As President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal recently came out and the state of Colorado is considering its own transportation funding bill there has been a lot of interest in electric mobility.
I think it’s time to talk about equity with electric cars as well.
Let me start with my background. I live in Boulder and I grew up in Palo Alto, California, two overwhelmingly gentrified cities where most residents are quite well off financially. The city councils in these cities rarely have problems finding money for local projects compared to other parts of the United States.
Thus, transportation issues for someone like me who owns a car look different than for people who live in other places where affording a car is difficult or where there are more pressing issues of environmental pollution and injustice. All that being said, I am a graduate student amassing a large pile of student loan debt to complete a master’s degree in environmental policy.
Many of my fellow students at the University of Colorado Boulder have their own personal cars, as Boulder is still not the type of place where one can get around without a car even though the bus system is something to brag about and the university provides local bus passes for students. Still, many students either live in apartments or rent houses, trying to save on housing costs on a grad student budget. How many of the 80 students in an environmentally-minded state like Colorado, a rich area like Boulder County, and in a graduate school program specifically studying environmental issues own an electric car?
I know of two.
I’d personally like to make the switch to electric mobility. Times are changing and I’m slowly losing the fear of not being able to find enough charging stations for an electric car, a problem commonly referred to as range anxiety. The state of Colorado recently set aside a large sum of money to place DC fast charging stations for electric vehicles all around the state in strategic locations. We are not where we need to be, but I am warming to the idea that, as someone who likes taking long road trips, buying electric might be sooner in my future than I initially thought. However, there is one problem: I rent. I do not own a garage or a parking space where I can install my own charging station and my apartment building has no electric car charging stations.
One option for renters is for local governments to amend building codes to require new construction of multifamily complexes and apartment buildings to dedicate a certain percentage of their parking spaces for electric car charging. Ambitious governments could put a retroactive requirement on existing residence buildings to retrofit their on-site parking structures for electric vehicles. We should be careful, however, to not simply let residential buildings increase the total number of parking spaces. Ultimately, what would be best for land use, the environment, and the general well-being of people is to increase public transit options rather than promoting the use of personal vehicles.
Another option for renters and lower-income individuals who still want to transition to electric cars is to incentivize gas stations to reform into electric fueling plazas. When I called my leasing office to confirm there were no charging stations onsite, they suggested I check the gas station around the corner. While my neighborhood gas station does not have this capacity, my landlord making the connection between gas stations and electric car charging should make us wonder: Why don’t gas stations offer electric charging?
In 2019, a gas station in Maryland became the first to switch completely to an electric fueling plaza. As Tesla has led the car industry in electrifying cars and more and more car companies are rolling out their own electric car models, it is now time to figure out how to change the transportation infrastructure. Gas stations will not become obsolete anytime soon, but many should make the switch to electric fueling plazas. The transportation sector is electrifying as we speak, whether gas stations like it or not.
Colorado did pass a law a couple years ago to incentivize gas stations that want to transition, specifically setting up standards for electric fueling and an oversight process for how much utilities can charge for electricity provided by electric charging stations.
More should be done, however, in terms of educating gas station owners on how to retrofit their properties for electric charging and the costs of doing so. Further down the road, as gas stations do become obsolete, we are going to see a lot of them turn into brownfield sites.
Currently, there is no comprehensive study on where all the abandoned gas stations are today, and some of them have not even taken out their underground gas tanks, as federal law requires. It would be quite prudent to transform gas stations into electric fueling plazas to avoid this massive increase in brownfield sites across the country. Colorado’s Division of Oil and Public Safety runs a fund to redevelop abandoned gas stations. Businesses should take advantage of this program and redevelop these sites as electric fueling plazas, potentially also for medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles. Local, state, and federal governments should all consider subsidizing gas stations that want to make the transition now.
There is another major issue I have to mention. As an aspiring electric vehicle owner there is nowhere for me to test drive an electric vehicle. Let me clarify. There is nowhere for me to test drive an electric vehicle in a meaningful way. Think back to the test drives you have done at car dealerships. How long did they let you borrow the vehicle for? Twenty minutes? Thirty?
Sure, you got a good sense of how the car feels to drive and how well it runs, but for electric vehicles I would love to try them out for longer, say a few days. Why, you ask? The change from a gas car to electric is more than about just the car. It is also the charging infrastructure I would have to get used to. I would need to know where all the charging infrastructure is in my town. If I am not going to charge at home — remember my apartment does not have this capacity — I need to know where to recharge and how to schedule charging time into my day.
I spent some time a couple months ago and called most of the local car dealerships in Boulder and Denver to ask about renting an electric car. None of them offered electric models, and almost all of them were stumped as to where I could look to rent one. Only a specialty offshoot of Enterprise in Denver called Enterprise Exotics had an electric Tesla model for rent, but it was way too expensive for my budget. Car rental companies have had some bad luck with renting out electric vehicles almost 10 years ago, mostly due customers returning electric models for gas cars because of range anxiety. But electric charging infrastructure is evolving so quickly that it may be useful to try the experiment again. Car dealerships could also jump on the trend of renting out some electric models to the general public, instead of simply offering the short test drive.
Electric cars should be for everyone who currently owns or needs a gas car, not just for those who have greater access to charging stations on their own property. Building charging stations at apartment complexes, incentivizing gas stations to incorporate electric charging stations, and making electric car rentals more widely available would all help quicken the pace of electrifying our transportation sector.