More than 20 million students in the United States ride school buses every year. This equals approximately 7 billion trips per year, making school buses one of the most widely used forms of public transport in the United States.
But those trips aren’t always safe ones.
Most students — especially those from low-income and communities of color — ride diesel-powered buses that regularly expose them to toxic fumes linked to asthma, cancer and other illnesses. And while electric school buses offer a solution, they can actually deepen inequities if programs aren’t designed and deployed properly.
The Disproportionate Burden of Polluting School Buses in Vulnerable Communities
Over 90% of the U.S. school bus fleet is powered by diesel, which is problematic for children’s health. Toxic diesel exhaust is linked to serious physical risks including asthma, cancer and other respiratory illnesses. Higher levels of traffic-related air pollutants are also associated with lower short-term attention levels for primary school students. And studies show that school bus air pollution affects academic performance by causing illnesses, absences and cognitive impairment observable in test scores.
Some communities are disproportionately impacted by dirty school bus engines. For example, several studies show that students with disabilities, those living in rural communities, those from low-income families and Black students are more likely to travel long distances on a school bus, leading to greater exposure to harmful pollutants. School bus depots are often a significant source of neighborhood pollution, disproportionately affecting school bus employees and the surrounding communities. In some cases, like in New York City, these depots are predominantly located in “environmental justice communities” already facing high pollution levels.
Because historic racial segregation has resulted in Latino, Asian American and Black communities living closer to roads, highways and other pollution sources than white communities, school bus exhaust disproportionately harms these residents and is compounded by greater air pollution exposure from other on-road sources. Together, this extra pollution creates added health challenges for communities already overburdened by poor air quality and other socio-economic impacts.
Electric School Buses Can Be a Solution — or Could Deepen Inequities
Electric school buses are an increasingly popular solution to dirty diesel buses, with more than 12,000 committed across 38 U.S. states as of June 2022 (including an order for 10,000 repowered buses from a dealer in the Midwest, where diesel engines will be switched out for electric ones).
Unlike diesel buses, electric school buses produce no toxic exhaust, so they’re much better for children’s health. They can also lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce school operating expenses, create green manufacturing jobs, and support a more resilient grid powered by greater amounts of renewable energy. But without careful planning, transitioning to electric school buses might not meet the needs of historically underserved communities — and indeed, could perpetuate ingrained systems of inequity.
Based on analysis of the WRI Dataset of Electric School Bus Adoption, which catalogues the location, socio-economic and racial makeup of school districts using electric school buses (or that have secured funding or a purchase agreement to do so), 80% of electric school buses in the United States are in school districts that serve communities of color. While this is good news, the analysis also shows that wealthier communities are still procuring more buses than districts serving low-income households.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean School Bus Program rebate competition, which recently allocated over $1 billion to 389 school districts to help purchase more than 2,400 buses, may change these trends. But even with all the significant recent investment, the total number of committed electric buses remains only a tiny fraction of the roughly 480,000 school buses used throughout the United States.
Communities of color and low-income communities historically have often been the last to benefit from development and transport innovations given the ongoing impacts of structural racism and discrimination in the United States, including redlining, exclusionary zoning and other discriminatory housing policies. These communities are also frequently left out of decision-making on issues like community development policies or school transport options. This legacy is reflected in the way school boundaries and school budgets are defined and reinforce long‐standing structural barriers that perpetuate inequities in education, school bus transport, access and mobility.
For example, since school districts are typically funded by local taxes, lower-income districts have less access to resources than wealthier districts. Even though the cost over the lifetime of electric school bus use can be similar to diesel buses due to fuel and maintenance savings as well as public funding support, the large upfront costs of procuring electric school buses is substantial. Because of this, income inequality could impact low-income districts’ ability to initially afford electric school buses.
Low-income school districts often face higher borrowing costs and smaller tax bases for raising funds on their own. In fact, studies have shown that a lack of resources may impact the ability of lower-income districts to apply to school bus funding programs because of limited awareness or staff resources.
Without policy interventions, the transition from diesel to electric vehicles could also result in job losses, job relocation or reduced wages in manufacturing because many electric bus parts like batteries and electric motors are largely made by non-U.S. suppliers. Currently, Black Americans represent a somewhat higher portion of workers in the automotive manufacturing sector when compared with the labor market as a whole. This shift could particularly affect these Black workers, who have also faced discriminatory hiring practices and limited access to unionized, well-paying jobs.
Even the nature of the energy grid is unequal. As the distribution grid was developed over the past century, existing social inequities were embedded within it. For example, the racialized effects of housing policy may have resulted in older, lower capacity infrastructure in low-income communities and communities of color. Many people living in disadvantaged communities are renters who are dependent on landlords for energy efficiency improvements or electric vehicle hookups.
A recent study of California grid infrastructure, for example, found that communities of color are less likely to be served by grid infrastructure that can accommodate new distributed energy resources like solar power and electric vehicle charging. In one study, less than 20% of households making $25,000 a year or less had access to a parking space with electric charging capability close to their home, compared to almost 80% for households making $100,000 or more. This unequal access means these communities may require supplemental investment for electric school buses and other renewable energy investments, increasing the burden of shifting to electric vehicles.
And further afield, the batteries needed to power electric school buses can indirectly harm human rights. For example, poor mining practices to extract lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and graphite, the critical mineral inputs for batteries, can damage human health and the environment. Further, the disposal of old diesel buses could reinforce trends of shipping polluting diesel vehicles from wealthy nations to poorer countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, displacing the impacts of diesel pollution and waste to other vulnerable communities.
How to Ensure a Just Transition to Electric School Buses?
A timely, targeted and well-managed transition can go a long way to ensuring that all communities can access electric school buses and enjoy their benefits. Many actors — school districts, transportation providers, utilities, policymakers, investors and school bus manufacturers and operators — have role to play.
Putting equity first in electric school bus deployment means:
Embedding equity in program design
Fairness, trust, transparency and inclusion can guide decision-making while addressing historical and structural injustices. For example, in addition to implementation of state and city-level strategies to incorporate equity into transport decisions, school districts have considered how to incorporate equity into school bus scheduling challenges. This ensures that any changes to school start times or the number of buses needed to transport kids as a result of transitioning to electric buses won’t hinder students’ abilities to get to school on time or perform well academically.
Involving stakeholders in decision-making
School districts and electric bus advocacy groups must ensure that community members impacted by electric school buses are included in decision-making, paying special attention to how impact may vary based on people’s race, ethnicity, gender, geographic location, ability, income or first language. Underserved communities and other marginalized groups must have a voice in program design, and school districts should facilitate their engagement through resources and technical assistance as needed. It may take time to develop trusting relationships with key stakeholders typically excluded from decision-making.
For example, in Maryland, the Climate Change Action Plan Focus Work Group, made up of students, community organizations, a local union president and others, included in their proposal to the Prince George’s County Public Schools Board of Education (PGCPS) a recommendation to electrify all buses by 2040, which was then adopted. Together, the school district and Work Group are now focusing on ensuring the entire PGCPS community are active participants in executing the plans.
Strengthening partnerships with local organizations
“Big greens” like WRI may not have the on-the-ground experience or relationships to really understand the local impacts of electric school buses. Strong partnerships with local community groups are key for connecting and consulting with different stakeholders and developing trusting and productive collaborations.
For example, CHISPA’s Clean Buses For Healthy Niños, a branch of the League of Conservation Voters, has been organizing successfully for electric school buses since early 2017. They started the Alliance for ESBs with other NGOs to help residents from communities most harmed by air pollution to advocate for electric school buses. So far, the alliance has helped shape policy and funding opportunities and demonstrated local demand for electric school buses in 34 states, working with state leaders and school administrators to direct resources where they are most needed.
Prioritizing underserved school districts by providing funding and technical assistance
School districts that serve low-income families and communities of color overburdened by pollution should be the first to benefit from the electric school bus transition. Targeted funding and technical assistance programs can use existing data to identify and prioritize these locations.
The EPA’s Clean Bus Program, for example, prioritized first-round applications from school districts or other transport providers serving Tribal Schools, rural and low-income areas. Several states are creating new funding streams and furthering equity by prioritizing support for underserved communities, including in California, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
Addressing supply chain impacts across the electric school bus lifecycle
Electric school bus initiatives can work with manufacturers and policy makers to foster responsible bus procurement. This can include improving mining practices for battery parts, incorporating battery recycling into bus programs, or repowering existing diesel buses with new electric drive trains to limit disposal challenges.
For example, some companies are investigating secondary uses for old electric vehicle batteries, such as clean alternatives to generators or connecting to the grid to expand capacity or store power generated during off-peak hours. Missouri’s Knox County School District, for example, worked with students to repurpose its old diesel bus into a coffee shop instead of sending it to the junkyard. The project helped meet disposal requirements that came with the funding for an electric school bus.
Diesel bus drivers and maintenance workers can’t be left behind by the electric school bus transition. Programs can partner with training institutions and community colleges to upskill school bus technicians, manufacturing workers and electrical workers. California, for example has developed its Inclusive, Diverse, Equitable, Accessible, and Local Zero-Emission Vehicle Workforce Pilot project, which provides funding for zero-emission vehicle workforce training in the state’s most underserved communities.
Additionally, manufacturing more electric school buses in the United States as opposed to overseas could create good, green jobs while developing the domestic supply chain for medium- and heavy-duty EVs. That’s one reason Jobs to Move America, a policy center working to transform public spending and corporate behavior, has started an electric school bus campaign.
Employing innovative finance and funding mechanisms
Utilities and financial institutions can be partners to ensure equitable investments in charging infrastructure, batteries or buses while providing robust consumer protections. Advocates in Michigan have supported the establishment of the nation’s first inclusive utility investment program for transportation electrification in partnership with the utility DTE Energy. Already, Michigan Commissioners are calling to expand the pilot to include electric school buses. This program can serve as a template for other utilities looking to invest in electrification in an equitable way.
Other innovative financial solutions through green banks, which are designed to accelerate the transition to clean energy and address climate change, and community development financial institutions can also play a central role in supporting equitable electric school bus adoption. This momentum will only accelerate thanks to the new Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund authorized within the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, designed to provide competitive grants to mobilize financing and leverage private capital for clean energy and climate-friendly projects that benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities.
Finance for technology innovation can also help. For example, the federal government’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Electric Drive Vehicle Battery Recycling and Second Life Applications will help create new battery end-of-life technologies and markets.
Exploring Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) resilience and revenue opportunities
Electric school buses can be equipped with V2X or bidirectional charging capability, allowing them to serve as “mobile power units.” With proper planning, electric school buses could provide more than just transportation to vulnerable areas, such as serving as an emergency source of power during grid outages and improving charging infrastructure.
Providing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) power could also help pay for electric buses, a win-win for schools and utilities. Although the technology is still developing, one company in California is working with the Ramona Unified School District in San Diego County to pair V2G technology in its electric school buses with the utility’s Emergency Load Reduction Program (ELRP), which is designed to prevent power outages and ensure service reliability. The school district can receive $2 per kWh for electricity provided to the grid, which equates to a potential savings of up to $7,200 per bus per year.
Building Momentum for Equitable Electric School Buses
With expanded funding opportunities and more school districts taking advantage, the pace of the electric school bus transition is rapid with no signs of slowing. But a just and equitable transition requires sustained and careful attention. Electric school bus commitments and plans are just the beginning. These strategies must now move beyond highlighting the benefits of electric buses to creating accountable, concrete plans for putting equity visions into action.
WRI’s Electric School Bus (ESB) Initiative hopes to build momentum toward equitably electrifying the entire U.S. fleet of school buses by 2030. Our equity-first approach, outlined in the Equity Framework to Guide the Electric School Bus Initiative, fosters a participatory and inclusive electric school bus transition — one we hope will contribute to correcting inequities across the transportation system and broader society. Our children and communities deserve no less.
This article originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.
Elizabeth Moses is an Environmental Rights and Justice Associate II with the Environmental Democracy Practice (EDP).