Electric Buses And Equity: Six Principles For Combining Them

blue bird bus header

Electrification of bus fleets is moving forward at a fast clip around the nation, as is transportation electrification worldwide. We want to look at how and why equity and electrifying our buses can be a both/and, rather than either/or goals that compete with each other in hard times.


1.) Much electric bus funding is tied to serving disadvantaged and 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 #2). Electric school bus (ESB) funding usually requires an equity component, the many states’ administration of Volkswagen mitigation funds being a prime example. I believe the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) 50 million dollar ESB acceleration project will be another. (The WRI initiative is just getting underway; I’ll be writing about it more in future). California, with its dynamic Air Quality Boards, is home to the majority of the country’s 550 ESB’s, almost all of them funded on the condition that they serve disadvantaged populations.

Here in Oregon, I’m currently leading an electric bus outreach/education project funded by a Pacific Power grant, serving both public transit and school bus fleets in that utility’s territory. (This finally starts to fulfill my December 2019 goal of breaking down the wall between the two types of bus fleets. Electrifying is hard; let’s pool our efforts and learnings!). 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 #3.) being a key leader. The largest minority population in my project’s territory is Latinx/Hispanic, so this map  helps us in our outreach. I believe comparable maps exist for most or all states.

2.) Understand there are solid reasons behind #1.  As a white person who’s 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 benefiting regardless. Brown and black people in contrast are marginalized, and have been since roads and 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 (hooray for TriMet line 2). My ability to afford it is related to my parents and grandparents not having been redlined (legally blocked from home ownership, as Blacks were for decades), being homeowners, and thus passing down to me a modest amount of intergenerational wealth. If I lived in outer Southeast, which is what a great many Black and brown people can afford, I could be miles from frequent transit service, or access to family-wage jobs, or even sidewalks.

3.) Know 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 ESB’s since early 2017. It’s 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 that meets monthly, which meetings I’m grateful to attend.

4.) Use air quality analysis in doing e-bus planning and route deployments. People breathing the worst air should be first in line to breathe the improved air that e-buses bring (also the noise reduction benefits). King County (Seattle) did a great job with this in their electric bus feasibility study 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 here, not the hourly-updated ones that I and many people 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. (To my non-Western readers: it was ghastly, apocalyptic.)

Keep in mind that the range of most e-buses now being sold meets or exceeds the length of most bus routes.  For example, the Lion C’s range is 100-155 miles and the average school bus route length, doubled to reflect a full day’s use, is 64 miles (NREL). In general, unless hilly terrain or long rural routes are involved, fleets can now choose which routes on which to deploy their e-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 LaKeesha’s job” or “It’s that committee’s job.”  But LaKeesha 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 different anti-racism groups in order to learn and grow, one of them church-affiliated, the other founded by Subduction Consulting. I also subscribe to the excellent Anti-Racism Daily and support it with monthly donations.

6.) Sometimes electric buses may not be the equity-driven choice. Yes, your e-bus cheerleader is actually saying that. In a given snapshot in time, the both/and that I’m embracing here might not work.

A 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. extended service that would bring workers home from a swing shift. I would not argue with them. (I’m trying to learn to argue less in general. My husband appreciates my efforts.)

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 gonna 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.

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