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Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

How States Can Be Leaders on Transportation Equity Through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Program

In this Q&A with Evergreen, Dr. Shelley Francis breaks down the effects of transportation pollution on communities of color and what we can do about it.

As billions of dollars are pumped into the U.S. economy to support a transition to clean energy, through legislation like the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative attempts to ensure these investments are just, equitable, and going towards those who need them the most. 

Justice40 calls for 40 percent of the overall benefits of climate and clean energy investments to flow to communities that are disadvantaged, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. The goal behind Justice40 is both ambitious and essential. Achieving this commitment will come down to effective implementation. 

One of the first Justice40 covered programs put in action is the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program (NEVI), which provides $5 billion to states to expand our nation’s electric vehicle (EV) charging network. Transportation is a huge environmental justice issue, and by propelling the transition to clean EVs, we can cut deadly climate pollution and improve public health. 

Because NEVI is one of the first Justice40-compliant programs to be rolled out and has been implemented by every state, it’s an opportunity to learn and reflect: What does equitable programming look like in practice, and what can—and must—we improve?

To answer this question, Evergreen, in collaboration with Atlas Public Policy, GreenLatinos, and EVHybridNoire, evaluated the NEVI program in a number of states and provided recommendations to states on how to improve public engagement and maximize benefits to disadvantaged communities in future planning.

Download the report "Charging Toward Justice"



Interview with Dr. Shelley Francis

To dive deeper into how NEVI and other federal programs can tackle transportation pollution and change real people’s lives, Evergreen spoke with Dr. Shelley Francis. In addition to being a medical doctor and public health expert, Dr. Francis is the co-founder and co-director of EVHybridNoire, which aims to equitably accelerate EV and multimodal e-mobility awareness and adoption in diverse communities. This is an excerpt from the interview and the transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

How does pollution from vehicles impact community health, particularly for communities of color and the communities that EVHybridNoire serves?

Dr. Shelley Francis: Pollution from vehicles has a significant public health impact—and one where communities of color are usually bearing the disproportionate burden. To give a quick set of statistics on highlights of vehicle pollution’s impact on these communities, I'll focus on a few areas: respiratory health, premature death, environmental justice, and disproportionate exposure. 

In terms of respiratory health, there’s something called the State of the Air report by the American Lung Association. It's basically the country's annual report card on how we're doing relating to air quality and air pollution. According to the last report, more than 25 million Americans, including many communities of color, are suffering from asthma and exposure to air pollution, which can trigger asthma attacks and worsen those symptoms. In addition, research from the University of California at Berkeley found that Black and Hispanic communities, specifically in California, experienced higher rates of asthma due to exposure to traffic-related air pollution. 

Moving to premature deaths, a National Urban League State of Black America report from 2019 found that communities of color have a higher risk of premature death from air pollution compared to white communities and that one in three Americans live in areas that are disproportionately impacted by pollution. Moreover, 70 percent of Black U.S. citizens and residents live in communities that are disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

Then when you start looking at both environmental justice and disproportionate exposure, the EPA's 2020 environmental justice screening and mapping tool (EJScreen) showed that communities of color, particularly Black and Hispanic communities, are more likely to live in areas that have higher levels of air pollution, particularly from vehicle pollution. And another study from the National Academy of Sciences found that people of color on average are experiencing particulate matter 2.5 pollution, which is primarily caused by vehicles, as compared to white communities and individuals. 

Blog Post Image - Houses By Roads

The burden of transportation pollution is not equal. Communities of color are more likely to live in areas that have higher levels of air pollution, particularly from vehicle pollution. (© 2014 Mel Peffs/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lastly, regarding disproportionate exposure, one of our partners, Union of Concerned Scientists, found that people of color are exposed to almost 40 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is a harmful pollutant emitted from vehicles, compared to white Americans. 

These stats really highlight the unequal burden and impact of vehicle pollution and air quality on communities of color, identifying that they have increased rates of respiratory-related illnesses, premature death, and disproportionate exposure to harmful pollutants. So, being intentional in terms of addressing those health disparities is critically important. And that's why accelerating clean transportation is so important when we're talking about these communities and populations that have been historically impacted by transportation emissions and transportation-related policies.


What role do you think that NEVI and other federally funded charging programs have in supporting these communities and reducing that harm?

Dr. Shelley Francis: Programs like NEVI provide the opportunity to expand access to charging infrastructure. It, along with programs like the community Charging and Fueling Infrastructure (CFI) grant program, do similar work to address charging infrastructure gaps and increase access to charging stations, particularly in underserved communities. 

One of the ways they're doing this is by strategically placing infrastructure in these areas to address a significant barrier to EV adoption: range anxiety. There’s anxiety around how to manage charging, particularly for those who don’t live in a single-family residence, where you can charge in a garage or in a driveway. So, the program enables residents to be able to transition to clean transportation more comfortably and more confidently. 

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Construction of an EV charging station as part of a statewide build-out in Arizona. Creation of clean transportation jobs and economic opportunities for local businesses are added benefits of expanding charging infrastructure.

Also, it prioritizes equitable distribution. One of the key objectives of federal funding around clean transportation, as well as other programs, is to make sure that communities that have been previously left out are integrated into the programming. 

That means significant funding opportunities and resources are going into communities that have historically been underserved and disproportionately impacted by air pollution. By targeting investment in these communities, we can further reduce disparities and promote equitable access to clean transportation and mobility options. 

These types of programs also create greater economic opportunities. Charging infrastructure deployment programs are going to create opportunities for local businesses and local communities. They support job creation in the fields of charging infrastructure, installation, maintenance, and operation of charging stations. This not only enhances local economies, but it can also foster community resilience and really change the economic well-being of communities. 

Lastly, collaboration and knowledge-sharing for these types of programs are going to be critically important. These programs target 40 percent of resources to Justice40 communities. That’s a lot. This is the first time something like this has ever been done. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities to learn from the things we do wrong, and hopefully, also have an abundance of things we do well. I think this type of program encourages partnerships and innovation and can leverage resources and expertise that hopefully will maximize the positive impact of federal funding within targeted communities.


As recommended in the report Charging Toward Justice, why is it important to bridge the communication gap between the federal government and historically harmed communities in the context of the transition to EVs?

Dr. Shelley Francis: The 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson Supreme Court decision determined that separate but equal housing and transportation was the law of the land. But under Jim Crow, there was no parity in terms of what transportation and mobility options looked like. Communities of color couldn't move around freely. The burdens of transportation meant a very different thing to them because there was also a safety issue. So, when you look at issues around transportation and mobility, discrimination, and access, you can't talk about transportation electrification without acknowledging the historical context of how federal policy has really helped fuel these inequities and the disparities that we see today. 

So, in a sense, it is actually a small step in trying to undo some of the harms that have been promulgated on these communities for many, many years. It's a starting point. It's really important to understand the perspective of these communities because they are a significant stakeholder in transportation decisions, and they're usually not engaged. Oftentimes, people are making decisions based on what they think they should be happy with. Being able to have their voice be centered and inform policy practice is a whole paradigm shift, but it just makes sense. Why weren't we doing this all along? 

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Programs like NEVI aren't one size fits all. Underserved communities must be centered to understand how their lived experiences impact their needs around mobility. (© 2021 NYCDOT/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The reason we weren't was because of historical injustices and the way institutional and systemic inequality and racism work. We need more programs where we're centering community voices, rural community voices, and Tribal and Indigenous communities, and trying to understand how their lived experiences impact mobility and their needs around mobility. It's not just a one size fits all approach. Billions of dollars in funding can have transformational impacts on these different communities. I'm excited to see that we're looking at things through a much different lens in terms of leading with equity, leading with research and data, and leading by innovation—and being willing to make some mistakes along the way.


The report looked at over 20 state plans, and as you know, “disadvantaged communities” look different in every state. How do you think those differences should be addressed by state Departments of Transportation (DOTs)?

Dr. Shelley Francis: You're totally right. Every community is totally different—just like a box of chocolates. There's some nougats, some coconut, and my personal favorite, caramel. Each community is different: its needs, its data, its topography, and its history. 

The important thing that I would love for the DOTs to take away from this opportunity is that it's really important to utilize this data-driven approach to understand the stakeholders. Glossing over stakeholder engagement is a mistake

It's really important to make sure that you're engaging a diverse cross-section of what state residents look like, so you get business sector feedback, public sector feedback, and feedback from community members and all elected officials, and everybody in between. 

This is critically important in shaping states’ transportation electrification strategy moving forward because though South Carolina is next to Georgia, their plans look very different because their footprints are very different. It’s important to have a neutral party to help facilitate stakeholder engagement and get consumer buy-in. This process needs to be intentional, and states must allocate resources to it, so participants are compensated for their expertise and their time. 


What is the big picture takeaway from the report you’d like folks to come away with, and how it can be used to advance environmental justice?

It's really important that the end-users of this type of document, whether it's state DOTs or others who are in that decision-maker realm, meet people where they are. Sometimes we start implementing federal policy in a way that is really black and white. We need to remember it's okay to stray outside the lines. And part of straying outside the lines is making sure that those communities who are going to benefit from these policies and programs have a chance to frame what their needs are. So when you have the opportunity to get stakeholder feedback, you get it early and often and make sure that that feedback isn’t just the usual people but is truly diverse. You need to make sure that you are getting the true representation of what that state truly looks like.

The other piece is that you have to employ different strategies when engaging with key stakeholders. Don't assume that everybody has a college degree or is reading 500-page novels in their free time. Make materials that are linguistically accessible—around a fifth-grade level is best practice. Then, make sure those materials are translated into the languages that are commonly spoken in those communities. Another strategy is utilizing traditional and/or social media to get messaging out to stakeholders. So whether it means taking out ads in newspapers or doing talk radio or TV ads, social media, or paper mailers—there's a whole myriad of ways to do outreach and engagement. 

My last point would be to make sure that we're not forgetting the Justice40 communities that are identified to at least get 40 percent of the financial benefits from these types of programs. We want to make sure that whether the Justice40 community in that state looks mostly rural or Hispanic, Tribal or Indigenous, or Black or others, there are representatives—and not just one—from those different groups because those communities are not homogenous. 

Through this process, we must share our learnings with each other and learn from missteps and amplify things that are working well or have been shown to be successful.