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The driver's seat to carbon-free 

From city fleets to household transportation—electric vehicles are an important tool to help California lead on climate change

In order to address the climate, housing, and affordability crises, we need to increase housing production paired with investments in pedestrian improvements, bicycle lanes, and transit systems. We also know that many people will continue to use personal vehicles, and for that reason, we are concurrently working on our electric vehicle infrastructure. Thanks to the pace of change in the electric vehicle industry spurred on by smart policy leadership, there has been a revolution in what is possible in clean transportation. More electric vehicles are on the road than ever before, and while there is still an accessibility challenge, they are affordable to more and more people.

It's not hard to envision a future where most of California's transportation needs can be met with battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles. In the face of the global climate crisis, it's a future we can and must move toward. And as National Drive Electric Week kicks off Sept. 14 through 22, we should be doing everything we can to spur that future forward.

Young people and others around the world are speaking out to remind us of our moral responsibility to leave the world better than we found it. California's utilities are moving rapidly toward cleaner sources—but transportation remains the largest sector adding to California's contribution to climate change, at a massive 41 percent. Now is the time we should be electrifying everything, from city fleets to household transportation.

Electric vehicles are just one of the many solutions we need to implement to help address the massive emissions from California's transportation sector. Calling for more affordable and accessible housing near transportation hubs, while also transitioning our public transportation systems to become more sustainable, are critical solutions.

It's imperative that clean transportation policies are rooted in environmental justice so that they help address the historical inequities that have burdened communities of color and low-income neighborhoods with more air pollution than the rest of us. The California Air Resources Board acknowledges that increased exposure in disadvantaged communities to diesel particulates from things like car exhaust leads to double the cancer risk of California's average. That's unacceptable. As we transition toward vehicle electrification, we must recognize the financial barriers that exist in purchasing new technology and ensure accessible, affordable choices are available to marginalized communities who are most impacted by this crisis.

Local governments can lead

Local governments are accelerating the pace of innovation. The International Council on Clean Transportation recently studied dozens of local governments and compared the use of electric vehicles in each community. They concluded that there is a lot that local leaders can do to move the needle, including providing incentives, supporting charging infrastructure, and building public awareness.

In San Luis Obispo, we're supporting vehicle electrification by ensuring new parking lots in commercial and multi-family construction set aside 10 to 15 percent of spaces for charging stations. We're partnering with third-party providers to lease space for high-speed charging infrastructure. We're purchasing electric vehicles for use in the city fleet, and we've commissioned a study to analyze policy options that are working in other communities.

Done right, electric vehicles present an important opportunity to help everyday people save money on transportation costs while reinvesting in their community. One electric vehicle owner living in San Luis Obispo was able to invest the $800 rebate in her sustainable surf wax company. Her electric vehicle purchase meant that she reinvested nearly a thousand dollars in her business and the local community, while also saving her hundreds of dollars in driving costs. Electric vehicles are spurring innovations and economic opportunities throughout our community.

Other California communities are leading the way, too. Sacramento set a high standard with its 2017 electric vehicle strategy. The process asked the hard questions about who the new technology would benefit and analyzed where electric vehicle charging infrastructure is located, overlaid with a map of the neighborhoods that have historically borne the brunt of air pollution. The impressive result included a $44 million commitment for electric vehicle infrastructure investments, with an emphasis on communities more impacted by pollution, as well as innovations like electric vehicle car-sharing.

Los Angeles' newly released sustainability policy, known as pLAn, sets the goal of fully converting all vehicles in LA to zero emissions by 2050. The city has established milestones along the way to electrify the city's buses, taxis, and delivery vehicles; the Port of LA; and more. The estimated air quality benefits alone will prevent nearly 1,000 premature deaths per year.

San Francisco-based environmental organization stand.earth used San Luis Obispo's electric vehicle program to study how local communities can implement effective and equitable electric vehicle programs. The nonprofit plans to work with a dozen more communities to identify similar policies that local governments can quickly and easily implement that will make the most difference.

Nearly every community in California, large or small, has simple policies they can implement to support the local transition to electric vehicles. California leads the nation on climate justice, but when it comes to tackling the impacts of our transportation pollution, we all need to step up even more. As we face the unfolding climate crisis, it's imperative that we imagine a future where most of California's transportation needs are met with battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles and where our clean transportation policies are rooted in environmental and social justice.

Successes in San Luis Obispo and other California communities showed us it's up to cities and counties to lead the way. You can do your part by contacting your elected officials today and letting them know you want to live in a community that is leading the country in the transition to clean energy transportation. Δ

Heidi Harmon is the mayor of San Luis Obispo, and Mary Zeiser is a climate campaigner at stand.earth. Send comments to the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com, or send a letter for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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