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The EV Transition Isn’t Just About Cars

The broader goal should be access to clean mobility for everyone

Sales of electric vehicles are picking up. There are big economic and environmental benefits to the transition away from gas-powered vehicles, but they are not spread evenly across society. Photo courtesy Ryan Kawailani Ozawa / CC BY-NC-ND / Flickr.

The race to decarbonize passenger cars and light-duty trucks in the U.S. is accelerating. Battery electric vehicles accounted for almost 6% of all new vehicle sales in 2022, up from close to 3% in 2021, and demand is outstripping supply, even as manufacturers roll out new models and designs. The Biden administration is spending billions of dollars to build out EV charging networks and providing incentives for purchasing new and used EVs.

This shift offers big economic and environmental benefits, but they’re not spread equitably. People who bear the most burdens in our current transportation systems often receive the fewest benefits, and are least able to change their situations.

I study the future of clean transportation and energy, and my research analyzes equity considerations in the design of these systems. As my colleagues and I see it, an equitable transition will require thinking broadly about all transportation users and their needs—especially those who are currently being left behind.

Here are four issues that we believe should be front and center:

Banning gas-powered cars can have unintended consequences

California has banned sales of new gas-powered passenger cars and light-duty trucks starting in 2035, and other states are following suit. Without the right support, these bans could hurt communities that are underserved by current transportation systems.

Under California’s ban, 35% of new cars sold in-state by 2026 and 68% by 2030 must be zero-emissions models.

At the end of 2022, the average price of a new battery EV was around $61,500, compared with an average of $49,500 for all new cars. Less-expensive models are starting to reach the market, but EVs remain out of financial reach for many people.

Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 for new EVs or $4,000 for used ones come with manufacturer restrictions, income thresholds and vehicle price caps. For now, the policy does not offer discounts at the time of purchase, so upfront costs remain high and often prohibitive for many buyers.

These bans may affect markets for used gas-powered cars, and it’s unclear whether states will provide support for people who can’t transition immediately to EVs. Used car prices are already at unprecedented highs due to inflation and global supply chain issues affecting the new car market. Bans on new gas-powered cars could further boost prices in the used market, as long as those models are cheaper than EVs.

Supporting industries, such as repair shops, gas stations and auto dealerships, could also be affected. These businesses, which provide services and jobs in their communities, could be displaced in the shift to EVs, which require less maintenance than gas-powered cars and have different supply chains and support systems.

The Biden administration has pledged that shifting to EVs will create high-quality jobs. However, many parts of the auto industry and workforce development systems need to evolve to ensure that workers benefit from this process.

The EV shift has big implications for gas stations.

Gas-powered cars will keep polluting for years

Bans on sales of new gas-powered vehicles won’t affect those that are already on the road. One-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. Cars and light-duty trucks produce almost two-thirds of that share, which makes them a major driver of climate change.

They also emit air pollutants, notably fine particulates, that can cause premature deaths and illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, asthma and other respiratory ailments. Studies show that fine particle pollution disproportionately burdens communities of color.

Gas-powered cars can remain on the road for up to 30 years. Given their harmful health effects, I believe that waiting for the U.S. auto fleet to naturally turn over to zero-emission vehicles is not acceptable.

There aren’t many mechanisms today to encourage drivers to shift away from old, dirty cars. The federal CARS program, also known as “Cash for Clunkers,” ran for a few months in 2009 and offered rebates of up to $4,500 to drivers who turned in older vehicles for more fuel-efficient new or used cars. However, this program delivered modest emission reductions relative to its cost

What’s more, older vehicles often are shipped abroad for resale. According to a United Nations report, the U.S. is one of the top three global exporters of used cars. In addition to increasing scrapping and recycling of older, high-emitting cars, I see a need for coordinated international regulations to ensure safe and sustainable trade of used vehicles, as the U.N. report recommended.

EV incentives don’t go to underserved drivers

Benefits to promote EV adoption often aren’t accessible to those who need them most. A 2020 study funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that low-income households in Atlanta were less likely to benefit from state and federal EV incentives than higher-income households, because the incentives were awarded as credits against income taxes owed. This is also how current federal tax credits are structured.

In a paper currently under review, colleagues and I show that to date in California, EV adoption and rebate rates are lower in zip codes whose residents are majority low-income and populations of color, as well as in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

In another study, we examined an equity mobility program in California that was designed to help low-income households purchase zero-emission vehicles. We found that the program didn’t fully work as intended, because the application process was complex, imposed challenging timelines and offered applicants limited support.

California has enacted new legislation that will expand this program statewide, and we look forward to seeing updates and improvements.

Rural areas face unique transportation challenges

Almost one-fifth of Americans live in rural areas, where they typically drive more than city dwellers, have sparse access to public transit and often rely on private vehicles. Members of our research group have interviewed rural residents who don’t own cars and rely on one bus a day to get to the nearest doctor’s office or grocery store.

So far, policies intended to promote the EV transition have not focused on rural areas, although the Department of Transportation has launched an initiative focusing on these communities’ needs. Rural residents are concerned about availability of charging infrastructure, economic development and EVs that fit rural residents’ needs, and in my view, they deserve targeted support.

In a car-centric society, who does the EV transition serve?

The U.S. is a car-centric society where most people need access to an automobile to live their lives effectively. Many years of policies and investments have produced a system that focuses on helping drivers reach their destinations as quickly as possible, rather than other objectives like clean air or reliable public transit.

By doing so, the system values the time of drivers more than that of people who rely on other modes of transit. Americans with access to cars have more freedom and more choice about where and how to pursue an education, work and spend time with loved ones.

Surveys show that Americans who are lower-income, Black, Hispanic or immigrants are especially likely to use public transit regularly. Today, mass transit systems are in decline across the U.S., thanks to pandemic ridership decreases that have worsened the effects of long-term underfunding.

In my view, the EV transition should be part of a broader shift to clean mobility that invests in public transit, walking and biking, as well as systems like EV charging that support private car use. New clean mobility systems should be designed so that all Americans have safe and reliable options for getting to their destinations.

Sita M. Syal is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared at The Conversation.


  1. jollygreenshortguy | | #1

    EV, driverless tech and ride hailing tech (Uber, Lyft...) could well be applied to current urban public transportation systems to make these systems less expensive and more convenient. But to achieve this we need to set aside the current "paradigm" of fixed routes and schedules.

    Imagine if, instead of having fixed routes and schedules, passengers could simply schedule a pickup time, and the pickup and drop off locations. Then at the appointed time a public passenger van arrives. It could be an EV. It might seat 8 people or 30. The algorithm would have coordinated this passenger trip with other passenger trips in the neighborhood so that all the passengers get to their locations in a reasonably efficient manner.

    This arrangement would be door to door service, far more convenient than typical public transportation. And because rides would be shared with groups of passengers, it would be cheaper than alternatives such as Uber and Lyft. It would also mean fewer vehicles on the road and less congestion.

    All this is totally achievable TODAY, if our public transit authorities and the politicians who determine their budgets were to demonstrate the imagination and initiative.

    1. user-723121 | | #2


      Wonderful thoughts on transportation. We live in a World where consumption is what keeps the wheels turning. There is no incentive for the monopolies to provide cheap, clean energy or transportation. Those of us who followed the superinsulation ideal of the late 1970's and early 1980's realize there is always an opposing force to reducing fossil energy consumption. Paid political lobbies have been in charge for too long, not likely to change. We must act as individuals and small groups to change how we consume and overconsume. Living greener feels good, it is the informed way to go.


    2. paul_wiedefeld | | #3

      jgsg, the issue is that self-driving vehicles do not exist and the capital cost of a vehicle isn't all that important compared to the operating cost. So instead of a self-driving vehicle, you'd have a person driving a low capacity vehicle driving in a meandering route vs. a person driving a high capacity vehicle driving a more direct route. We have low capacity routes already - it's called shuttle service and has been used for decades. The thing we know about shuttle service is that it is more expensive than a fixed route. Another thing we know is that Americans are unwilling to fund public transit. So why would we chose the more expensive option which we know will serve fewer people?

  2. jollygreenshortguy | | #4

    Self-driving vehicles do exist. But I get your point. They're experimental at the moment. However a couple of points. My response was intended to be "forward thinking". I was looking far down the road, towards where we might choose to head. Also, I mentioned 3 technologies and they could be mixed in any combination, with each being introduced as possible. Ride hailing and EV are certainly ready right now.

    The idea of the semi-customized ride hailing approach is that it would mean the shuttles or buses would generally be operating at fuller capacity because the algorithm could optimize which vehicle follows which path based on near instantaneous demand. I think the system would be most efficient in cities and close-in suburbs, and probably could be made considerably more efficient than many current systems. It certainly would have to operate at a lower capacity when dealing with distant suburbs and countryside. But that would be the case with any system.

    As far as the politics, I agree. That's probably the only real impediment. But I don't see why some of the more forward thinking cities couldn't make it happen with encouragement. Maybe that would break the logjam.

    1. paul_wiedefeld | | #5

      I agree, buses could be EVs today and the hybrid share should increase. I reject that ride hailing algorithms improve transit utilization and likely do the exact opposite. We can see this with the existing ride hailing apps - they have very low passengers/hour. There's nothing wrong with inefficient ride hailing, it's just not something governments should spend public dollars on when we have more effective, equitable alternatives. Even privately funded, there's limited demand for expensive rideshare rides, as seen by Uber and Lyft's financial performance.

      Flexible transit routes have already been tried, they aren't silver bullets. We don't have to reinvent the wheel here!

      1. jollygreenshortguy | | #6

        "We don't have to reinvent the wheel here!"
        True. I guess my underlying message is that we are probably far from incorporating the benefits of recent technological advancements into our public transit systems, and largely because of a lack of imagination and political will.

        My familiarity with public transit is in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Certainly neither city, as advanced as they are in so many ways, has made the least effort to push the limits. The best they've done is put up signage at bus stops that indicate actual bus arrival times.

        It's pretty pathetic in my opinion.

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #7


          The ride hailing model is being incorporated into public transit systems here. In nearby Victoria it operates with small buses for handicapped riders, and more generally in some other cities:

          1. jollygreenshortguy | | #9

            Malcolm, thanks for the link. It's a very good article. This kind of pilot project is just the thing we need.

        2. paul_wiedefeld | | #8

          I agree we underinvest in transit, but self driving buses don’t exist and if they did, there’s no indication they’d be any cheaper than people operated vehicles. The algorithms ala Uber/Lyft are smoke and mirrors. They could work for mobility and extremely low ridership routes which would be axed if a city was solely concerned with ridership (not saying they should only be concerned with ridership). Logistics take place in the physical world and a lot of the software hype just doesn’t apply.

        3. mateohao | | #10

          I invite you to check out San Francisco's more recent efforts. The city expanded bike lanes and banned private cars on Market St. above 10th St., and created transit-only lanes on Van Ness Ave. and Geary St. The implementation has improved transit service times and pedestrian safety, expanded transit options, and calmed traffic.

          Door-to-door ride sharing actually worsens traffic and lowers passengers-per-mile-served because it replaces walking to and from a transit hub, parking lot, or destination with even more car travel.

          Ultimately, I don't support incentives or credits for EVs--self-driving or not--because they convert taxes into revenue for car manufacturers while rewarding citizens with the diminishing returns of owning a new car.

          You are right about the lack of political imagination or initiative, but I would argue that we can have a more accessible, efficient, safe, environmentally-friendly transit system today by simply pivoting urban planning away from private car ownership.

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