A neglected California city reinvents itself with electric cars — and plots a roadmap for the nation

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This outpost in the Central Valley is one of the most fertile places on earth, attracting thousands of seasonal workers to harvest lettuce and reap the unexpected benefits of big agribusiness. But for most of Ray Leon’s life, the city of Huron has been a transportation desert.

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When he was a kid, it took three hours and 13 stops to ride the 53-mile bus to Fresno to visit a cousin at the hospital. “That experience stuck with me,” he said.

By the time he graduated from UC Berkeley and returned to the community to help his aging parents, little had changed. Even after Huron was elected mayor five years earlier, León’s lobbying for reliable bus routes to Fresno, Visalia and Colinga got nowhere with regional planners, who chased down the price.

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“It’s always about who you value and what you value,” Leon said. “Farmer communities were never given importance.”

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The mayor took the matter into his own hands. And now, as the Biden administration makes its multi-billion dollar blueprint One of the few places to look for inspiration is Huron, in the face of deep inequalities in the transition to green transportation.

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video | 07:38
How California’s Farming Town Embraces Electric Cars

Converting low-income communities to costly electric cars is one of the biggest climate challenges facing the state and the nation. But the rural city of Huron, California, and the urban community of Rancho San Pedro show that it can be done.

Tucked behind the boarded-up buildings of the city’s struggling main drag is an arsenal of innovation called Leon Green retros. This has put Huron on the map as perhaps the greenest migrant farmworker community in the country. Headquartered in a former diesel truck garage, a growing fleet of nine electric cars managed by Leon’s Green RightRose program shuttle free to all residents of Fresno County.

“It’s a Spanglish word,” Leon said of the word.raitero“And its root,”raita“- slang for “ride.” A person who gives or receives a ride is the person who sought and offered a lift throughout the long history of migrant workers, Leon said. raitero,

The cost of the Green Riteros program is mostly covered with grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, culled together from state climate programs that are needed to fund industrial polluters. Passengers are asked to reserve their ride a few days in advance, and are welcome to use the service as often as they need to.

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On an otherwise sleepy Tuesday morning, Green Rightrose headquarters was buzzing. “I call it ‘The Executive,'” Leon said, because he showed off an electric Volkswagen ID 4, the most admired car in the fleet, at least until orders of three Teslas arrived. “There’s a button you can massage.” You can push.”

A group of locals on the Green Rightrose payroll got into cars with Leon and set out to pick up clients needed to travel to other towns in the Valley, mostly for medical appointments. A compact electric Chevy Bolt hauled an elderly resident to Hanford. Another was destined for Visalia. Lyon traveled across town in ID4 to pick up 68-year-old Gregory Hernandez, who was once a Reuters himself but is unable to drive after suffering two strokes in July.

As VW traversed lettuce fields and pistachio trees en route to Hernandez’s dialysis appointment in Colinga, the traveler marveled at the technology.

“Smooth,” said Hernandez in Spanish, gesturing with outstretched hands to emphasize the point.

A dog walks on a street in Huron, a small rural town in Fresno County.
Huron, a small rural town in Fresno County, created an innovative electric car ride-sharing program.
(Myung J. Chun /)

Driver Eddie Ramirez waits as Ray Leone helps Anna Maria Solerio to the green Riteros electric car.
Green Riteros driver Eddie Ramirez waits as Huron Mayor Ray Leone helps Ana Maria Solerio with an electric car. Ramirez was taking Solorio to a medical appointment in Hanford, about 30 minutes away.
(Myung J. Chun /)

Back in Huron, a Bolt rolled into a residential street that ended in an industrial estate, and Maria Gutierrez settled in for her first ride in an electric car. Gutierrez needed to get chemotherapy, and was relieved that she no longer had to rely on her husband to get her there. “Our husbands work in the fields, and they can’t take much time off,” she said in Spanish. “It’s a great service.”

Leon’s program is moving Huron, with a population of 6,206, to a per capita public charging station anywhere in the US. The city already has 30 ports. It’s a notable difference when environmental justice groups are bothered by the concentration of electric vehicle infrastructure in otherwise wealthiest zip codes. California officials warn the state’s climate goals will not be achieved unless Zero-emissions technology spreads fast in low-income communities.

Leon’s vision to turn this out-of-the-way city into a showcase of electric vehicle innovation with a median household income of $25,000 is built around the needs and financial constraints of the region. It’s a change from most electric vehicle programs, whose incentives are focused on car ownership – accessible only to drivers who can afford a Tesla or Bolt and have a garage to equip a charging station.

Huron Mayor Ray Leon smiles as he drives on Green Riteros electric vehicles.
“If raiteros If there was social media and technical skills, this would have been raiteros Not Uber” that brought ride sharing into the mainstream, said Huron Mayor Ray Lyons.
(Myung J. Chun /)

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Huron has “revolutionized the way we plan and think about transportation deployment,” said Alvaro Sanchez, vice president of policy at the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute.

This was not necessarily Leon’s plan. He was simply trying to solve an annoying transportation puzzle that plagues many communities like him. Lyon captured an informal Rytero ride-sharing economy that flourished in farmworker communities long before Uber.

,Raiteros decades before Uber,” Lyon said. “If raiteros If there was social media and technical skills, this would have been raiteros Not Uber” which brought ride sharing into the mainstream.

There are only a few places across the country that have tried to integrate electric vehicles in low-income communities, and Most are in California.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and other large cities are experimenting with programs in under-served urban areas, which often include Car sharing in subsidized housing complexes, Raising them is an urgent mission for the Biden administration, which vows to make environmental justice a priority. Its goal is to quadruple Country network with less than 113,000 public charging Ports to at least 500,000 by 2030.

“There aren’t too many models that are easily replaced,” said Matt Peterson, president of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a public-private partnership created to help meet the city’s green transportation goals. Cities in California, Peterson said, offer the clearest template.

Matt Peterson stands between two cars plugged in at an electric charging station near the Port of Los Angeles.
Matt Peterson, president of the Los Angeles cleantech incubator, stands near the electric cars heavily used by residents of Rancho San Pedro subsidized apartments near the Port of LA.
(Myung J. Chun /)

Peterson stood alongside two electric cars, which are heavily used by residents of Rancho San Pedro, a community of 450 subsidized apartments that borders the Port of Los Angeles. It is one of the most polluted areas in Southern California.

About 40 drivers in the community have enrolled in a program that allows them to rent compact cars for as little as $3 an hour. Nanette Barragán, a Democrat from San Pedro, is working on legislation to push the federal government to launch such programs in low-income communities across the country.

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“They say all cars will be electric in the future,” said Carmen Rivera, a Rancho San Pedro resident who uses the cars to drive her kids to medical appointments. “It’s a way of staying up to date and thinking about the fact that one day we’ll be using a car like this.”

Carmen Rivera reaches the door of a white electric vehicle that is part of a car-sharing program.
Rancho San Pedro resident Carmen Rivera uses electric cars to bring her children to medical appointments.
(Myung J. Chun /)

Enthusiasm delights transportation advocates struggling to introduce zero-emissions vehicles in communities where they are often viewed as weak, unreliable and unsuitable. Sanchez also plans to go on tour with the San Diego Lowrider Council with an electric model it’s developing in hopes of breaking down those barriers.

Bringing these cars to low-income communities was designated by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation: “The biggest challenge we now face in meeting our climate goals.”

Locations with the worst air quality problems in the state, often due to vehicular pollution, have the least penetration of electric cars. As of 2019, less than 6% of the zero-emission vehicles registered in the state were in the top fifth most polluted and economically disadvantaged communities, according to the Centre.

This is a point at which the state’s green energy policies have been opposed by critics.

Maria Consuelo Montes sits behind the wheel of an electric car.
Maria Consuelo uses the electric car-sharing program in Montes Rancho San Pedro and walks others through the app and how to use the car.
(Myung J. Chun /)

“How Will My Components Afford the EV?” Assembly member Jim Cooper, Sacramento-area Democrat, tweeted When Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order banning the sale of new gas-powered cars and SUVs…

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