Recapping Our Fourth #PowerUp Conversation—Electric Transportation and Clean Energy

In September and early October, we hosted a series of four #PowerUp community conversations, bringing together our community partners and residents from across the city to discuss priorities for Chicago’s energy transition.

We began our fourth and final Power Up conversation, which was focused on electric transportation, by highlighting racial equity. This theme has recurred throughout our four-week discussion series, and it serves as an important lens for examining Chicago’s transportation challenges—transportation pollution causes negative health effects, such as asthma, with disproportionate severity in communities of color in Chicago. And the problem goes beyond personal vehicle use. Even during stay-at-home orders earlier this year, Chicago realized only 1% improvement in air quality and subsequently experienced nine consecutive days of dangerous air quality. We came together to discuss how electrification of transportation can respond to our local needs and address the disproportionate impacts of pollution.

To help us explore the many aspects of electrification, we were joined by three experts: Neda Deylami, Cofounder of Chicago for EVs, an organization that advocates for policies to help members of disadvantaged communities electrify their personal transportation; Oboi Reed, President & CEO of The Equiticity Racial Equity Movement; and Brian Urbaszewski, Director of Environmental Health Policy at the Respiratory Health Association. Our panelists framed electrification of transportation as an urgent priority due to—rather than in spite of—the respiratory pandemic and the current tough budget season. They emphasized the ways in which the overlapping challenges of our current moment are connected. Oboi challenged the assumption that economics somehow justifies disproportionate harm done to Black, brown, and indigenous communities, especially during times of crisis. As Neda reminded us, COVID-19 has shown us that the effects of public health issues can be determined by one’s ZIP code. This underscores the need for improved outcomes and access in the most vulnerable communities. Brian emphasized the importance of protecting our public transit system so we can rebuild and electrify transit over time.

A changed transportation system, furthermore, has the potential to bring many benefits. Neda advocated for a model of electric transportation as part of a multi-modal system of mobility, bringing up the example of shared EVs that would improve mobility and contribute to economic prosperity in disadvantaged communities. Oboi outlined a model for a transportation planning process owned by Black, brown, and indigenous people on a neighborhood level. Those most impacted by transportation inequities must be in leadership roles with regards to planning and implementation of emerging technologies to ensure that these technologies do good, rather than harm. Brian pointed out the health improvements we will see with cleaner air due to electrified transportation, focusing on the example of diesel buses. Diesel is far more damaging to health than gasoline engines, producing more of the fine particulate matter associated with heart attacks, deaths, and other adverse health outcomes. An RHA/University of Chicago study published in August showed higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) near several bus routes and garage locations across the city of Chicago. Electrifying buses would bring about a significant public health benefit, because the most buses go to the most densely populated corridors. 

The theme of equity continued in our small-group discussions as we brainstormed solutions, principles, and actions for our own neighborhoods. We discussed the idea that, when it comes to electrification, one technology shouldn’t come at the cost of another. In other words, electrification should be additive and increase mobility for the greatest number of people. We also talked about strategies for improving neighborhood EV infrastructure (community charging stations, etc.), as well as how to make rideshare and carshare programs part of the picture. Local community leadership and self-determination was another theme that came up, with participants offering ideas such as developing community electric transportation ambassadors and reframing the conversation to help make this issue meaningful for a wider and more varied group of people. We look forward to continuing our conversations about how all these pieces fit together into a sustainable and equitable transition plan for Chicago.