The Electric Car Revolution Shouldn’t Leave Anyone Behind

A new program in St. Louis, Missouri, is bringing EVs and charging stations to low-income neighborhoods—and turning senior and disabled residents into early adopters, one ride at a time.
A driver at the Northside Youth and Senior Service Center (NSYSSC) assisting a senior in St. Louis, Missouri, May 25, 2021

All photos by Nick Schnelle for NRDC

When older or disabled residents of St. Louis, Missouri, need a lift to a doctor’s appointment, computer class, the grocery store, or some other type of shopping trip, they can call on the Northside Youth and Senior Service Center (NSYSSC) to pick them up at their doorstep. The Black-led nonprofit serves the city’s historic neighborhoods of color and gives an average of 10,000 rides each year. Typically, the organization’s drivers arrive in large white vans, but starting this summer, they’ll also show up in either a blue, white, or black Chevy Bolt.

From top: An NSYSSC driver loading home-delivery meals for seniors at NSYSSC; NSYSSC executive director Leon Threat and NSYSSC programa director Shana Watson in front of one of the current (non-EV) vans at the center.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of something that’s going to so radically change the way people move about,” says Leon Threat, NSYSSC’s executive director. Threat is referring to a new initiative called SiLVERS that will introduce electric vehicles (EVs) and EV charging stations to more areas of St. Louis through organizations like his.

Soon, a contractor will install three charging stations at NSYSSC’s offices in the Ville  neighborhood and the group will receive three Chevy Bolts to help it provide its services to the community.  Two more electric cars and their accompanying charging stations are headed to the city’s south side, for use by another organization, City Seniors, headquartered in the Bevo Mill neighborhood. When not occupied by the Bolts, the stations in both areas will be available for public use.

Getting almost 260 miles per charge, the Bolt’s operating costs are lower and more consistent than a gas-powered vehicle, as are its maintenance costs. All together, this means the organizations can spend more time and money on their missions than on fixing their cars.

A city of St. Louis Chevy Bolt plugged in to charge at the unveiling of St. Louis, Missouri’s new EV fleet and charging station outside the St. Louis City Street Department, February 25, 2021

The equitable electric car-sharing program in St. Louis—a collaboration between the city, the utility Ameren, and several organizations, including Forth, a nonprofit advocating smart and shared transportation—is one of several around the country helping to make electric vehicles, and the cleaner air they bring, more accessible.  The city of Denver is subsidizing EV-sharing memberships for essential workers and underserved community members through a program called Colorado CarShare. In Boston, a program called Good2Go in Roxbury, the center of the city’s Black community, offers a tiered pricing system based on a resident’s income. And in Los Angeles, income-based memberships of BlueLA go as low as $39 a year.

These efforts help ensure that “the benefits of these technologies aren’t just going to people who can afford a Tesla right now,” says Kelly Blynn, NRDC’s electric vehicle technical strategist for the American Cities Climate Challenge—a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and several other organizations to reduce emissions in the buildings and transportation sectors in 25 U.S. cities. As they benefit riders and their communities, the initiatives are also paving the way for a more equitable EV revolution.

Switching to electric cars is an important step in the fight against the climate crisis, and a big part of President Biden’s plans to create jobs while setting the country on a path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To succeed, we’ll need to electrify everything—replacing the country’s current fleet of combustion vehicles with electric cars, buses, and trucks, and importantly, generating the electricity they run on via carbon-free sources, such as wind and solar.

Maurice Muia, councilman for the city of Richmond Heights, Missouri, and an NRDC climate advisor in a Chevy Bolt at the unveiling of St. Louis, Missouri’s new EV fleet and charging station

Such an enormous endeavor, of course, requires that everyone has access to these vehicles and the infrastructure necessary for their smooth adoption. To that end, Forth, a Portland, Oregon–based nonprofit advocating for electric transportation, began talking with NRDC’s St. Louis climate advisor Maurice Muia and community members last year about how to best spark electric vehicle use in the city.

A few years ago, a group in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood started a similar project for its residents in senior living facilities. That effort provided a model for how a program in St. Louis could work. Last October, the groups decided to reach out to organizations already providing transportation to community members and helping them expand their services with EVs.

“We’re not forcing a need,” Muia says. “It’s there in front of you.”

Before EVs can really take off in a city, there must be enough charging stations to keep them humming along. But cities must be mindful to place this infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color where the benefits of lower fuel and maintenance costs—and less air pollution—can make a big impact on quality of life. Familiarizing residents with EVs and making them convenient to drive could also encourage some people to buy their own some day—something manufacturers would be wise to take note of so they don’t cater only to the luxury car market. 

North Newstead Association executive director Pam Harris in her office in St. Louis, Missouri, May 25, 2021

Speaking on the human level, Pam Harris, the executive director of the North Newstead Association, which helped spearhead the St. Louis EV project, says offering someone a needed ride has become even more important during a pandemic that has disproportionately threatened and isolated older people.

“Normally, whenever technology is offered, it’s offered to young people, but in this particular aspect, it is offered to seniors,” Harris says. “We're not forgetting about them. We're not leaving them in the back. We're actually bringing them forward.”

Starting this summer, NSYSSC drivers will be transporting seniors in a Chevy Bolt. Here, one senior arrives at the NSYSSC for a computer class.

SiLVERS’s charging stations are slated to go online within the month, and the Bolts, which are under a three-year lease, will start cruising in June if all goes according to plan. Once people start getting rides, they’ll be able to record testimonials on how they liked their EV experience for the groups to share on social media.

Senior residents can show people “how all of us collectively are improving the environment by using advanced technology with one electric vehicle ride at a time,” says Harris. Not only that, she continues, “they can show off. They can say, ‘Great grandbaby, I rode in an electric vehicle! I’m 83 years old!’ ”

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