Many Underserved Communities Face EV ‘Charging Deserts.’ These 5 Strategies Can Help.
Private companies typically locate chargers in areas where usage will be frequent enough to maximize revenue. Given the typical profile of early EV adopters, those locations tend to be in wealthier, whiter urban areas. Photo: Brothers91/iStock

The rapid acceleration of electric vehicle adoption in the United States comes with the risk of leaving historically disadvantaged communities behind if charging infrastructure isn’t adequately expanded. Many people of color and people living in rural areas, low-income neighborhoods and other underserved communities already face financial hurdles to purchasing electric vehicles (EVs) — and the lack of access to charging infrastructure will only exacerbate the challenge. However, local governments can play a vital role in making sure public charging stations are equitably distributed and available at costs all residents can afford.  

In 2022, EV sales in the U.S. doubled their market share to 8%, reaching over 900,000 sold. That number is poised to rise considerably thanks to the 2022 passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains historic clean energy investments and incentives, and the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed vehicle emissions standards in 2023.

By 2030, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects, 48% to 61% of private cars under 8,500 pounds on the road (30 to 42 million vehicles) may be electric. This transition is critical for the U.S. to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals and to bring cleaner air and improved health outcomes to underserved communities that have borne the brunt of historic inequalities in transportation-related air pollution. But early EV adopters have tended to be male, highincome and homeowners with access to home charging.

The success and speed of this transition depends on the rapid scaling of EV charging infrastructure to all U.S. residents. NREL calculates that powering 33 million EVs would require 28 million charging ports — 26.8 million privately accessible at homes and workplaces, 1 million publicly accessible chargers near homes and workplaces, and 182,000 fast chargers along highways. As of July 2023, the U.S. has just 141,900 publicly accessible charging ports and 19,600 private charging, non-residential ports — so there is much progress to be made.

As with all large technological shifts, these changes risk leaving people behind. Besides underserved communities, existing public charging stations are also often not accessible for individuals with disabilities. Overcoming all these disparities is critical for an equitable transition to EVs.

What Contributes to Disparities in Charging Access?

In every state in the U.S., Black, Hispanic and Native American households have lower home ownership rates than white households due to historic and ongoing discriminatory housing and lending policies: 47% of households of color  in comparison to 72% of white households. Similarly, low-income communities are finding it harder to buy a house — low-income homeowners comprise 27% of total homeowners, in 2020, down from 38% in 2010. Renters frequently do not have access to dedicated off-street parking or the ability to make electrical upgrades.

Studies estimate that only 22% of U.S. vehicles have reliable access to a dedicated home charging space within reach of an outlet that is capable of charging a small EV overnight, so many EV drivers (homeowners or not) will need public charging. Private companies typically locate chargers in areas where usage will be frequent enough to maximize revenue. Given the typical profile of early EV adopters, those locations tend to be in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods and in urban areas.

Aerial view of a solar-powered EV charging station in Stuart, Florida. The success of the transition to EVs hinges on reliable access to charging for all Americans. Photo: felixmizioznikov/iStock

This results in a “chicken or egg” cycle: less access to charging in historically disadvantaged communities (including lower-income, rural, and Black and Hispanic communities) creates barriers for residents who might otherwise be interested in purchasing or using EVs, contributing to continued lower adoption and charger access in the future.

Electricity costs are also a barrier to equitable access to EV charging. Where it does exist, publicly accessible charging is usually more expensive than at-home charging and typically requires the use of a smartphone and/or credit card for payment, which creates hurdles for low-income users. And even when home charging is technically possible, underserved communities are more likely to face higher energy burdens. Analysis from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that low-income households spend up to three times more of their income on energy costs compared to higher income households. Further, compared to white households, Black households spend 43% more of their income on energy costs, Hispanic households spend 20% more and Native American households spend 45% more.

Finally, certain areas of the country are burdened with aging housing and grid infrastructure, which makes charger installation more complex and expensive due to the necessary electrical panel and transformer upgrades — and aging infrastructure tends to be concentrated more heavily in low-income areas.

How are Local Governments Expanding Equitable Access to EV Charging?

Some local governments recognize these challenges and are developing strategies to ensure all residents have access to the charging infrastructure needed to transition to EVs. Through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Energy to Communities program, WRI and partner NREL have supported more than 30 local governments as well as partners such as Clean Cities coalitions as they expand public charging infrastructure throughout their communities and ensure it is accessible and affordable for all.

From WRI research and this direct work with local governments, we’ve identified five promising ways local governments are making progress:

1) Let the Community Provide Input on Charger Locations

Surveys, community engagement and consultation with trusted local organizations will help to address charger disparities and understand current transportation patterns and community needs. Engaging all types of current and potential EV users, with special attention paid to those who have been historically excluded from municipal planning processes, can help to ensure that public chargers become well utilized and meet the needs of different users.

Best practices include asking community members upfront where they would like to see chargers installed. Mapping tools, surveys and visual aids can help facilitate these discussions. Seattle City Light (Seattle’s public utility) recently undertook an extensive community engagement process and received more than 2,000 submissions for potential charger locations, equally distributed across city districts; the utility is beginning to undertake installations in those areas.

Community knowledge can also surface barriers, like potential safety concerns at certain locations, or avoid deployment slowdowns, like in San Antonio, where plans to install chargers were temporarily delayed after the city realized that some proposed sites were not accessible for individuals with disabilities. The city responded by redesigning sites in compliance with the U.S. Access Board’s design recommendations for accessibility.

2) Prioritize Public Charging Infrastructure in Charging Deserts and Near Multifamily Housing

Addressing charging deserts — areas that lack easy, widespread access to EV chargers — will be critical in full transportation electrification, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The severity and nature of a given charging desert will differ between urban and rural locations and by levels of access to home charging. One common problem is that renters and residents living in multifamily housing lack the ability to integrate charging into their own private residence, making areas dense with apartment complexes and rented properties more likely to be charging deserts.

Thus, transportation planners should consider prioritizing areas with more multifamily housing as they develop EV charging policies, plans and programs. One example is Cook County, Illinois, which is developing a grant program to site chargers in charging deserts using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. County staff mapped the locations of existing chargers and found large service gaps in the south and southwest suburbs of the county. Based on this information, they prioritized grant awards for applications from sites in under-resourced communities, areas with high density of renter-occupied housing and areas with a higher amount of multifamily housing, largely in the suburbs.

Cities like Dallas and regional governmental entities like the Kings County Association of Governments in California are taking similar approaches by mapping multifamily housing density in their jurisdictions and prioritizing those areas for public charging (in conjunction with other indicators such as EV ownership rates) to support residents who cannot yet access at-home charging.

3) Expand Curbside Charging in Urban Areas

In dense cities, proportions of renters and residents of multifamily housing are frequently high. Expanding access to curbside charging can help fill the charging gap burdening these populations.

Curbside charging often requires updates to municipal zoning codes and permitting processes to enable the placement of chargers in the right-of-way (for example, paid public parking spots along curbs in commercial districts), an intensive undertaking.

New York City has partnered with electric utility Con Edison and charging company FLO to pilot curbside charging since 2021; initial results are promising. A report on the pilot found that charger usage and reliability were high, with utilization rates reaching 54% in some areas, thanks to charger placement in easily accessible curbside locations. The city will use the pilot results to tweak, improve and expand the program to more residents. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the city is adding hundreds of pole-mounted chargers to streetlights, a cost-effective and innovative approach to expand curbside charging.

An electric vehicle is hooked up to a pole-mounted charging station in Los Angeles. The city is adding hundreds of these chargers to streetlights to expand access to curbside charging. Photo: Emmett Werthmann/WRI

4) Increase Clarity and Transparency Around Pricing

Publicly accessible charging infrastructure is often owned and operated by private charging providers like Blink, Chargepoint and Tesla. The charging fees are not standardized and vary greatly, which is confusing for customers. Sometimes providers charge a flat fee on a per-session basis, while others charge a fee per hour or per kilowatt-hours. Other providers require subscriptions and for customers to keep a balance in an account. This already complicated landscape is even more burdensome for people who don’t have access to credit cards or smartphones required for payment.

If local governments own or contract chargers through municipal procurement processes, there’s opportunity to influence how fees are set and whether to differentiate fees by user type. For example, Waco, Texas recently released a request for proposal that requires charging fees to be set within 20% of the market price within the area. They also requested a 30-day notice on charging fee changes for infrastructure owned or funded by the city. Local governments can also consider offering free or discounted charging or memberships to low-income users of publicly owned stations. There is precedent for this within city-run bikeshare programs, including those run by Chicago and Alexandria, Virginia.

Other potential approaches to clarifying and standardizing pricing for EV charging include requiring or encouraging pay-per-kilowatt-hours structures, which are generally considered more transparent, or flat hourly fees without subscriptions. Local governments can also require transparent signage about fees, similar to gas station signs.

5) Provide Charging for Other Forms of E-Mobility

Lastly, it’s crucial to think beyond privately-owned vehicles and consider how charging fits into broader community transportation patterns, needs and climate goals. Many low-income Americans do not own personal vehicles and rely on public transit or micromobility, like bikes or scooters. As local governments work to reduce vehicle miles traveled in their communities, these alternative forms of travel are becoming more prevalent.

Truly equitable access to EV charging requires taking a system-wide approach and electrifying and providing charging for all modes of transportation: e-bikes, e-scooters, e-rideshare, e-ride-hailingelectric school buses and transit e-buses.

In St. Louis, Forth Mobility’s SILVERS initiative is working to provide EVs to two local nonprofits that provide non-emergency rides and food delivery to elder residents. Denver’s popular e-bike rebate program offers higher amounts of funding to income-qualified residents. Further local governments can electrify publicly owned fleets. The U.S. Federal Transit Agency reports that 108 transit agencies operated over 1,500 e-buses in 2021 and cities such as Boston are committing to fully electrify their school bus fleets.

A charger plugged into an electric school bus. Truly equitable access to EV charging extends beyond passenger vehicles to electric school buses, rideshares, e-bikes and more. Photo: TW Farlow/iStock

Local governments can consider siting publicly accessible chargers in ways that support these EVs, for example, chargers at common field trip locations where electric school buses may frequent. They can also develop EV mobility hubs as a multimodal charging solution; for example, Pittsburgh is developing 50 mobility hubs that include charging for scooters and bikes and accommodate cash payments.

What’s Next for Equitable EV Charging?

Success in any of these efforts requires local governments to work hand-in-hand with residents, especially with members of under-resourced  communities, through authentic community engagement and collaboration.

Additional approaches local governments can take include developing electric carshare programs for residents of affordable housing complexes, incentivizing workplace charging and private charging at multifamily housing and reducing soft costs related to EV charging infrastructure by streamlining zoning codes and permitting processes. There is also the opportunity to link across existing city services to provide free or reduced fees for charging for historically disadvantaged or income-qualified community members.

Thoughtful and inclusive rollout of EV charging stations will play a critical role in the adoption of EVs and transition to a cleaner, safer and more equitable energy future for all Americans. As more cities and local governments unlock funding opportunities through the clean energy provisions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, new approaches to electrifying transportation will likely emerge.

This article originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Kat Carroll is a Research Analyst for the U.S. Energy Program at WRI.

Lacey Shaver is Senior Manager of City Clean Energy within the U.S. Energy Program at WRI.

Mansie Hough is Communications Manager for the U.S. Energy Program at WRI.

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