Electric vehicle car-shares, charging ports and other pieces of the green mobility future may go unused in many communities if the projects fail to understand local needs or the communities the projects hope to serve.

“I think it’s important that this is just not about, 'Let's put some electric vehicles where they’re going to improve the air quality for folks who have been most impacted by bad air,'” said Jeff Allen, executive director of Forth, a nonprofit trade association and advocate for electric mobility based in Portland, Ore.

“That’s part of the equation,” said Allen, speaking during a Feb. 12 webinar hosted by Forth. “But it’s also about, 'How are we going to use these technologies to actually improve mobility options for people, and how are we actually going to use this growing industry to create job opportunities and economic opportunities for folks?'”

“Equity” is a frequent rallying cry by advocates of transit, micro-mobility programs like bike or scooter shares, as well as promoters of smart city projects. The point, said Joel Espino, environmental equity legal counsel for The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, is to devise programs that “grow justice and fairness” in cities. 

“So sometimes that means making sure that the neediest and most vulnerable people in society who are facing systemic disadvantages … have the resources to catch up,” said Espino, speaking during the webinar. “So that’s really what we’re trying to do with these programs.”

A number of smart mobility programs in cities across the country have taken on equity in various forms. When San Francisco granted operation permits to Scoot and Skip to introduce electric scooters, the city’s transit officials made that decision, in part, based on the companies’ commitment to serving low-income residents.

The Charge Ahead California Initiative — passed by the California Legislature in 2014 — helped to kickstart the EV equity ecosystem in California, said Espino.

Those efforts have spurred more than 17 projects at various stages of development, attracting some $280 million of investment allocated from the state’s cap-and-trade program. Since 2015 the state has secured $540 million, in part from the Electrify America program, which has been invested in the charging infrastructure in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

“A lot has been happening since 2014,” said Espino.

An electric car-sharing program in affordable housing areas in the Bay Area received $2.25 million in funding and is set to launch later this year. Part of the project is a more thorough needs assessment to see what else is needed to improve the community’s mobility. These could include bike-share memberships, transit passes and more.

And then there’s the so-called “scrap and replace” program in Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley, which provides a voucher of up to $9,500 to help low-income drivers purchase a new or used EV. The program has received $112 million from the cap-and-trade program, with $85 million awarded.

“That’s been a really successful program. And the hope is that we’re expanding that program to the Bay Area region later this spring and also to the Sacramento region later this year,” said Espino.

In the Bay Area, participants will be able to scrap their car in exchange for vouchers valued at up to $7,500 which can be used toward transit passes or other mobility options. Other projects like a $10-a-day car-share program in Portland, Ore., which used donated electric-powered Honda Fits, taught organizers that it was a good idea to put child car seats in the vehicles.