The Electric School Bus Transition is Necessary and Achievable

| December 17, 2023

By Peter Aronson

While a school bus’s roaring ignition and noxious gasoline smell may bring a wisp of nostalgia to some of us, it comes at a steep cost in the form of emergency room visits, school absenteeism, and an overheating planet.

The state’s fiscal year 2023 budget, passed in April 2022, established New York as the first state in the country to mandate an all-electric school bus fleet. As part of this plan, all new school buses purchased by 2027 must be zero-emission, and all school buses on the road must be zero-emission by 2035.

As New York embarks on this 12-year journey to electrify its fleet of nearly 50,000 school buses, it’s important to understand three things: diesel-powered buses are poisoning children’s lungs and contributing to an asthma epidemic; ESBs are better for the environment; and transitioning to ESBs by 2035 is achievable. 

“Electrifying our school-bus fleet really is an essential component to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV). “From the big cities to the smallest towns, from the suburbs to rural areas, it will improve air quality and improve the health of all students who ride the bus to and from school daily.”

Available Funding for Electric School Buses

While concerns have been voiced over the cost of ESBs, the fact is that most of the funding will come from federal or state sources, including $500 million from the $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act passed by voters in November 2022, as well as funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program. 

School districts can begin the transition right now by working with their dealers to apply for the first $100 million of Bond Act funding, available first come first served via the New York School Bus Incentive Program. This money will help make ESBs and the charging infrastructure more affordable for school districts and bus operators. 

“Zero-emission buses will become a hallmark, not only transporting students through our communities, but also demonstrating the promise and possibility of a healthier, environmentally friendly, low-carbon future for our youngest citizens.” Gov. Kathy Hocul said, when announcing Bond Act funding for ESBs.

[We encourage school districts and others on the front line of the transition to refer to the World Resource Institute’s cheat sheet to help navigate the program.]

In fall 2022 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that New York School Districts would get $69,620,000 from its Clean School Bus Program to purchase 164 ESBs, with New York City getting $18.5 million for 51 ESBs.

In September the EPA began a new round of funding from the program. It is offering $500 million for school districts to buy new electric school buses and their charging stations. Applications opened on September 28, 2023, and will close on January 31, 2024. For helpful tips, see this toolkit outline here

Dirty diesel makes for dirty air

Over 2 million students in New York rely on the state’s nearly 50,000 school buses to get to school on time. But what many people don’t realize is that the air pollution inside of a diesel bus can be as much as 12 times higher than the air outside. When a diesel or gasoline school bus is in motion, it emits pollutants from its tailpipe, which tend to rise and disperse. However, when a school bus stops at a traffic signal, is stuck in traffic, or pauses to pick up and drop off students, the tailpipe emissions can drift back into the cabin and remain there, posing a health risk to students.

The kids and drivers on those buses are breathing in dirty air twice a day, five days a week, and the impacts are clear. Asthma rates in New York have tripled in the past three decades, affecting 315,000 kids. 

The rates of respiratory illness are much higher in areas most affected by environmental harms—sometimes as high as 25 percent—especially low-income communities and communities of color. Asthma is the leading cause of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and school absenteeism. This affects learning outcomes, earning potential, and long-term health. For these children, the impact of breathing in toxic air on our school buses will reverberate throughout their lifetime.

Enlisting ESBs in the climate fight

Right alongside the public health benefits of ESBs are the unquestioned environmental benefits.

As we’ve seen with a seemingly endless stream of extreme weather events, the impacts of the climate crisis are growing more dire—and hitting closer to home—with each passing day. To stem the tide of a warming planet, we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

That’s why in 2019 New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the nation’s most ambitious climate law, which set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050. 

With the transportation sector making up nearly 30 percent of statewide emissions—and with each new ESB being equivalent to taking four gas-guzzling cars off the road—transitioning our school bus fleet to electric is crucial to the overall success of the plan and to the climate fight.  

Getting from here to there: planning is key

Questions have also been raised about the logistics of such a major transition. That’s why the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF) and our partners are putting in the work now so school districts across the state have a clear roadmap to follow on their way to a zero-emissions fleet. 

Last year, NYLCVEF along with NYC School Bus Umbrella Services (NYCSBUS), World Resources Institute, The Mobility House, Bronx Community College, and CALSTART, won NYSERDA’s  $8 million Clean Transportation prize for “Electrifying School Buses in the Bronx and Beyond,” a project that will serve as a case study for the ESB transition.  

The choice of using NYCSBUS’s Zerega Depot in the Bronx for the first phase of the project is intentional, as the surrounding community ranks in the 98th percentile nationally for air pollution caused by diesel engines. Furthermore, the asthma hospitalization rate for children is 70 percent higher in the Bronx than in New York City as a whole, and 700 percent higher than for the rest of New York State. 

Last week, stakeholders and elected officials, including New York State Senators Nathalia Fernandez and Michael Benedetto, Assemblymember Yudelka Tapia, and NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined the League and project partners at the Zerega Depot for an up-close look at the future of school transportation in New York. 

[Watch the video from the Zerega Bus Depot event.]

In September, the state released the Electric School Bus Roadmap, which sets forth a detailed plan to electrify the fleet incrementally, while also responding to concerns that electrification is too costly or unsafe. The roadmap will be updated in 2026, with substantially more information about cost, best practices and bus availability.

The next four years are crucial. It’s estimated that 3,000 electric school buses will be purchased across the state in as many school districts as possible during this time. This “would enable all districts and contractors to gain sufficient experience with ESBs ahead of the all zero-emission purchase mandate of 2027,” the roadmap states. 

ESBs are safer than their diesel counterparts

Some people have said ESBs are not the way to go. They couldn’t be more wrong.

In addition to the health and environmental benefits of ESBs, according to a July 2023 article by the Environmental Defense Fund, they are also much safer than the diesel-powered buses now on the road.

“Fossil fuel bus proponents have claimed electric school buses pose new fire risks. But evidence demonstrates that internal combustion vehicles are more likely to catch fire…” the article states. “In fact, electric school buses have safety features that make the risk of fire even more improbable, including sophisticated battery temperature controls, weather-durable casing and vehicle design that makes battery damage less likely.”

A study by the Swedish government, as reported on in MotorTrend, indicated “gas- and diesel-burning passenger vehicles have a 1 in 1,300 chance of catching fire, compared to a 1 in 38,000 chance of fire for electric vehicles and hybrids — indicating that fossil fuel-burning passenger vehicles are 29 times more likely to catch fire.” 

Other misinformed complaints are addressed in the state’s Roadmap and other sources:

  • ESBs will have sufficient range to meet their needs;
  • The batteries will operate in cold weather sufficiently;
  • ESB maintenance will be less, not more than, traditional buses;
  • While the initial cost of ESBs are more than a traditional bus, less maintenance, lower operating costs, plus government funding means the cost evens out; 
  • Charging will become routine and more easily managed with better technology
  • ESBs are simpler, not more difficult, to drive than traditional school buses.

For more information debunking the negative myths about ESBs, visit the websites for School Transportation News and SafeBus.

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