Susan Mudd is a senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.
Everyone who has ever stood on the corner waiting for the school bus — your own as a child, or with your children as an adult — remembers waiting in a crowd as the yellow bus pulled up, a puff of pungent smoke trailing behind it. Some days it was the noise of the loud, idling engine that we first noticed, while the bus was still blocks away.
School buses haven't changed much in the past 25 years. They are still yellow, still loud, and still smelly.
School buses are the largest category of mass transportation in our country. They transport more people each day than public transit and rail combined, and they transport our most vulnerable people, children whose lungs are still developing. Diesel school bus pollution is bad for the environment and bad for public health, especially for children's health. Yet traditional school buses are still used to transport 1 million Illinois kids to and from school every day, exposing them to dangerous pollution that hovers in the air and seeps into the cabins. This can lead to other adverse health effects, including triggering asthma attacks.
And transporting students on diesel buses is a significant cost for our school districts. Perhaps these funds could be spent in a way that would improve rather than harm students' health?
More than 1 in 8 Illinois children have asthma; it is the number one chronic condition with which Illinois' children suffer. Illinois schools are required to have emergency response protocols in place to address emergency asthma attacks, but our students are still transported by asthma-exacerbating buses. Something is wrong with this picture.
The good news is , technological advances in recent years have made zero-emission electric school buses available. Now is the time to consider taking advantage of unique resources to advance their affordability.
In 2016 and 2017, the Volkswagen corporation and the United States Environmental Protection Agency settled a series of complaints against Volkswagen, after the auto manufacturer was accused of cheating on federal emissions tests. Illinois will receive $109 million from that settlement. During the past two years, the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) researched the options for using those funds. This money is earmarked for improving air quality, specifically by replacing heavily polluting diesel equipment and vehicles. The ELPC analysis found, and public health experts agree, that clean, zero-emission electric school buses are one of the best uses for the settlement funds. To build awareness of this opportunity, ELPC:
Kicked off a Midwest electric school bus road tour at an Illinois public elementary school, reaching six communities in four states, in partnership with seven Midwest electric utilities and regional public health experts.
Conducted a webinar, entitled " Electric School Buses: A VW Settlement Opportunity," with e-school bus pilots in Massachusetts and Minnesota; and
Crafted a model school board resolution that enables school boards to commit to fleet electrification as costs decline.
Illinois recently joined other Midwest states in deciding to dedicate over $10 million to get electric school buses on the road. Ohio's plan sets aside $3 million for electric school buses, Indiana's draft plan has a similar amount, and dedicated funds are expected in Michigan.
At this moment, electric school buses are more expensive than other fossil-fuel types. That is because fewer have been produced, so the benefits of large-scale production are not yet realized. But battery prices (the largest portion of the cost of the zero-emission buses) are coming down. As the purchase price of electric school buses reaches cost-parity, the operational savings attributable to the technology can result in more resources being allocated towards essential classroom activities.
Investing in zero-emission electric school buses now will help drive down the cost of vehicles so they become more affordable for all school districts.
Transitioning to zero-emission electric school buses is a great fit with forward-thinking STEM education philosophies, while resulting in cleaner air, healthier communities, and kids breathing easier. Given the large scale of the national school bus fleet, this would have tremendous air quality and public health benefits.
If you are considering zero-emission electric school buses for your school district and protecting the health of your students and community members, there are a few steps you can take now. First, keep an eye out for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency accepting Volkswagen Settlement project applications and encourage your district to apply. You can sign up to be notified of funding opportunity timing at EPA.VWSettlement@illinois.gov.
Second, share this information with your colleagues on the school board, superintendents, and principals, and encourage them to adopt a resolution committing your district/school to transition your fleet to zero-emission electric school buses. A sample school board resolution can be found on ELPC's website. Let ELPC know of your interest so we can help connect you with potential partners and up-to-date information.
Through your leadership in obtaining electric school buses, children in your school district and beyond will benefit from quiet rides to school and breathing more easily.
Resources associated with this article can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.