EJ @ stanford
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EJ @ stanford

Uncovering Barriers to Clean Transportation in Sonoma County

By Nora Hennessy and Sita Syal

This blog post was written by a recipient of our Summer 2021 Environmental Justice Graduate Student Research Fellowship.

This summer we set out to understand the transportation needs of low income and communities of color in Sonoma County. The DIVE research group formed a couple of years ago with the aim of determining how to equitably decommission ICE vehicles — or in more simple terms, to answer the question How can we make the transition to electric vehicles more fair? Through a mix of quantitative and qualitative work, we investigate this issue. This summer, our focus was on engaging with the local Sonoma County community to better understand the needs, motivations, and barriers to mobility, with a particular focus on underserved communities.

Conducting Interviews in Sonoma County (credit: Karen Eggerman and Sita Syal)

We were fortunate to receive the Stanford Environmental Justice Working Group Summer Fellowship, which allowed us to conduct interviews in person with community members in Sonoma County and fairly compensate interviewees for their time. Our primary goals were to understand how people use transportation and what barriers they face in accessing the transportation they need. We wanted to know if people were driving cars, if they were taking the bus, or if they were relying on friends and family to take them where they needed to go. We would take what we learned and use it to inform our work on how best to remove conventional vehicles from the road and get people into electric vehicles (or other clean modes of transportation).

Throughout the summer we were advised by three wonderful people: Karen Eggerman, our project partner and partner at Tensleep Advisory; Efren Carrillo, a past county supervisor who currently works for Burbank Housing, an affordable housing agency in Sonoma County; and Alegría de la Cruz, the Chief Equity Officer for Sonoma County. Their insights helped to guide us as we planned our outreach, and their connections helped us get in touch with organizations that we could partner with to enter communities in a respectful way.

Before the start of the summer, we had spent many hours poring over data on electric vehicle adoption and demographic data of Sonoma County, trying to understand which communities were being left out of the transition to clean mobility. We analyzed which census tracts had received the most rebates for purchasing EVs, and which areas had the highest penetration of EVs already. Overlaying this data with demographic maps of Sonoma, we found that most of the adoption of EVs in Sonoma County was occurring in wealthy, white communities. While this finding was not entirely a surprise, the data analysis helped us narrow down which groups were being excluded from the transition to clean transportation and identify whose voices needed to be elevated in the discussion. We found that two groups in particular were being left out: the Latinx community and low income communities.

We drafted an initial plan to do targeted outreach in areas that were both low income and had large Latinx populations. Efren and Alegria were supportive of this plan, and also challenged us to go further and consider additional communities that might not show up as clearly in the data due to their small numbers: in particular, the Eritrean community, Vietnamese, and Tribal communities. We had the opportunity to speak with members of the Eritrean and Vietnamese communities this summer and we look forward to future opportunities to speak with the Tribal Communities in future outreach.

After a long process of making connections, we conducted interviews at a few different affordable apartment complexes. Our first round of interviews took place at Valley Oak Apartments, subsidized by the federal Housing and Urban Development department, where there are a large number of Eritrean, Vietnamese, and Latinx individuals and families. We worked with a resident of the complex to help us translate our flyer into Tigrinya, the Eritrean language, and we had help from a Stanford student and members of our team to translate the flyer into Vietnamese and Spanish, respectively. The translations of the flyers were well-received by the residents, as it made different groups feel comfortable and included in our interview recruitment process. The word spread fast — we conducted 16 interviews during the first session at Valley Oak!

A handful of stories stood out from our first day of interviews. One man told us about how if he arrived to work just a minute late, he wouldn’t be allowed to work that day, and so he drove in an hour early every day. For this man, his car was essential in allowing him to earn a living for his family. A woman shared how she had been convinced to buy a car that was well out of her budget, and as a result had struggled with payments, and maintenance issues ever since. While most of the folks we talked to just wanted a reliable, durable vehicle to get them where they needed to go, our youngest interviewee said her dream car was a Tesla.

We went up for a second round of interviews in five different locations through Burbank Housing in July. More stories emerged. For one woman, her car was like a member of the family — it was special, full of memories, and had allowed her to take care of her sick adopted daughter. Another woman described fleeing a fire and losing everything, how her car was everything she had now. We heard many people comment that maintenance for cars is usually expensive, but thankfully they had a mechanic friend/family member who could help them out. The financial system also stood out to us as a major barrier for many of the people we interviewed; one woman told us she believed she had a “fair” APR for her car loan — 12% (much higher than should be allowed). Throughout the interviews, we began to notice a different dynamic in interviews with men and with women. The women were much more willing to share personal stories, while many of the men gave one word answers and surface-level responses. However, when a man and woman interviewed together, it was the man that did the talking.

After the interviews, a few themes began to emerge. One particularly interesting theme was agency. For many people, a personal vehicle was a way for them to be in control of their lives. On the flip side, people described a lack of agency in getting the transportation they needed. Whether that was an inability to get a loan to purchase a vehicle, or not having the information to make an informed decision about which car to get, agency played a key role.

Another interesting theme was the framing of transportation needs vs. luxury. In each interview we conducted, we asked people what their ideal form of transportation would be. The responses suggested that this was not a question most people had allowed themselves to consider. Just having a car which allowed them to get where they needed to go was considered a luxury.

A more practical theme that emerged was the use of informal financing. Many people we spoke to relied on informal loans from friends, or directly purchased used cars from friends or family members. Very few people went through dealerships to purchase cars. That alone would prevent them from accessing many of the programs designed to help low income families access electric vehicles.

While we are continuing to analyze the data we gathered this summer, we have already been able to share our initial findings both with our advisory board, as well as with some key players in Sonoma County such as the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the Regional Climate Protection Authority. This quarter, we are continuing the work, teaching a one unit class and interviewing students at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. We hope our work will help empower the Sonoma County to develop equitable programs and policies to lead to the swift and fair transition from conventional cars to electric vehicles.

Nora is a PhD candidate in Energy Resources Engineering focused on equity in the clean energy transition. Sita is a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering focused on combining qualitative methods and quantitative modeling techniques to embed equity in energy and mobility systems.

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