An HourCar near Hamline University. Credit: MPR

In Karen neighborhoods in north St. Paul, there aren’t many Teslas quietly humming down the street. 

“I don’t see anybody using electric cars in my community,” said Jubilee Ree, a Karen immigrant who works with the North End Neighborhood Organization, a nonprofit community group. “I’ve never seen one.”

Ree is one of several community partners who are trying to spread the word about a new program that hopes to change which neighborhoods host electric vehicles—and who is behind the wheel. 

This spring, HourCar, a nonprofit car-share program, will begin building out The Twin Cities Electric Vehicle Mobility Network. The program’s aim is to put 150 shared electric cars and 70 public charging stations on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, with an emphasis on selecting locations in historically marginalized communities.

The HourCar vehicle share service launched in 2005 as part of the former Neighborhood Energy Connection, and split off as its own organization in 2016. Today, it has 50 vehicles spread through 40 hubs in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Rochester. 

The new project, which involves a collaboration with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and Xcel Energy, received a massive funding boost last fall when the Department of Energy awarded a $6.7 million grant to the American Lung Association of Minnesota. 

“The move to electric vehicles is a key part of Minnesota’s fight against climate change,” Lisa Thurstin,  project coordinator for the American Lung Association of Minnesota, told Sahan Journal. 

Cleaner transportation for neighborhoods with higher air pollution

Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Statewide emissions have fallen only 8 percent since 2005, leaving Minnesota a long ways off its goal of reducing emissions by 30 percent by the year 2025. 

Most of the state’s reductions have come from electricity generation, as renewable sources replace coal power plants. But transportation emissions have dropped only 7 percent since 2005, and progress has stalled in recent years. Fossil fuels from cars make up 70 percent of transportation emissions, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found. 

Communities of color are more likely to live near sources of high air pollution, like industrial sites and major highways, according to the pollution control agency. Statewide, 32 percent of all Minnesotans live in areas with higher levels of air pollution. That number jumps to 46 percent for low income communities and soars to 91 percent for communities of color. 

Minnesota is betting big on electric vehicles to help reduce its emissions. The money to expand electric car charging infrastructure has come from an interesting source: the state’s $47 million share of the $4.7 billion Volkswagen emissions cheating settlement—the company’s penalty for falsifying fuel economy data in its diesel cars.The U.S. has allocated those funds toward clean vehicle technology.

With more companies, including General Motors, announcing major moves to producing electric vehicles, advocates say it’s important to include communities of color in the cleaner car future. 

“Car sharing is really about giving people options,” Shannon Crabtree, HourCar’s outreach director, said. 

HourCar wants people to enjoy healthy, environmentally friendly options to get around, like walking, biking, and public transportation, Crabtree said. But decades of U.S. transportation planning has created a car-centric system and culture. Having a robust car sharing program, advocates say, decreases the need for car ownership. Studies suggest that every car share vehicle can replace the purchase of 10 private cars, Crabtree said. 

The program will function like a scooter rental service. Vehicles can be used for one-way or round-trip journeys. Users must be over 18 and pass a driving-record review process to qualify for the program. Cars are rented through a smartphone app that links to users’ debit or credit cards. 

At the end of the trip, drivers can park them in any public spot. The charging hubs will be what are known as level-two stations. These spots are capable of fully charging a vehicle in about two hours, and will be available to anyone in the neighborhood with an electric vehicle.The first 100 vehicles, all Chevrolet Bolts, have already been ordered.The Bolt, known as a pioneer of affordable electric cars, has a 259 mile range and seats five. The vehicle comes in sedan and hatchback models.  

Strategic targeting

The 70 planned public-charging hubs will be evenly distributed between Minneapolis and St. Paul, with a focus on putting stations in areas with high transit dependency and lower car ownership, Crabtree said. 

HourCar is working to finalize its hub locations, but is prioritizing transit dependent neighborhoods in the urban core, which tend to have higher populations of people of color and new Americans.

A map of proposed hub locations in St. Paul, which are still being finalized. Minneapolis locations can be seen here: https://hourcar.org/twin-cities-ev-mobility-network/. Image courtesy of HourCar.

To let people know about the program and spread the word in immigrant communities, HourCar has partnered with various neighborhood groups to do outreach in Hmong, Karen, Somali, Spanish, and Russian. The organization is searching for firms that can help offer 24/7 translation services in case a non-English speaker encounters issues with a vehicle. 

Among St. Paul’s Karen community, interest has been high among families who don’t own vehicles, according to Ree, with the North End Neighborhood Organization. So far, Ree, has helped with translation for meetings about the program in the neighborhood. And while she has heard some interest, she has also heard concerns. In the Karen culture, she said, people worry a lot and respect others’ belongings. There is fear about operating a car without owning it.

“They worry about the insurance, they worry about the cost,” Ree said. 

HourCar has tried to take those concerns to heart, Crabtree said. The firm has changed its pricing structure to lower consumer costs by about 40 percent. A new user can rent a car for $10 an hour; and monthly membership plans with varying benefits range from $6-$30, but include matching driving credits and discounted hourly rates.  Members of the program don’t pay for insurance, parking, or charging, and discounted rates are available for students. 

The communities the program is trying to reach already face more challenges driving in the Cities, Crabtree acknowledged. A 2020 study found Black and East African drivers accounted for 80 percent of traffic stops and searches in Minneapolis, a majority white city. Many undcoumented immigrants cannot drive because they are currently ineligible for drivers’ licenses under state law. 

‘There’s this air of fanciness or privilege’

Ree said that many people she’s spoken with have expressed excitement about having more vehicle access for their family. But they aren’t as motivated by the car being electric. 

“There’s this air of fanciness or privilege that a lot of people think of with electric cars,” Crabtree said. 

The American Lung Association has tried to get demographic data on who is driving electric cars in Minnesota today. But only about 30 percent of survey respondents answered questions about their race and ethnicity, Thurstin said. Still, the nonprofit does know that ownership tends to be higher among older, white residents. 

The Lung Association tries to do several “Ride and Drive” events each year to expose people to electric cars and let them get a chance to experience the technology. The pandemic has disrupted such events, but once COVID-19 conditions improve, the group is hoping to hold more vehicle demonstrations in targeted neighborhoods to promote the program. 

“The best way for people to understand electric vehicles is to get butts in seats,” Thurstin said. 

If the program succeeds, it could go a long way toward changing which butts get into those seats, while improving air quality across the metro.  

Andrew Hazzard

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...