The transition to electric vehicles is well underway, but the benefits will be slow to arrive in communities where owning a private car remains a luxury.
Long before app-based ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, unlicensed taxis known as “jitneys” provided a similar service in black neighborhoods that conventional white-owned taxi companies frequently refused to serve. Today, carpooling service is also low in several predominantly black neighborhoods in far south Chicagocorresponding to low rates of household car ownership.
Hyperlocal carpooling services represent a potential alternative. In Chicago, two black-owned businesses — Jitney EV and GEST Chicago — position themselves to fulfill this role, while trying to ensure that environmental justice communities are not left behind in the transition from fossil fuel-based transportation.
“Post-COVID and due to climate change, we have a once-in-a-lifetime investment in public infrastructure to address climate change and to address the transition from fossil fuel generation to clean energy, both in construction and transportation. It is therefore important that our community is not left behind,” said William “Billy” Davis, Managing Director of Jitney EV.
Their efforts specifically target the “last mile“The gap between transit stops and destinations such as grocery stores, banks and entertainment, while providing a reliable transportation option to and from work for residents in its service area,” Davis said. .
“We have a transit system in Illinois that is required by law to generate 50% of its operating revenue from the fare box. So it tends to drive routes based on traffic. And that tends to punish low-traffic routes, even if they’re in disadvantaged communities,” Davis said.
Make EVs known
As part of the Community of the Future program led by Chicago utility company ComEd, Jitney EV and Bronzeville Community Development Partnership launched the Dash EV pilot program in late 2017, with a single Innova EV Dash vehicle capable of driving up to at 35 mph, with a 150 mile range between charges. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has hampered expansion plans beyond the initial pilot, but Jitney EV still plans to launch full-scale operation in the future, according to Davis.
In the meantime, Jitney EV is collaborating with services like GEST Chicago, viewing these operations not as competition but as another nexus to close the transportation gaps that are so prevalent in environmental justice communities, Davis said.
Green Easy Safe Transportation (GEST) Carts, an ad-supported service offering free rides in multi-passenger electric vehicles, debuted in Cincinnati in 2018 and now operates in Cincinnati, Charlotte, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Scottsdale and Louisville, as well as a local operation in Chicago. GEST Chicago began operations in November 2020.
GEST Chicago offers free app-based rides on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, according to its website, serving downtown and nearby areas with high foot traffic. Revenue is generated by a continuous stream of sponsors.
In many cases, GEST carts represent passengers’ first experience with electric vehicles, according to Harold Shepard, director of sales and operations for GEST Chicago.
“It kind of helps introduce people to electrification. And my favorite thing is that when people get in the vehicle, they’re like, ‘Oh, is it all electric? I’m like, ask me how much it costs to fill this thing. … Last time I charged it, 3 dollars and 56 cents,” Shepard said.
“We have to find a formula”
While GEST Chicago currently limits its operations to downtown and predominantly white neighborhoods on the north and near west sides of the city, there is certainly a desire to expand into less affluent communities with higher BIPOC populations, Shepard said.
“Let’s work with retirement homes and take them to Mariano’s [grocery store] or take them to the pharmacy, something to get the vehicles out [people] can see them and [we can] attract sponsors,” Shepard said.
Davis says the services can coexist with — rather than replace — existing modes of transport, but it will take time to work.
“We have to find a formula. Transport route mapping will depend on a variety of factors – it’s hard to predict exactly what the right model will look like. Suffice it to say, however, that it will be a combination of on-demand micro-transit, car-sharing, electric car, electric vehicle car-sharing, electric buses and trains.
Legacy transportation services like taxis – already threatened by ride-sharing services, may also see hyperlocal services like Jitney EV or GEST Chicago as a threat. But Shepard notes that their low-speed vehicles can’t get to the airport or cover long distances on the freeway, instead replacing the short trips that taxi drivers don’t like.
“Please don’t be mad at us. We are somehow helping you. Instead of you having to be the bar-to-bar destinations, we take care of that. So you’re welcome,” Shepard said.
Critics say that to some extent the promotion of personal electric vehicle ownership perpetuates car addiction and contributes to sprawl. The outer suburbs and suburbs of major cities reflect the tradition of white flight and intentional segregation in the mid-20e century. These developments after the Second World War were often deliberately designed with little or no public transport available — the antithesis of a just transition and increased equity.
Hyperlocal services could be a key factor in the ultimate goal of not just eliminating gas-powered vehicles, but reducing reliance on cars in the first place, Davis said.
“There is an economic benefit. … It increases consumer spending. It raises the standard of living. This can manifest itself in other ways to productivity and worker satisfaction, can reduce turnover. There are so many other variables at play, but it has to be an economic good to ease the transportation burden on the worker,” Davis said.
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