Poor people spend more of their income on gas and transportation and their neighborhoods often are more exposed to air pollution.
At the EV Roadmap Conference in Portland Tuesday, experts discussed how electric cars could help on both fronts.
The national conference drew more than 600 people to Portland to discuss all kinds of issues related to expanding the use of electric vehicles, from financing more charging stations to the possibility of self-charging autonomous electric cars.
The event included electric bus and e-bike tours of the city, and test drives of electric cars from Nissan, Ford and Chevy at the country's first electric vehicle showroom in downtown Portland.
On a panel entitled "E-Mobility For All," equity specialist Roman Partida-Lopez from the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego said one of the barriers to getting more electric vehicles into low-income communities is the idea that EVs are for rich people.
"It's a myth," he said. "Lower-income consumers and communities of color are interested in electric vehicles because of the benefits they bring – not just on the environmental front of cleaner air for their community, but for their pockets."
Partida-Lopez noted that gas-guzzlers cost more in maintenance than electric cars, so switching to an EV could actually save money.
But most electric vehicle incentives are for new car buyers and low-income consumers generally don't buy new cars.
He suggested incentivizing used EVs "so if someone is not comfortable purchasing a new car, or they just don't have the means to, they can still access a vehicle by buying a used one."
In order to meet state and national greenhouse gas reduction goals, it will take participation from all communities, Partida-Lopez said, "especially those who are driving the older, more polluting vehicles."
He and others on the panel discussed ideas for increasing the use of electric vehicles in low-income and underrepresented communities.
Conference organizer Forth, formerly Drive Oregon, recently teamed up with the community development corporation Hacienda to launch an electric car-sharing program for a low-income community in Portland's Cully neighborhood. Forth has also started an electric e-bike sharing program for undocumented workers who don't have drivers' licenses.
Forth Program Director Zach Henkin said many of the city's car-sharing and bike-sharing programs don't extend into low-income communities.
The Hacienda project installed charging stations and placed three used electric Honda Fit cars at an affordable housing apartment complex, where they are available for Hacienda staff and community residents through Turo, a peer-to-peer car sharing platform.
"The only way to get to mass adoption is to include communities that otherwise wouldn't consider electric vehicles," Henkin said.
Vivian Satterfield with Portland's OPAL Environmental Justice said land use issues and gentrification have driven low-income communities farther away from job centers. That often leads people to buy cheap, older cars so they can drive to work and back, she said.
Her group has been reaching out to "transit-dependent" people and held a focus group in Spanish where they discussed ways to improve transportation options. She and others noted making more information about electric vehicles available in Spanish could also help increase the use of electric cars.