How electric cars can promote environmental justice, not gentrification

Electric vehicles are having their moment in the spotlight and it is only expected to intensify in the coming years as automakers increasingly commit to transitioning from gas-powered to electric vehicles. A related issue is for communities to house enough EV charging infrastructure so residents feel comfortable in their ability to power up. Where to install infrastructure requires some forethought to ensure it is distributed equitably and contributes to environmental justice rather than gentrification.

Last year, the city of Chicago enlisted consultants to analyze its existing EV infrastructure and make improvements, especially with EV charging station locations. Northwestern University masters students were among the commissioned groups that assisted with the project, while advancing their own knowledge and skills. 

  • Consultants analyzed Chicago’s DC fast charger plans, budgets, markets, and customers to determine the city’s current EV market and project what it might look like in the future. After crunching this data they presented the city with recommended locations for new EV chargers.
  • The consultants determined the city’s 449-unit charging network would have to expand more than sixfold by 2030 to meet the growing EV demand. Less than 1% of Chicagoans are EV users but an additional 55% are likely to become EV users.

The Northwestern students learned the complexities surrounding the issue related to equity.

  • Chicago’s existing EV chargers are heavily concentrated on the North Side, where the average resident has more wealth than the average South Side resident. A large proportion of EV users live on the North Side; the consultants examined the chicken-and-egg problem of whether EV adoption might be higher there simply because charging infrastructure is more readily available. 
  • Simply dropping EV charging stations into South Side neighborhoods isn’t necessarily the optimal solution because individuals in underserved neighborhoods often view these technological additions as signs of gentrification instead of progress. That fuels fears about the technology attracting more wealthy residents to the neighborhood, ultimately driving up rents and increasing the risk that longtime residents will be forced out.
  • The complexities emphasize the need for better public engagement, outreach, and education surrounding EVs and other technologies.

The students became aware of educational opportunities for communities just based on their own EV knowledge gaps. “We knew what an electric vehicle charging station was, but we didn’t know even the difference between a level one, level two, and DC fast charger,” Claire Juracka, a student whose team focused on choosing charger locations, said in a news release.

Being part of the consulting team helped students develop problem-solving skills to address widespread challenges. Some students in Northwestern’s engineering and sustainability program also worked on projects focused on battery energy storage and microgrids.

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