I will admit, I didn’t think much about electric vehicle infrastructure until I got an electric car last year. Before I took the plunge, I thought electric cars were mostly toys for the uber rich, and I rolled my eyes at the many Tesla Model Xs rolling around town at the cost of a modest house in many cities.
But when it came time to replace my aging Prius, I stumbled across listings for used electric vehicles (EV) that surprised me. The non-Tesla used EVs were cheaper than comparable gas cars I looked at. Depreciating at 56.6% over three years (almost 48% faster than vehicles of all kinds) used electric cars were much more in financial reach than I had thought (despite benefiting from no state incentives whatsoever at the time I bought my car). The first Nissan Leaf I considered buying was just $8,000, as the Leafs have an even higher rate of depreciation than other EVs.
So I decided to buy.
And then I had to figure out where to charge it.
When I looked for charging stations on PlugShare — the popular app to locate charging stations — I discovered Rainier Valley was effectively EV redlined. There was not a single public EV charger along Rainier Avenue from Rainier Beach to Mount Baker, but chargers were available throughout the rest of the city.
At first, I thought it was yet another sign of inequitable distribution of infrastructure, shutting out communities of color and low-income communities, a tale as old as Rainier Valley. But as I started to ask more questions, I found it was much more complicated.
Everything, it turns out, about EV charging infrastructure is more complicated than I thought. Between the city, county, state and federal government, there are a multitude of entities working on transportation electrification proposals.
For Seattle’s part, in 2016, the Office of Sustainability and Environment’s community-led Environmental Justice Committee reviewed the city’s proposed Drive Clean Seattle vehicle electrification plan. Its goal was to ensure the plan had the needs of people of color and low-income communities at its heart.
The committee came up with some really promising recommendations for connecting disadvantaged communities with EV technology.
Some ideas included changing misperceptions about EVs in impacted communities through marketing and outreach; creating an EV car-sharing program for low-income apartment buildings; creating opportunities for career pathways in EV infrastructure; and direct income-based incentives to encourage EV adoption, and much more. Seattle City Light is now using some of the ideas in its equity-based implementation of EV infrastructure.
I’ll be really interested to see how these proposals unfold, because — and here’s one of the complications — some folks also fear that EV infrastructure will lead to more gentrification in Rainier Valley.
I get that. But from my perspective, it would be foolish to resist the EV revolution — especially when we know that pollution and climate change hit communities of color hardest. It’d be cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Communities of color are going to bear the greatest brunt of climate change. Communities of color are already facing higher levels of pollutants and higher rates of diseases like asthma. Communities of color need to be at the table where those decisions are being made to benefit from this evolution that will inevitably happen. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition; it can happen concurrently with other necessary changes, such as electrifying and expanding public transit.
We must wean ourselves off fossil fuels if we are to meet the Seattle Green New Deal’s 2030 carbon neutral goal and to have any hope of stalling apocalyptic climate change. At 42%, transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions in Washington. Our EV adoption is minuscule in Washington, with just 4.3% of new car sales EV, and even that low number makes us the second-highest adopters in the country. Meanwhile, 50% of Norway’s new car sales were EVs in the first half of the year, due to aggressive incentive programs like no tolls or road taxes for EVs, that make our meager efforts seem laughable. Washington, in contrast, has created disincentives, such as added registration fees for EVs to offset lost gas taxes. My car registration bill, for example, came out to a whopping $709, which included $225 in electric vehicle fees. (Though the expired EV sales-tax credit was thankfully reinstated in April.)
As the city works to create equitable EV infrastructure, at least one private entity is stepping into Rainier Valley. Volta, an ad-based EV charging company that lets users charge for a short time for free, is set to open two chargers on Rainier and Genesee this week, which is welcome news for South Seattle.
Environmental policy only works when it keeps equity and justice at its center, and I hope by keeping communities at the table, the city’s process will fulfill its promise.