McIlvaine pointed out possible locations for a charger in the parking lot behind the building. Davis, the founder of the 14-year-old Blacks in Green environmental advocacy organization, considered that if her organization doesn’t act, her community might be left behind in the era of electric cars.
“We’re used to elbowing our way to the table,” Davis said. “You have to push and step in and get momentum, because if you don’t, you’ll never catch up.”
Look at any map of charging stations in the United States, and in most of the big cities, what is immediately apparent are big blank spaces coinciding with Black and Latino neighborhoods. Electric vehicle advocates call them charging deserts.
While electric vehicle use is growing rapidly in well-to-do, mostly White communities, minority neighborhoods are being left behind.
In the coming age, the lack of charging stations and electric vehicles that depend on them threatens to worsen an already disproportionate exposure to air pollution in minority neighborhoods and relegate Black and Latino drivers to gasoline-powered cars, which, though cheaper to buy, are more expensive to fuel and maintain.
“If residents of the city cannot participate equitably in the EV market, that would be a failure,” said Stefan Schaffer, a strategist for the American Cities Climate Challenge at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You want to make sure all communities can participate in the economy of the future.”
It’s a question, he said, of “mobility justice.”
But without easily accessible charging stations in Black and Latino communities, advocates in Chicago and across the country say, it will be hard to make progress. In urban neighborhoods where residents lack driveways or garages and must rely on street parking, public chargers are a necessity to persuade consumers to buy electric cars. Yet without EVs in place, there is no commercial incentive to install them.
“They have put Black and Brown people, the people who can least afford it, at the mercy of the market,” said Nuri Madina, the managing director of Blacks in Green.
The infrastructure bill just passed by Congress includes $7.5 billion for the installation of new chargers. The Biden administration wants to see more than 500,000 in place by 2030, a fourfold increase from the current number. The challenge the administration will face is in getting the bill implemented — and in how decisions are made over placement of the chargers.
General Motors, in announcing in October that it will establish up to 40,000 charging stations across the United States and Canada, promised that some will be in underserved urban as well as rural areas.
At the local level, cities from Boston to Orlando to Los Angeles are already moving to try to make a difference.
So far, their efforts are only a start. Here in Chicago, a new ordinance requires new multifamily residences to include charging stations. The state of Illinois has adopted subsidies for EVs that are scaled to income.
An organization called Mobility Development is operating “equity-minded” EV car-sharing programs in Boston; Rochester, N.Y.; and the San Joaquin Valley in California; each with a few chargers open to the public.
St. Paul, Minn., is preparing to launch an EV car-sharing program next year, aimed in part at low-income families who don’t own a car.
Most of these efforts are incremental — a couple of ordinary chargers in Black neighborhoods, a small collection of EVs for car sharing. But some argue that cities need bolder projects to get to equity, or else will always be lagging.
Pittsburgh, where the worst air pollution closely tracks with historic Black neighborhoods, has produced a “Mobility Vision Plan” that seeks to “advance mobility justice to redress the infrastructure racism of the past.” The plan calls for expanding clean transportation options — including EVs — to reach every resident of the city.
In New York, a company called Revel decided that the way to jump-start EV adoption in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was to launch a fleet of electric taxis and build an industrial-size charging station that is used for the cabs and also open to the public in that predominantly Black community.
The taxi fleet “gives us a captive, guaranteed source of demand as we build out our infrastructure,” said Paul Suhey, a co-founder of the company, and that makes it possible to offer a charging service in a neighborhood that has until now not been able to embrace EVs. The charging station is equipped with direct-current fast chargers, which are much more expensive to install than slower models and use significantly more electricity. Suhey argued that these are the best solutions for people who have nowhere to charge their cars at home or while on the job.
But that specific plan wouldn’t work in a lot of cities, where taxis are less of a factor.
“Fast chargers right now, the economics aren’t particularly great,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer advocacy group in Illinois. Without the prospect of a financial return, “no one’s going to come out and build one.”
Advocates say that supply — in the form of chargers — has to come before demand will materialize. Even then, demand doesn’t spring up overnight. A charger installed last May by McIlvaine at a nonprofit called Plant Chicago, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, had had three customers as of mid-October.
But advocates are optimistic that with enough chargers out there, with enough visibility, Black and Latino people will turn to EVs, especially as used electric cars start to come on the market at more affordable prices.
“You have to have the charger there to encourage people to buy electric cars,” said Heather Hochrein, CEO and founder of EVmatch, a Redwood City, Calif., company that produces software for chargers and is taking part in a grant to introduce chargers to underserved Chicago neighborhoods.
“These are communities that just don’t have a lot of demand, and we’re hoping to spur that demand,” she said.
Some proponents of mass transit have mixed feelings about electric cars, especially in a city like Chicago, where more than a quarter of the households do not own a car of any kind.
“This huge investment in electric vehicles just traps us in a car-dependent, asphalt-heavy future,” said Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont. “These investments build a constituency for a motorized world.”
“It’s not an either-or,” said Kolata, of the Citizens Utility Board. “We need both. It’s very important to prioritize the electrification of transit.”
As it is, neighborhood leaders say, public transit in some Chicago neighborhoods is so spotty that electric cars — shared, rented or owned — have to be part of the equation. And they “would create a more livable city for all residents,” said Schaffer, “because tailpipe fumes affect everyone.”
Looking to the neighborhood
For years, the environmental movement in the United States had a predominantly White, middle-class identity. Davis founded Blacks in Green out of a recognition that pollution is a concern for Black communities as well. The organization lobbied for an ordinance that would ban water shut-offs when residents can’t pay their bills, and supported a campaign to promote alternatives to natural gas instead of spending billions of dollars in rate payers’ money to refurbish the city’s aging pipes.
Davis helped lead the effort in support of Illinois’ new climate legislation, which in addition to providing subsidies for EV purchases, sets targets for phasing out coal and natural gas with an emphasis on communities hit hardest by air pollution.
With EVs, Davis is determined to make sure that Black Chicagoans play a key role in solving the drought.
“We’ve worked so hard to bring the clean energy economy to the Black community,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that Black contractors for the Black community — that when the clean energy economy comes to Chicago, they’d be a part of it. Give people a chance to see what it’s like to grow something from scratch in the ’hood.”
Neda Deylami, who lives on the North Side and drives a Tesla, was a founder of Chicago for EVs, an interest group. She was also on the deck that day with Davis and McIlvaine. “Some people say it’s a sign of gentrification when you see chargers,” she said. “I think it’s how you approach it. It’s important to have the right people at the table” — people, she said, conscious of “historical injustices that continue to persist today.”
Blacks in Green recently purchased the nearby house where Emmett Till lived until, at the age of 14, he made his fateful 1955 trip to visit relatives in Mississippi and was brutally murdered by White racists. His death shocked people across the country, especially after his mother insisted that his casket be open at his funeral rather than hide his mutilated face.
Davis wants to put another charger there.
As she sees it, the Till house exemplifies the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South, and the barriers and resistance they met in Northern cities that forced them to build their own businesses and create their own institutions. “When you’re talking about the Till house, you’re talking about enterprise,” she said.
A Black-organized project to install chargers there and throughout Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, she said, is a natural step to take.
On Motor Row
The nearby Bronzeville neighborhood is where Black jazz musicians came to stay when they moved north from New Orleans. Because cabdrivers refused to go there, residents relied for decades on private jitneys to get around — cars that followed set routes through the community.
Today, Billy Davis (no relation to Naomi) is head of JitneyEV, a start-up that plans to re-create that old business, but with electric cars and more flexible routing.
The pandemic has put that project on hold, but for the time being, Davis, a onetime press spokesman for local politicians, is an enthusiastic promoter of EVs.
Showing a visitor around Bronzeville, he stops at an old Ford dealership on Michigan Avenue at 24th Street. It’s a grand Roman brick structure from the 1920s, decorated with terra-cotta tiles and Egyptian-themed pilasters. This was on Chicago’s original Motor Row, when the auto age was young, and now Davis and his colleagues at the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, a nonprofit organization, want to refashion the building for the coming century, installing a coffee shop and EV charging station. They’ll call it Jolt — get a slug of caffeine while your EV gets an electric charge.
There should be no lack of business, Davis said, because Motor Row is just off the intersection of Interstates 55 and 90. Those are highways that were carved, as in most U.S. cities, through predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“We approach this from a viewpoint of environmental justice,” Davis said. “Interstate construction disrupted the chain of wealth-building, and it has a negative health impact.”
Covid-19, which has stricken polluted Black communities harder than well-to-do White ones, emphasized the disparity, he said.
“Our proximity to the negative effects of fossil fuel production, to the interstate highway, puts us at risk,” he said. “When you have charging deserts, this is where the investment has to occur, because this is where the problem is most egregious — lung disease and asthma and so forth. There is such a thing as environmental racism, so there has to be a reckoning.”
On average, non-Hispanic White people enjoy a “pollution advantage,” according to a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “They experience [about] 17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a ‘pollution burden’ of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption.”
“Who suffers most from air pollution? It tends to be lower-income folks who live in transit deserts,” Kolata said.
Paula Robinson, who founded the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, also believes that the Black community has to take the initiative in the installation of EV infrastructure and the creation of a local EV culture. Another Jolt is planned for an old Streets and Sanitation Department building on Wabash Avenue.
“We’re not here to be lab rats,” she said. For too long, she argued, nearby universities and city agencies have pointed to the problems of Bronzeville to justify the funding of various pilot projects.
“Keep your blight close” is the attitude, she said. “It’s not always vicious, but we’ve been falling for the okey-dokey too long. We see ourselves as co-producers, co-innovators. We have to assert ourselves in terms of that equity.”
Vanessa Perkins, who leads an organization called the Community Charging Initiative, has used a $25,000 grant from the Global Warming Mitigation Project to arrange for the installation of five chargers around the city. Her task was to find willing hosts — generally a nonprofit organization or a church — that were able to make a parking space available.
“The Episcopals have been awesome,” she said, motivated by their commitment to “creation care” and stewardship of the Earth.
One charger was installed in October at St. Paul & the Redeemer Episcopal Church, on a quiet backstreet in Hyde Park, a neighborhood that has other chargers but only in the expensive parking garages patronized by doctors and professors. Perkins has applied for another $5,000 grant to pay for the charger that Naomi Davis wants to install at the Emmett Till house.
Perkins’s project shows one advantage of electric cars, said Kelly Shultz of Bloomberg Philanthropies: There are no zoning restrictions on chargers. “You can put an EV station into so many places you can’t put a gas station,” she said.
The grant was arranged through EVmatch, the California tech firm, which supplied the software for the chargers to handle reservations and billing. “We were interested in bringing EV technology to communities that have had historic underinvestment,” said Hochrein, the CEO.
Like millions of other city residents across the country, Perkins relies on street parking. She doesn’t have the option of charging at home, in a garage or driveway. She has to know where she can find an available charger — there are apps for that — and figure out how to spend the time while her car is hooked up.
It’s not ideal, but it’s a start. Naomi Davis believes there’s no time to waste, and any step forward, even a small one, is worth it.
“We’re not waiting for Jupiter to align with Mars,” she said. “There is no choice but to accelerate. We can’t continue with combustion engines.”
Chris Alcantara and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.