Electric Buses Drive Healthier Communities

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

As Illinois debates how to spend VW Settlement funds, new report demonstrates public health benefits of leaving diesel buses in the dust

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Chicago: If Illinois transitioned its entire fleet of 3,216 transit buses to all-electric vehicles, it could significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions each year and reduce toxic air pollution that creates a public health hazard. A new report from Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, “Electric Buses: Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods and Cleaner Air,” shows that a full transition to electric buses in Illinois could avoid an average of 106,993 tons of climate-altering pollution each year — the equivalent of taking 20,655 cars off the road.  

In Chicago alone, if the Chicago Transit Authority transitioned its fleet of 1653 diesel busses to all-electric vehicles, it would avoid an average of  54,993 tons of pollution each year, the equivalent of taking 10,616 cars off the road. In January, the CTA announced plans to purchase 20 to 30 new all-electric busses.

“There’s no reason we should be running dirty, polluting buses in our communities when we have better, cleaner options,” said Abe Scarr, state director of Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “Our research shows that whether commuters are on the bus or boarding the bus, they’re exposed to toxic air in high concentrations, while simultaneously, diesel contributes to global warming. We have the technology to avoid this, so why wouldn’t we?”

The report identifies several ways Illinois can pay for the transition to electric buses, including using Volkswagen settlement funds, state and federal grants, and utility investments. Illinois is receiving $109 million as part of the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” settlement. A portion of that money could be used to purchase all-electric buses and charging infrastructure.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency was recently criticized by lawmakers and advocacy organizations for a lack of transparency and opportunities for meaningful public input as they drafted their plan to spend Illinois’s portion of the settlement money, and for directing 65% of the funds to “off-road” projects. Last week, the Illinois Senate passed legislation Sponsored by Senator Castro (D- Elgin) requiring public hearings and a task force to decide how to spend the settlement funds.

“The compelling data in this report reinforces the need for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to design a better Volkswagen settlement plan that allocates more of the $109 million Illinois portion to electric school buses and mass transit,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Investing in electric mass transit and school buses will protect the health of our kids and those most affected by air pollution and move Illinois towards a clean transportation future.”

More than 60 percent of the nation’s nearly 70,000 transit buses run on diesel, while just 0.2 percent of buses are all-electric. Numerous studies have shown that inhaling diesel exhaust can cause respiratory diseases and worsen existing conditions such as asthma. Diesel exhaust from buses poses a particular public health risk; buses primarily travel where there are lots of people, including in the more densely-crowded areas of cities, on the busiest roads, and near schools.

“In Illinois, nearly one of every eight children live with asthma, but in some Chicago communities of color it can be as high as one of every four children. Parents can protect their children by reducing asthma triggers in the home, but once a child walks out the door on the way to school, they face clouds of diesel exhaust parents simply can’t blow away,” said Brian Urbaszewski, Director of  Environmental Health Programs at Respiratory Health Association. “Eliminating the toxic and sickening exhaust from school and transit buses children and adults use to get to school and work by investing VW’s pollution penalty money in zero emission buses simply makes sense.“

The good news is that all-electric buses are available and ready to roll, and they’re cleaner, healthier and often cheaper for transit agencies to run in the long-term. And with zero tailpipe emissions, electric school buses can significantly reduce people’s exposure to toxic fumes.

“Diesel can cause a number of health problems, including asthma and cancer, and unfortunately that’s what is powering most of America’s buses,” said Alana Miller, policy analyst at Frontier Group and coauthor of the report. “Our report shows that all-electric buses can help cities address public health and climate concerns while saving money in the long-run.”

“Major cities across the world, including Los Angeles and New York, have committed to protecting public health and the climate by transitioning to 100 percent all-electric buses,” added Scarr. “Illinois should make the same commitment.”