone out of the benefits of this program,” he says. “[This pilot] gets the technology out there to an audience that might not ordinarily be exposed to it.”

The L.A. city council still needs to formally accept the grant when it comes back from its summer recess, says L.A. Chief Sustainability Officer Matt Petersen. Then they can put out a call for proposals to decide who will operate the car-share. He hopes to have cars operating by early 2016 if not sooner. The city is also working on installing 1,000 public EV charging stations by 2017, and this pilot will add 110 of them.

EV for all

By tackling several problems at once, this pilot stands to benefit low-income neighborhoods in several different ways. First there is the reduction in car-ownership. A good ratio for car-share utilization is 70 users to one car, says Feigon. That means the pilot’s 100 cars can support 7,000 drivers. That’s 7,000 people who can forget about car leases, gas spikes, insurance payments, and the other myriad expenses that come with car ownership. That’s a good chunk of change going back into households that need it most.

Those cost savings have proven attractive throughout the country. Data from SUMC show the number of car-share vehicles in the U.S. has grown consistently over the last decade (below). Currently L.A. has the 11th-most car-sharing cars; New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. lead the pack.

L.A.’s investment in car-share joins a nationwide trend of car-share expansion over the last decade. (Shared-Use Mobility Center / TSRC / UC-Berkeley)

Then there are the environmental benefits. The smoggy, polluted neighborhoods will be able to cut out exhaust for those projected 7,000 drivers. The city estimates this can avoid the purchase of 1,000 gas-powered cars, eliminating 2,150 tons of CO2 emissions annually. If the pilot succeeds, the city will expand the service, increasing the carbon savings.

Most importantly, this strategy recognizes the crucial economic dimensions of environmental justice. Too often, the shiny new green solutions that get written up and promoted cost too much to be accessible to low-income consumers. Middle- and upper-class environmentalists have every right to pay above-market rates for more sustainably farmed kale or designer zero-carbon homes, but if sustainable consumption remains stratified with income, its benefits will be limited.

Green technology prices tend to drop with time, to be sure, but it’s hard to tell just how long that will take. That creates the necessity for positive efforts by municipal governments and their civilian and industry allies to make this technology and its associated cost savings available for those who want it but can’t get it on their own. L.A. has found a powerful model for doing that, one that other cities would do well to explore.

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