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EV Accessibility for Black and Brown Communities Is Essential for Successful EV Adoption in US

A recent study highlights how EV adoption in California has some disparities across race and income.

ByMarc Carter Published February 8, 2022 01:00PM EST

Fact checked byHaley Mast

Electric vehicles (EVs) continue to increase in popularity, largely due to the fact that there are a lot more models to choose from. But not everyone is buying them, even though they can be 40% cheaper than traditional cars.1 A recent study by Chih-Wei Hsu and Kevin Fingerman from Humboldt State University highlights how EV adoption in California has some disparities across race and income. The main causes are a lack of public chargers and the cost associated with buying an EV.2

The study finds that “public charger access is lower in block groups with below-median household incomes and in those with a Black and Hispanic majority populations.” The disparities increase in areas with a higher proportion of multi-unit housing, since public chargers are even more crucial.2

“As we found in our study, Whiter and more affluent neighborhoods are more likely to have access to public chargers,” Hsu stated. “On top of that, lower-income and largely Black and Latino communities are also more likely to be renters living in apartments or attached housing where off-street parking is rarer. This means these folks are more reliant on public chargers if they do adopt EVs, but public chargers are harder to find in their neighborhoods or destinations they visit more often.”

A fix is on the way, as the Biden administration announced the details of its EV Charging Action Plan in December 2021, to create a network of 500,000 chargers. The plan calls for a $5 billion investment to build a national charging network, which will significantly increase the number of public chargers, which currently includes just over 100,000 chargers.

Cost parity is another big factor in EV adoption since the cost of electric vehicles is still higher than comparable internal combustion vehicles. According to Kelly Blue Book, the average transaction price for an EV was $56,437 in November 2021, compared to $25,650 for a compact car or $51,367 for an entry-level luxury car. These stats aren’t too surprising, since most of the newest electric vehicles are priced at the higher end of the market. Very few automakers have introduced more attainable EVs, like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt.

The cost parity with conventional vehicles is likely to come between 2024-2025, according to a working paper from Nic Lutsey and Michael Nicholas. Future lower battery pack costs will result in lower total costs for EVs.

Treehugger spoke with Hsu to do a deeper dive into the recent study and answer some questions that further explain the situation. Public chargers are just one of the reasons for the lower adoption rates, but lower costs, better education, and government funding can help.

Treehugger: Why do the Black and Hispanic communities buy fewer EVs than non-Hispanic whites? Besides just income barriers, what other reasons do you feel cause the disparity?

Chih-Wei Hsu: I think income and cost as you mentioned is a big reason why Black and Latino communities own fewer EVs. When it comes to new EVs, they are not yet at price parities with ICE vehicles. The federal tax credit helps, but is not as useful to lower-income buyers as it’s not money off the hood and the buyer’s income needs to be more than 60k or so to have enough tax liability to benefit from the full tax credit.

Another reason for lower EV adoptions in the lower-income communities is that, rather than new vehicles, they are more likely to purchase used vehicles. And when it comes to used EVs, the early models provide a limited selection and are not really that practical with a limited range like 50 or 60 miles. Some people can make that work, most are not comfortable with it. The used EVs from later model years do have a better range, but they can cost the same or more than a new entry-level compact ICE car. And also, the lower-income and largely Black and Latino communities are more likely to be non-car-owning households.

Could better education about EVs and their benefits improve EV adoption?

Personally, I think yes, to a certain extent, but education likely isn’t going to overcome the infrastructure barrier. Education and outreach might help folks dispel some myths about EVs and connect them to financial assistance, but if the economics don’t work out and the supporting infrastructure isn’t there, it’s hard to see folks transitioning to EVs.

The government has started to address the EV adoption equity concerns, but how could the government help even more?

Both the federal government and the state government (at least in CA) have money set aside for priority/disadvantaged communities, that’s the bare minimum in my opinion. And sometimes these aren’t quite equity design. E.g., CA’s SB 535 and AB 1550 say that 25% of the GHG reduction funds need to be allocated to disadvantaged communities in CA based on CalEnviroScreen designation.

However, those that are designated as disadvantaged communities in CA make up roughly 25% of the state’s population; at most you might call this a fair program design. I think one way to improve program design is to carefully assess whether the funds are allocated based on needs to help those communities achieve the desired outcomes. E.g., disadvantaged communities have higher financial assistance needs beyond just rebates and tax credits than other communities. So a program to provide broader access to finance, like through loan-loss guarantee, for EVs in addition to rebates and tax credit can be useful there.

I am sure I am preaching to the choir here, but since mobility justice and equity is about providing everyone with appropriate, affordable, and accessible options to meet their mobility needs, a good electric mobility program should be more flexible around the community’s needs and that might not always mean EVs.

The Clean Mobility Voucher program in CA is an example of this where a voucher (or funding) is provided to communities and organizations to fund the mobility programs that make the most sense to them based on their community needs assessments. In terms of EVs, this can mean shared EVs where it makes sense, as some of the CMO awardees are rolling out. But this can also mean an array of other mobility options that achieve the same or even more emissions abatements and meet the communities' mobility needs.

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