The following post initially ran on Feb. 19 on Alison Wiley’s website, Electric Bus, which she has created to support the electrification of all buses — including school buses — with a focus on equity.
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, electrification of bus fleets is moving forward at a fast clip around the nation, as is transportation electrification worldwide. Equity and electrifying our buses can be both/and, rather than either/or goals that compete in hard times. Here are six principles that are helping to bring the two together.
1. Much electric bus funding is tied to serving disadvantaged, underserved populations. This generally means people with low incomes and/or people of color. Those two groups have remarkable intersection, which is part of the point (see principle No. 2 below). Electric school bus (ESB) funding usually requires an equity component, the many states’ administration of Volkswagen (VW) mitigation funds being a prime example. I believe the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) $30 million ESB acceleration project, has committed to partnering with environmental justice organizations like Chispa. California, with its dynamic Air Quality Boards, is home to the majority of the country’s 550 ESBs, almost all of them funded on the condition that they serve disadvantaged populations.
Here in Oregon, I’m currently leading the Electric Bus Learning Project, an electric bus outreach/education project funded by a Pacific Power grant and the Oregon Clean Fuels Fund, serving public transit and school bus fleets in that utility’s territory. Serving underserved populations was a key criteria in my landing this grant in partnership with The Environmental Center. And let’s note the environmental movement is all colors, Chispa (see principle No. 3 below.) being a key leader. The largest minority population in my project’s territory is Latinx/Hispanic, so this map helps us in our outreach. (That resource has tabs showing maps for all states.)
2. Understand there are solid reasons behind principle No. 1. As a white person who has worked in the transportation field for 15 years, here is what I’ve come to understand: the transportation system (also housing, medical, etc., systems) in my country were designed by and for people who look like me. I didn’t ask for that to happen, but I’m benefitting regardless. Brown and black people in contrast are marginalized and have been since before buses were invented.
For example, I can afford to live close-in enough that I’m on a frequent service bus line here in Portland, Oregon. My ability to afford it is related to my parents and grandparents not having been redlined (legally blocked from home ownership, as Black people were for decades), being owners of modest homes, and thus passing down to me a modest amount of intergenerational wealth. If I lived in Outer Southeast, which is an area where a great many Black and brown people can afford to live, I could be miles from frequent transit service, access to family-wage jobs, or even sidewalks.
3. Be aware that Chispa is the founding leader of the electric school bus movement. Chispa — clean buses for healthy ninos — is a branch of the League of Conservation Voters and has been organizing successfully for ESBs since early 2017. It is currently working for national legislation for ESB funding and has recently added a Florida chapter. Johana Vicente, Chispa’s executive director, leads the nationwide Electric School Bus Coalition of ESB-committed nonprofits, which meets monthly; I’m grateful to be able to attend these meetings.
4. Use air quality analysis in doing electric bus planning and route deployments. People breathing the worst air should be first in line to breathe the improved air that electric buses bring (also the noise reduction benefits). King County (Seattle, Washington) did a great job with this in their electric bus feasibility study, which shows that air quality is generally the worst in low-income and Black/brown neighborhoods, as King County is aware.
Use the most localized, neighborhood-specific air quality data you can find. It’s the long-term maps that are relevant, not the hourly-updated ones that I and many others used when wildfires were raging across the West last summer and fall, and people of all income levels and colors gained firsthand experience with not being able to breathe.
Keep in mind that the range of most electric buses now being sold meets or exceeds the length of most bus routes. For example, the LionC’s range is 100 to 155 miles and the average school bus route length, doubled to reflect a full day’s use, is 64 miles, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In general, unless hilly terrain or long rural routes are involved, fleets can now choose which routes on which to deploy their electric buses, in contrast to the earlier years when ranges were much shorter.
5. Own that equity is your personal responsibility. It’s easy to say, “Oh, equity is Bob’s job,” or “It’s that committee’s job.” But Bob and that committee aren’t nearly powerful enough to transform the white centeredness and white privilege that characterize most organizations.
Remember that our impact (as reported by people of color) is what counts, not our intentions. That goes for both our personal impact and our organization’s impact. Practice teamwork and support with other people working for anti-racism. I meet with two anti-racism groups to learn and grow: one of them church-affiliated, the other founded by Subduction Consulting. I also subscribe to the "Anti-Racism Daily" newsletter and support it with monthly donations.
6. Understand that sometimes electric buses may not be the equity-driven choice. Yes, your electric bus cheerleader is actually saying that. In a given snapshot in time, the both/and that I’m embracing here might not work.
A Black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC)-led nonprofit or a low-income neighborhood may object — maybe bitterly — to scarce funds being used for fancy, pricey electric buses rather than, say, more or better bus service in general, or more specifically, extended service that would bring workers home from a swing shift. I would not argue with them.
In the long run, I think transformation of the almost 600,000 fossil-fueled buses in the U.S. to electric is absolutely the best thing for everyone, especially the disadvantaged populations that create the least emissions even as they are hardest hit by air pollution and climate change. But as Chispa points out, local communities should be decision-makers on what impacts them.
To wrap up, I can imagine some hard-working readers saying: ‘We’re already stressed and slammed. This equity stuff is going to slow us down, and we don’t have time for these things.’
But I think you are able. Many people in many organizations are doing the above kinds of things, and other things that I have yet to learn about. Feel free to reply in the comments below with information on upcoming events concerning electric buses.
Alison Wiley is an Oregon-based transportation electrification professional. She is the founder and manager of the Electric Bus Learning Project, which helps bus fleets make the transition from diesel to electric.