In LA, Electric Ubers Stick to Affluent Neighborhoods


(Bloomberg) — In Los Angeles, Teslas tend to snooze in the affluent canyons and beach neighborhoods, ringing the city’s urban center like celebrity mansions. Most of the public charging plugs for those expensive electric vehicles, understandably, have been built nearby.

Of course, there are plenty of less affluent EV pilots driving for Lyft, Uber and similar ride-hailing services. But it turns out, those drivers typically follow the plugs to tony zip codes. That leaves gas-powered wheels in the fleet with a greater share of the trips in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, exacerbating the emissions equivalent of haves and have-nots. In this case, air quality, to some extent, has become a mirror of income inequality.

Gone unchecked, Compton, Commerce and similar charging deserts may see up to 3 million more gas-burning miles per square mile, per year, according to a study released this morning by RMI, a nonprofit focused on clean energy and climate change.

“What we were not expecting to jump off the page was the incredible disparity between where the gasoline vehicles and the electric vehicles were operating,” said Edward J. Klock-McCook, one of the authors of the study. “And just how well that correlated with the median household incomes in those areas.”

RMI tracked 101 million miles of ride-sharing trips in and around Los Angeles — both by electric and gas-powered vehicles. Only 27% of stops by EV drivers in the RMI study were in neighborhoods where the median annual household income was less than $50,000, compared with almost 39% of stops in gas-powered vehicles.

Stretching the scant range on a tired, old Nissan Leaf isn’t a problem in Beverly Hills or Redondo Beach and ride-share drivers know this well. “The people who were driving an electric vehicle had a system,” said Dave Mullaney, another author on the report. “They figured out how to maximize the value of the electric vehicle.”

Lyft and Uber have pledged to switch their fleets to electric — they’ve made little progress until now. Making sure those would-be EVs have places to juice up presents another massive challenge. RMI reckons it would take between $116 million and $234 million to build enough chargers for Los Angeles ride-sharing fleets. Capital aside, such an undertaking would involve an unprecedented level of coordination between public policymakers, for-profit charging networks, utilities and real estate developers.

California air regulators, however, forced the hands of Uber and its rivals last month with a first-in-the-nation mandate requiring that 90% of ride-hailing fleets be electric by 2030. So the current challenge, a massive unintended consequence, also presents an opportunity. If ride-sharing companies make good on the mandate, the supply-demand equation around charging infrastructure could flip quickly. There may come a point where charging networks rush to put in plugs, before waiting for the cars to show up.

“Historically…they wanted to be there the day after you bought your car,” Mullaney said, “but when there’s certainty around where this market is going, that all changes because there’s a finite number of good spots to put in chargers.”

What’s more, a preponderance of those plugs would likely pop up where Lyft and Uber drivers live, which is typically in the same lower-income neighborhoods that they now avoid when driving an electric vehicle.