Making Electric Vehicle Charging More Equitable Is Key to Our Clean Vehicle Future
Recent federal funding as well as targeted policies and programs can help ensure public charging is accessible for all.
Once a rare sighting—except maybe in upscale retail parking lots—public chargers for electric vehicles (EV) are now steadily multiplying. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that there are almost 140,000 ports at roughly 53,000 charging stations across the country. But if half of new U.S. car sales are going to be electric by 2030—a goal of the Biden administration—one estimate suggests we’ll need closer to 1.2 million public chargers to meet that rising demand. Where these are eventually installed, the cost of using them, and which drivers stand to benefit are all key to just how successful the EV revolution will be.
Currently, most of the nation’s public chargers remain clustered in areas where wealthy, predominantly white, early EV adopters live. That’s not altogether surprising, given charging station developers went where there was demand. But this has also created areas with little to no public charging access that often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines.
“To meet our climate, equity, and air quality goals, America needs a national charging system that is accessible to all,” says Max Baumhefner, an NRDC senior attorney. “We need to electrify our interstates and install charging where people live, work, and play.”
Fortunately, the United States now has a distinct opportunity to ensure that this happens.
Avoiding the inequity that previously shaped the transportation system
Core to the development of our national EV charging infrastructure is the work of not perpetuating the racist policies that have shaped other parts of the transportation system. For example, highway expansion projects have historically displaced people of color, literally splitting their neighborhoods in half and segregating them from their white neighbors. That’s led to divestment for many of these communities, which had long-term effects like depressing land value. Public transit options, too, are often more robust and well maintained in commercial business districts, catering to park-and-ride customers more than transit-dependent riders living in the area. And even well-intentioned investments in bike lanes and sidewalks in communities of color can lead to green gentrification, driving up prices and pushing longtime residents out.
“We’re at a tipping point. We need to deploy [EV chargers] at a much faster rate than we’re doing so now, but sometimes speed gets in the way of engaging with communities. We must be thoughtful and intentional to adequately address existing access challenges.”
Román Partida-López, senior legal counsel for transportation equity, Greenlining Institute
Already, there are signs that history could repeat itself with EVs. In one recent study looking at New York City, researchers found that the location of charging stations was not correlated with population density, as one might guess. “On the contrary, the distribution of EV charging stations is heavily skewed against low-income, Black-identifying, and disinvested neighborhoods in NYC,” its authors wrote. They found that chargers were much more prevalent in neighborhoods that were wealthier and whiter, as well as closer to highways. Reporting by the Washington Post also looked at charger distribution in 14 major U.S. cities, including Austin, Texas; Chicago; and Orlando, Florida. In 13 of those cities, majority-white census tracts were more likely than both majority-Black or majority-Latine tracts to have at least one public charger.
Drivers and nondrivers alike suffer the consequences of these trends. For some, a lack of charger access may hinder EV adoption. And, ultimately, all residents in those communities end up missing out on several important EV-related benefits—namely cleaner air and better health. That’s because these are often the same people who live in high-traffic and industrial areas with the highest levels of harmful tailpipe and fossil fuel pollution. Chronic exposure to such pollutants can have devastating effects on health, from asthma to a heightened cancer risk to premature death.
This is why advocates emphasize that replacing gas- and diesel-powered vehicles with cleaner electric ones must go hand in hand with equitably deploying EV charging infrastructure. And the communities that have been most harmed by the current transportation system must be included in the shaping of related policies and investments.
Why new federal funding and innovative EV programs can help
The good news is that an influx of federal money to help with this is on its way. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) directs $5 billion over the next five years to help build 500,000 EV chargers across the country, particularly along national highways, by 2030. In order to access these federal funds, states had to submit implementation plans to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that intentionally considered equity, though the real measure of success will come as those plans turn into steel in the ground. The infrastructure law also offers a historic $2.5 billion in community-level grants that can fund EV charging infrastructure, prioritizing low-income and rural communities. There’s even the potential to further supplement these investments via larger IIJA programs. Meanwhile, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) extended tax credits that subsidize the cost of charger installation for both households and businesses.
“We have to focus government incentives on providing access to communities where the private sector won’t naturally go first. We can think of these recent federal programs as providing that initial down payment,” says Simon Mui, director of NRDC’s clean vehicles and fuels group. “Going forward, the idea is to catalyze a lot of private investment—equivalent to the Shells and BPs of the world—to build out charging infrastructure, so that eventually it’s mostly private finance.”
Other kinds of targeted EV policies can improve access too. Lawmakers have now passed “EV readiness” ordinances, for example, in dozens of cities, from Honolulu to St. Louis. These require developers of multifamily housing complexes—where about 80 million Americans live and where residents can’t easily charge overnight in garages—to better prepare properties for eventual EV charger installation. Advocates are also championing requirements that allow public chargers to be used without a smartphone or bank account.
Innovative ride-sharing programs are proving to be another successful way to increase EV access and awareness. That’s particularly true for residents who cannot afford to purchase their own car or who only want to drive the first and last leg of their trip to better connect with public transit. Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, launched the country’s first-ever municipally owned, renewably powered electric car-share program in 2022. The Evie Carshare service offers more than 100 Chevy Bolts across a 35-square-mile area, and the program was quick to take off. In its first six months of service, drivers logged nearly 25,000 trips, with very-low-income residents driving a third of the total trip hours. “This program is a fantastic example of what can happen if you center racial equity and access as you think about transportation electrification,” says Samantha Henningson, an NRDC advocate for clean transportation who worked as an advisor alongside city officials to develop the program.
How we support EV equity moving forward
As federal funding gets distributed, advocates are working to make sure policymakers prioritize equity, not just at the start but at every stage of planning.
The Greenlining Institute—a California-based nonprofit focused on racial equity and a partner of NRDC in the Charge Ahead California Initiative—put together a set of guiding principles to help with what comes next. The organization notes that community members, as stakeholders and partners, must agree on a clear definition of equity from the beginning and that policymakers must create related metrics to ensure their work serves people and their actual needs, rather than just checking boxes in, say, certain zip codes.
Román Partida-López, the Greenlining Institute’s senior legal counsel for transportation equity, sees problems arise when public dollars go toward installing chargers in areas designated as “disadvantaged,” but then those chargers are put in highway corridors or commercial or industrial spots that aren’t actually accessible to residents. “We want to ensure we're providing access and benefits to people, and not just places based on geographical locations..”
Charging infrastructure programs should also create opportunities for the residents who’ve long been shut out of the clean energy economy, Partida-López says. Communities should be owners in the EV industry and not just consumers. This could look like green workforce development or securing charger maintenance contracts with local minority-owned businesses. These are all pieces of the equity puzzle that often require time and deliberation.
“We’re at a tipping point. We need to deploy [EV chargers] at a much faster rate than we’re doing so now, but sometimes speed gets in the way of engaging with communities,” he says. “We must be thoughtful and intentional to adequately address existing access challenges.”
To his point, simply building more chargers won’t solve EV equity concerns. The cars themselves have to get cheaper, too, which they’re on track to do, in part thanks to the new IRA subsidies and some state incentives. Electricity will also need to be affordable enough for everyone, especially for those who rely on public charging stations. And to get there, Partida-López notes that we’ll have to reject the chicken-or-egg paradigm that plagues EV infrastructure discussions. That’s the one that says we can delay building chargers until there are enough EV drivers in a given area. “Charging and vehicle incentives need to target the same areas and be rolled out at the same time,” he says. “For these communities, we need them both. That’s how we’ll build trust.”
Protect health and fight climate change with cleaner vehicles!
This NRDC.org story is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.
Failing to Meet Our Climate Goals Is Not an Option
What Is Congestion Pricing?
Biden’s Clean Trucks Proposal Is Too Slow on Ditching Dirty Diesel