The Fuse

In Los Angeles, Bringing EV Carsharing to Low-Income Communities

by R. Kress | August 14, 2015

Los Angeles is notorious for its addiction to cars. From mind-boggling traffic to an underutilized public transit system, it’s the single largest oil consuming metropolitan area in the United States, consuming 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year (roughly .12 mbd). In particular, many of the low-income neighborhoods around in LA lack effective access to public transit and are often priced out of owning a private vehicle—let alone an efficient car like a hybrid or a fully electric- vehicle.

A new program launching this year could be the first step toward changing this reality for underserved communities in LA, by marrying the forward-thinking concepts of car sharing and electric vehicles.

Many of the low-income neighborhoods around in LA lack effective access to public transit and are often priced out of owning a private vehicle—let alone an efficient car like a hybrid or a fully electric- vehicle.

Thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Los Angeles is going to pilot a car-sharing program for low-income residents featuring around 100 hybrid vehicles and EVs. According to the project’s organizers, the City Council of Los Angeles is set to approve the grant this week, and soon, they hope to select a company that will operate the program with a target start date some time before the end of 2015. Instrumental in launching this project with the city of LA has been the city’s partner in the program: Sharon Feigon, Executive Director of the Shared Use Mobility Center (SUMC). Feigon is a car-sharing veteran, formerly the CEO of IGO, a car-share program based in Chicago that was sold to Enterprise in 2013.

“[Los Angeles was] very interested in creating something that would be all electric and low pollution. Right now, a lot of the programs in LA are trying to shift people away from fossil fuels,” Feigon tells The Fuse. She explains that the idea for this new EV car sharing program came out of a conference earlier this year that SUMC organized for the city of Los Angeles on shared mobility. In particular, bringing EVs and car sharing options to low income communities suffering from poor air quality was a central component of the three-year pilot’s goal. “This is really the first project of its kind to combine all of these things.”

The country’s lowest earning families spend over 12 percent of their pre-tax income on gasoline every year.

Beyond reducing air pollution, the project will ultimately bring electric vehicle technology—generally priced out of reach for low-income buyers—to communities that might not otherwise benefit from the technology for many years. Perhaps most importantly, the savings in fuel costs provided by electric vehicles can have a far more dramatic impact on the budgets of families in lower income brackets. The lowest earning families spend over 12 percent of their pre-tax income on gasoline every year.

household spending gasoline income

“This [program] is really going to spread this technology to these communities. It’ll give them a chance to test out and experience electric cars,” Feigon explains.

While Feigon’s project has strong, on the ground, community support—which she says is a vital component to the plan’s ultimate success—she admits that making the program work in real-world applications will be “challenging.”

“Having all electric cars in a car sharing program requires education,” Feigon explains. Her company IGO employed some EVs within a car-sharing system and she remembers the initial obstacles well. “We had a lot of people that didn’t really understand that there wasn’t also a gas engine. They thought that maybe [the EVs] were hybrids. People were excited about using the cars, they’d drive them pretty far and then they’d run out of power.”

The other major challenge to contend with is developing the infrastructure to charge the EVs. Levi Tillemann, author of The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future explains that of all the cities such a program could take place in, LA is perhaps the best-equipped with fast charging stations that can handle EV car sharing.

“Car sharing is a tricky proposition for an electric vehicle because they spend much of the day charging,” Tillemann tells the Fuse. He is not involved in the planning of the project but understands the uphill battle that the city and SUMC are facing. “There are pluses and minuses. But one of the good things about a car sharing program is that you get much higher utilization for the EV.”

As for charging infrastructure, Tillemann is optimistic: “LA has a much better infrastructure for fast charging than the majority of the U.S. So long as they have enough fast chargers that are installed in the area where the EVs are being shared, I think it could work very well.”

While LA does have some EV charging infrastructure already in place—adding a proposed 1,000 charging stations citywide by 2017—the problem is that the stations are not currently located in the underserved communities that this project plans to target.

In fact, while LA does have some EV charging infrastructure already in place—adding a proposed 1,000 charging stations citywide by 2017—the problem is that those stations are not currently located in the underserved communities that this project plans to target.

“[The charging stations] have to be in the neighborhoods where the project is going to take place, of course,” Feigon echoes. “And a lot of the low income communities that are going to be served by this program are not where the charging stations have been installed.”

To that end, this program aims to add 110 charging stations in the low-income areas where the EVs will be deployed. Ultimately, ensuring that charging stations and vehicles are easily accessible to these neighborhoods is the heart and soul of this project.

“Electric cars shouldn’t just be about Teslas,” Feigon says, referring to the luxury vehicles currently available on the market. “It’s in our interest to see that the benefits of shared mobility, new technology, and energy efficiency reaches all communities.”

Despite the challenges of implementing this specific program, Feigon believes that car sharing is, in general, a savvy solution to high fuel consumption and car-dependent lifestyles.

“Studies have shown that people who have access to car sharing increase their use of public transit, biking and walking. Many of them sell their cars or postpone their decision to buy a car,” Feigon says. “Car sharing alone can be really beneficial. Using electric cars adds on a whole new layer of benefits while also giving [low-income residents] exposure to this new technology.”

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