GEST owners pose in an electric shuttle vehicle
GEST Chicago is owned and operated by Marissa Wright, center, and the brother-sister duo of Tiffany Shepard and Harold Shepard. The three are seen here in a GEST vehicle in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. Credit: GEST Chicago

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The transition to electric vehicles is well under way, but the benefits will be slow to arrive in communities where private car ownership is still a luxury.  

Long before app-based ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, unlicensed cabs known as “jitneys” provided a similar service in Black neighborhoods that conventional White-owned taxi companies frequently refused to serve. Today, ride-hailing service is also low in several predominantly Black neighborhoods on Chicago’s Far South Side, corresponding with low rates of household vehicle ownership.

Hyperlocal shared ride services represent a potential alternative. In Chicago, two Black-owned companies — Jitney EV and GEST Chicago — are positioning themselves to fulfill that role, while also trying to ensure that environmental justice communities are not left behind in the transition from fossil fuel-based transportation.

“Post COVID and as a result of climate change, we have a once-in-a-lifetime investment in public infrastructure to address climate change and to address the transition away from fossil fuel production, toward clean energy, both in building and transportation. So it’s important that our community does not get left behind,” said William “Billy” Davis, general manager for Jitney EV. 

Their efforts are specifically targeting the “last mile” gap between public transit stops and destinations such as grocery stores, banks and entertainment, along with providing an option for reliable transportation to and from work for residents within its service area, Davis said.

“We have, in Illinois, a transit system that is required by statute to generate 50% of its operating revenue from the fare box. So that tends to drive routes based on ridership. And it tends to punish those routes that have low ridership, even if they are in disadvantaged communities,” Davis said. 

Spreading the word about EVs

As part of the Community of the Future program conducted by Chicago utility company ComEd, Jitney EV and Bronzeville Community Development Partnership launched the Dash EV pilot program in late 2017, featuring a single Innova EV Dash vehicle that could travel up to 35 mph, with a 150-mile range between charges. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has hampered plans for expansion beyond the initial pilot, but Jitney EV still plans to launch a full-scale operation in the future, according to Davis. 

In the meantime, Jitney EV collaborates with services like GEST Chicago, viewing these operations not as competition but as another link to fill the transportation gaps that are so prevalent in environmental justice communities, Davis said. 

Green Easy Safe Transportation (GEST) Carts, an advertising-supported service offering free rides in multi-passenger electric vehicles, debuted in Cincinnati in 2018 and now operates in Cincinnati, Charlotte, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Scottsdale and Louisville, along with a local operation in Chicago. GEST Chicago began operations in November 2020.

GEST Chicago provides free, app-based rides on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, according to its website, servicing areas in and near downtown with high pedestrian traffic. Revenue is generated from a continuous flow of sponsors. 

In many instances, GEST carts represent passengers’ first experience with electric vehicles, according to Harold Shepard, GEST Chicago’s chief sales and operations officer.

“It kind of helps introduce people to electrification. And my favorite thing is,  when people get in the vehicle, they’re like, ‘Oh this is all electric?’ I’m like, ask me how much it costs to fill this thing up. … Last time I charged it, 3 dollars and 56 cents,” Shepard said.

‘We have to find a formula’

While GEST Chicago presently limits its operations to downtown and predominantly White neighborhoods on the city’s North and Near West sides, there is definitely a desire to expand into less affluent communities with higher BIPOC populations, Shepard said.

“Let’s work with nursing homes and give them rides to Mariano’s [grocery store] or give them rides to the pharmacy, something to get the vehicles out there so [people] can see them and [we can] attract some sponsors,” Shepard said.

Davis says the services can coexist with — rather than replace — existing transportation modes, but it will take time to work out.

“We have to find a formula. Transportation route mapping is going to be driven by a variety of factors — it’s difficult to predict exactly what the right model is going to look like. Suffice it to say, though, that it will be a combination of on-demand … micro transit, car sharing, electric car, electric vehicle car share, electric buses and trains.” 

Legacy transportation services like taxicabs — already threatened by ride-hailing services, may also view hyperlocal services like Jitney EV or GEST Chicago as a threat. But Shepard notes their low-speed vehicles can’t go to the airport or cover long freeway distances, instead replacing the short trips that taxi drivers dislike. 

“Please don’t be mad at us. We’re kind of helping you out. Instead of you guys having to be the bar-to-bar destinations, we handle that. So, you’re welcome,” Shepard said.

Critics say that to some extent, promoting personal electric vehicle ownership perpetuates car dependence and contributes to sprawl. Outer-ring suburbs and exurbs of large cities reflect the tradition of white flight and intentional segregation during the mid-20th century. These post-World War II developments were often deliberately designed with little or no available public transportation — the antithesis of a just transition and increased equity.

Hyperlocal services could be a key factor in the ultimate goal of not only eliminating gasoline vehicles, but of reducing dependence on cars in the first place, Davis said. 

“There’s an economic benefit. … It increases consumer spending. It raises standards of living. It may manifest in other ways of worker productivity and satisfaction, may reduce turnover. There’s so many other variables in factor, but it has to be an economic good to take the burden of transportation off of the worker,” Davis said.

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at editor@energynews.us.

Audrey Henderson

Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.