Making EVs accessible to drivers in all income brackets is key for a successful transition to zero-emission mobility, but it will only happen with wider adoption of proven best-practices, explains Nathan Lemphers
If you peer inside an electric car these days, who will you find behind the wheel? Odds are it will be what many academic studies have found: a wealthy, middle-aged, urban, university-educated white man.
While every technology needs early adopters, the time has come for EVs to expand beyond this demographic in order to accelerate uptake. To do so, policymakers and EV promoters must consider and address the equity implications of EV adoption.
We’ve seen this story before. Although we now take residential electricity for granted, many rural Canadians gained access to this life-changing technology seven decades after early adopting urban residents. It took until the 1950s for some rural Canadians to receive what is now an essential service. While electricity is now ubiquitous in developed countries, uneven access to essential technology still exists — consider high-speed internet access in remote or rural communities and clean drinking water for many First Nation communities.
To make a transition to electromobility just and swift, we need to look at barriers to EV adoption. For many households, it’s the sticker price. For others, it’s the limited model availability or the minuscule market for used EVs. For apartment dwellers, it may be the lack of charging facilities — especially if you are from a disadvantaged community.
Thankfully, these barriers are surmountable.
Policymakers can gear incentives to those who need them the most. In 2016, California introduced purchase incentives that targeted lower- and middle-income households. Lower-income households can receive an additional US$2,500 to purchase an EV, on top of the US$7,000 offered to the broader public. Meanwhile, high-income households are not eligible for either grant. This equity-minded policy has not migrated north to Ottawa. Canada’s federal EV purchase incentive program is not adjusted for income — although it does limit subsidies to cars valued less than $55,000.
Policymakers should also make used EVs more affordable. Even with targeted government incentives, new EVs may be unattainable for many low-income households. Unlike Ottawa’s EV purchase incentive program, previously owned EVs are subsidized by Quebec (up to $4,000), Nova Scotia (up to $2,000) and PEI (up to $5,000). In Ontario, the non-profit Plug’n Drive offers $1,000 when you buy a used EV, thanks to philanthropic funding.
Charging access a big hurdle
Any program to get EVs into the hands of a more diverse range of Canadians, also needs to ensure these people have convenient access to charging stations.
In 2019, the Golden State directed utilities to spend at least 25 per cent of their public charging infrastructure budget in disadvantaged communities. Natural Resources Canada’s funding program for EV charging stations does not intentionally allocate resources to equity-seeking communities (groups that are marginalized by societal structures, such as Indigenous people, ethnic or linguistic minorities, women). Locally, Vancouver’s new Climate Emergency Action Plan calls for an equity-based approach for new charging installations to ensure low-income, underserved areas have access, but its rollout is barely underway.
For the millions of Canadians that live in multi-family dwellings charging an EV may be particularly tricky. Residents may have access to a dedicated parking spot but often have to battle with reluctant condo boards or landlords to get permission to install a charging station. To make things easier, lawmakers can follow the lead of Norway and pass legislation that gives tenants the “right-to-install” a charging station without requiring permission from a building owner or condo board. Some Canadian municipalities, such as Vancouver, have passed bylaws requiring all parking spots in new multi-family buildings be EV-ready.
Policy options and tools exist
So, while equity-enhancing EV policy options abound, EV advocates must press for them. Luckily, the federal government possesses a potentially powerful tool. In 2017, Ottawa included Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) in its budgeting process and began considering how identity factors (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion) interact and influence how Canadians experience government policies and programs. Using this framework, the 2020 Fall Economic Update acknowledged that public funding for EV charging stations will likely benefit the well-educated, high-income earners, and men. And yet, that assessment has not resulted in a more equitable EV charging station program.
Unlike electrifying our homes, we do not have a seven-decade timeline to electrify passenger transportation. The inequality and climate crises require principled and pragmatic policies to grow the EV market and simultaneously tackle both problems. Proponents of electrifying transportation should expect policymakers to steer and chew gum at the same time. While a handful of cities and provinces do have that skill, many do not — at least not yet. Ottawa, in particular, needs to learn from these equity-minded innovators to help accelerate EV adoption across this country.
Nathan Lemphers is a post-doctoral fellow at the Smart Prosperity Institute. In his latest working paper, he studied how different regions and industries in Canada are preparing for the transition to electrified transportation, and how three regionally prominent industry associations depicted electromobility over time.