Are Electric Cars Elitist?

By · October 16, 2013

Boston Traffic

Boston traffic is a nightmare, and electric cars are lagging there without state subsidies for consumers. (Flickr/iMatthew)

Are electric cars inherently elitist, fancy transportation for granola-eating, upper-middle-class technocrats with disposable income? I don’t think so, but some transit activists apparently take that view. I was on a webinar with a group called Transportation for Massachusetts, and the subject was the $800 million in funding approved by the state legislature (over Governor Deval Patrick’s veto) last July.

I’m all for transit funding--I even wrote a book about it--and the money will do much to hold the line on fare hikes. But I had the effrontery to ask Coalition Director Kristina Egan if the group is involved in helping with the introduction of electric cars in the state. After all, the name is “Transportation for Massachusetts.”

Social Equity at the Forefront?

“I can’t speak knowledgeably about electric cars,” Egan said. “But since social equity is such a big part of our mission, I don’t see [them] as a great way to address social equity implications.” She didn’t actually say EVs were elitist, but that's what I heard.

In a follow-up phone call, Egan cited some work she'd done on behalf of EVs in Thailand, and said she sees value in them, just not in the social equity work she's doing as part of the transportation coalition. She's focused on moving folks around. And EVs, she said, are an environmental justice issue, not a social equity issue. But I disagree--I think they address both things.

Aren’t poor people disproportionately impacted by poor air quality, with car exhaust a big culprit? According to Environmental Health News, citing a Yale study, “Tiny particles of air pollution contain more hazardous ingredients in non-white and low-income communities than in affluent white ones. The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc are in the mix of fine particles they breathe.”

Pollution Kills...Poor People

Want more? William Nichols’ study “Social Stratification of Pollution Across America” (PDF) says that “much of the evidence points to a pattern of disproportionate exposure to toxics and associated health risks among communities of color and the poor, with racial differences often persisting across economic strata.”
EVs aren’t the sole answer to that problem, of course. According to “The Geography of Transport Systems,” Transportation is 45 to 50 percent of emissions of oxides of nitrogen, 50 percent of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, and 25 percent of particulate matter.

Let’s not get bogged down in a discussion about EV electricity coming from pollution-spewing power plants. Massachusetts is cleaner than most and generates 68 percent of its power from natural gas, with an an additional six percent from renewable energy. The Cape Wind Farm, the nation’s first offshore system, is set to go online soon.

Transportation for Massachusetts is funded by the Barr Foundation, which sets combating climate change as a central part of its mission. EVs fit that priority.

Boston EV

Boston's Colonnade Hotel meets the Smart Electric Drive. (Flickr/Colonnade)

If the state was in the forefront of getting tailpipes off its roads, I’d say that Transportation for Massachusetts should have other priorities. But in fact the liberal bastion really lags behind even very conservative states.

No EV Subsidies in Tax-and-Spend Massachusetts

There are no state subsidies for consumers to buy electric cars in the Bay State, though municipalities are eligible for $5,000 to $7,500 for fleet purchases, and $15,000 for Level II charging stations. A raft of pending bills would:

  • Allow EVs access to HOV lanes.
  • Provide rebates to EV buyers who buy after July 1, 2015.
  • Require new parking lots to provide EV charging.
  • Cut registration fees for EVs.

There are six such bills, but they’re all still pending, despite Democratic control of both state houses and the governor’s office. Obviously, some leadership is needed. A new group called the Electric Vehicle Initiative has held meetings, but they haven’t coalesced around a strategy yet. A little slow out of the gate there, but better than the status quo.

All this is to say that EVs do address the social equity issues, even for people who can’t afford to buy them.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
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  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.