Electrical Charging Deserts Pose Barrier to Sustainable Personal Transportation in Chicago

Of the city’s 77 community areas 46 have no public electric vehicle charging stations, creating electrical charging deserts primarily on the South, West, Southwest, far Southwest and far Southeast sides.

Laaiba Mahmood
6 min readApr 29, 2021

By Laaiba Mahmood and Viviana Sanchez

As more cities across the nation turn to sustainable transportation practices, electrical charging deserts in Chicago expose disparities in public access to sustainable transportation options across the city.

Electric vehicles (EV) are expected to become more popular in Chicago in the following decades, experts say. The latest electric vehicles help reduce carbon footprint, improves public health and requires less maintenance.

However, the social perception that electric vehicles are only meant for affluent, predominantly white families coupled with a scarcity of charging stations in low-income neighborhoods hinders the shift to EV.

According to U.S. Department of Energy data compiled by Chicago Area Clean Cities, 235 Public EV charging stations are located within Chicago’s community areas. Of the city’s 77 community areas, 46 have no public EV charging stations. An analysis of the data shows that only 26% of the stations are located in the city’s South, West, Southwest, far Southwest and far Southeast sides.

This charging station was installed by Community Charging and is located in Albany Park. The organization hopes to install additional public EV charging stations in other Chicago community areas soon. Photo by Vanessa Perkins.

Neda Deylami, co-founder for Chicago for Electric Vehicles, Chicagoland’s first EV owners group, said that there is not enough being done by elected officials and stakeholders to ensure Black and brown communities living in Chicago have fair access to electric charging.

“I don’t think enough has been addressed about the benefits that Black and brown communities can see [like] air quality mitigation,” Deylami said. “Black [children] in Illinois are at least three times more likely to get asthma than white kids.”

Chicago for Electric Vehicles was created in late 2018, mainly because there was no Chicagoland group or organization representing EV owners or their interests. The organization raises awareness of EV benefits and advocates for policies and legislation to expand EV access.

Some of the policies Chicago for EV has worked on are “Right to Charge” and “EV Readiness”. Right to Charge is a concept that a renter or a condo owner should not be restricted from using a plug or installing a charger at a parking spot that they rent or own. EV readiness is the idea that as transportation continues to electrify, the organization makes sure that as many of the new buildings have the capacity needed to have chargers in some of those spots.

“This is a really big deal in Chicago, where over three-quarters of us live in some kind of multi-unit dwelling [and] some percentage within those are renters,” Deylami said. “And so the rights that they have differ from those who live in single family homes that have garages and driveways.”

The Chicago City Council and Mayor Lori Lightfoot approved an ordinance in April 2020 requiring any new construction of residential and commercial buildings with five or more units and parking over 30 spots to ensure at least 20% of the parking spaces are accessible for electric vehicles with charging equipment installed.

Deylami does not believe that the 20% capacity for electric vehicles in new residential and

commercial buildings goes far enough to address inequalities.

“The ordinance only covers new buildings, there was no kind of special section for majorly renovated buildings,” Deylami said. “So what this ordinance is mainly going to cover is going to be newer homes, which tend to be luxury homes, which already tend to offer charging as an amenity to attract the kind of higher income, predominantly richer tenants that they want to see in that building.”

As a result, the ordinance does little to ensure EV accessibility for Chicago residents living in low-income neighborhoods.

Vanessa Perkins, founder of Illinois non-profit organization Community Charging based in Chicago, has made efforts to increase installation of electric charging stations in urban residential neighborhoods of Chicago through low-cost peer-to-peer EV charging networks.

“It’s a chicken-egg situation where we need the infrastructure before people will drive electric, and you need people to get more electric cars to build the infrastructure,” Perkins said.

Dr. Elizabeth Kócs, director of partnerships and strategy with UIC Energy Initiative and an adjunct faculty member, echoed Perkins’ concern about barriers to electrification of personal transportation.

Many potential EV buyers are faced with “range anxiety”: the fear of inadequate public charging infrastructure needed to reach their driving destinations. Implementing more public charging infrastructure is necessary to support the transition to electric transportation.

Today, many electric vehicles have the capacity to travel up to 250 miles on a full charge. Although there are other types of electric vehicles that can exceed this amount up to 350 miles such as Tesla models.

“When we think about an electric vehicle, how can we even think about getting one if we don’t even know how we’re going to fuel it?” Kócs said. “I use this example with my students. I say, ‘just think about within a mile how many gas stations, regular gas stations, can you think of? There are probably five to 10, minimally. Now, how many of you can name one charging station in that same radius? Not many.’”

Community Charging and EVmatch have partnered up with neighborhood site hosts to build a peer-to-peer network of privately owned, low-cost smart chargers that can be rented out locally to EV drivers.

Perkins said that the biggest barrier to public charging infrastructure is not the hardware or software management needed but the installation cost to retrofit existing buildings. Through grant funding of the Keeling Curve Prize, Community Charging is able to employ local electricians to install charging infrastructure in communities and neighborhoods that lack public charging.

Community Charging has installed level two chargers in Chicago neighborhoods. One of the locations is at a mixed use multi-family building located 4763 N. Manor Ave. in Albany Park.

The other location is at St. John’s Episcopal Church located at 3857 N. Kostner Ave. in Old Irving Park.

Other locations in need of access to public charging infrastructure that Community Charging is looking to install chargers at are the Ashburn, Back Of the Yards, McKinley Park and Bronzeville neighborhoods.

“The technology will get cheaper, more affordable and more accessible,” Perkins said. “And so that’s really exciting that we’re creating a platform that is ready for when subsidies [for buying electric vehicles] come out. We can help people get [charging stations] built, and participate in a model of community charging that is cost-effective for the public.”

This charging station was installed by Community Charging at St. John’s Episcopal Church located in Old Irving Park. Photo by Vanessa Perkins.

Kócs worked with other industry experts and stakeholders to analyze case studies and develop actionable steps to promote the electrification of transportation in Illinois. From the start of the project, employing an equitable and justice focused perspective was a priority in analyzing cases and suggesting future action.

The report, released in January, includes analysis on four cases related to road transportation: Residential and Multi-Unit Dwellings with and without Dedicated Parking; Workplace, Community and Destination charging; Public DC Fast Charging Infrastructure for Specific Use Cases; Medium- to Heavy-Duty Vehicles.

“Not everyone uses public transit, you know, so we want to move public transit, we want to move school buses, but at the same time, we want to be able to move the needle on personal vehicles as well,” Kócs said. “The South and West sides certainly have been disadvantaged on many infrastructure levels, and especially when it comes to transportation. So, it’s a multiple layered approach we need to take for clean transportation for these communities.”

A study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory aimed to determine what was the most contributing factor toward the adoption of electric vehicles. The study found that because people prefer an immediate return over future savings, rebates on EV adoption are stronger incentives than tax credits.

In the U.S., Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area are the largest adopters of EV charging infrastructures and government incentives. By purchasing or leasing a new zero-emission or plug-in hybrid vehicle residents of California can receive up to $7,000.

Kócs explained that any investment in electrification of transportation in Chicago communities needs to be done cautiously.

“The more economic development there is in particular communities, the greater chance for future investment,” Kócs said. “At the same time, any future investment could mean gentrification. So there’s this fine line to be looked at here to make sure that you don’t cross it because as soon as you do, you create this sustainable or green community but the next thing you know, it becomes gentrified and that defeats the purpose of helping communities locally.”