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As COVID-19 swept across the country last spring, Mike Salisbury and his colleagues at Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency (CASR) began to worry about how city residents were going to get where they needed to go.
“Two things we saw at that time were transit services being cut and people becoming less comfortable with public transit, Uber, and Lyft,” Salisbury says.
To help mitigate that problem, CASR has collaborated with local nonprofit Colorado CarShare to funnel $300,000 worth of CARES Act cash toward installing seven shareable electric cars at six new charging stations across the city.
Colorado CarShare and CASR intend the vehicles to be financially and logistically feasible for all Denverites, especially frontline workers and those who have been most challenged by the pandemic’s mobility restrictions.
As such, Colorado CarShare will waive its regular $25 new membership fee and give $75 of driving credit to up to 450 low-income locals. These deals, limited by the CARES Act grant timeline, last only until the end of 2021, but Colorado CarShare will continue to waive its monthly membership fee and offer 25 percent off its cheapest per-hour and per-mile prices for low-income members indefinitely. (Rates typically start at $5.50 per hour and 33 cents per mile.)
According to Peter Krahenbuhl, Colorado CarShare’s CEO and executive director, most of the low-income clients they’ve reached so far live in Denver Housing Authority properties. But anyone who has proof of residence in affordable housing or other proof-of-income qualifications can apply for the subsidized rates.
The first of the program’s electric cars—a suite of Nissan Leafs, Chevy Bolts, and Chevy Volts—hit the road in December, and the rest are now up and running.
Wannabe drivers can register with Colorado CarShare, reserve a time slot, then head to one of the new charging stations to pick up their temporary ride. The program covers fuel and car insurance—members only need an active driver’s license and solid driving record.
To map out where the charging stations would be built, Salisbury and his collaborators used municipal equity indexes to identify under-resourced neighborhoods where the investments might, ideally, make the most difference. Three of the charging stations are in or immediately bordering Five Points; the neighborhoods of City Park West, La Alma Lincoln Park, and Sun Valley house the others.
Indeed, Krahenbuhl says this project, located at the intersection of “carbon justice, social equity, and COVID relief,” aligns with Colorado CarShare’s 23 years of community empowerment. The organization aspires to become the first car-sharing nonprofit in the country with exclusively electric vehicles. So far, the company has electrified about a quarter of its fleet, which features around 50 cars.
The effort is also part of CASR’s broader ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Per Denver’s Electric Vehicle Action Plan, 30 percent of its vehicle registrations will be electric by 2030. By 2050, 100 percent of the city’s light-duty vehicles are scheduled to be electric.
Not all community members believe the project’s success is guaranteed. Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center is just a three-minute walk from the charging station outside the Denver Motor Vehicles Building on Tremont Place. Jeff Fard, the center’s founder and executive director, worries that this development may be the latest iteration of a pattern in which “communities identified as being served are usually presented with final results as opposed to being consulted with.”
“By no means am I anti-progress,” Fard says. “But I’m interested in who’s at the table, who’s making decisions for whom.”
Salisbury and Krahenbuhl emphasized the speed with which the program had to be enacted per CARES Act stipulations, and their hope that, with increased publicity, more low-income residents will find ways to make car-sharing work for them.
Fard shares their optimism, but, after seeing bike- and scooter-sharing efforts posture toward, but ultimately fail to reach people who most need increased mobility, he’s “hopeful but always skeptical.”
For their part, Colorado CarShare and CASR say they will survey members and analyze usage statistics to evaluate and improve its impact on the city’s climate and economy as the program expands. But as the pandemic carries on, finding creative, equitable ways for Denverites to get around has perhaps never been more essential.