Some communities have faced inequitable conditions for generations – but the transition to electric school buses can play a role in addressing this.
The transition to electric school buses has the potential to deliver real and lasting value – however, the impacts may not be felt equally by all communities or students because of long-standing inequities in our transportation, housing, education and other systems. The history of overt and systemic racism in the United States has led to dramatic disparities, in these and other areas, affecting low-income, Black, Tribal and Indigenous communities, other communities of color and people with disabilities.
In part due to these disparities, well-resourced, often predominately white and higher-income communities have the capacity to realize a faster and easier transition to beneficial new technologies.
In this context, WRI is committed to centering equity in the Electric School Bus Initiative. If carried out equitably, school bus electrification offers an opportunity to address some of the forms of discrimination and exclusion that create harm across the transportation and education landscape, as well as energy, manufacturing and socio-economic systems in the United States.
The ESB Initiative defines equity as “the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups.” (Temple University 2020)
We define an equitable transition as one that ensures the communities most impacted by diesel exhaust pollution have access to the benefits of electric school buses first – and that communities affected by this transition are engaged throughout the process.
When it comes to school bus electrification, systemic inequities appear in every aspect of the transition including, but not limited to:
- Access to a clean commute to school. Not all students have the same access to a clean commute, and historically marginalized groups, particularly Black students, children with disabilities and low-income students, rely on diesel school buses more than others.
- Access to clean air. Not all communities have equal access to clean air due to racist lending, transportation, housing and zoning policies that concentrated Black and Brown communities closer to highways and other pollution sources.
- Access to financial resources. Not all schools have the same access to financial resources due to segregation, school boundaries and budget policy.
- Energy access and resiliency. Not all communities have equal access to energy assets. Underinvestment in some parts of the grid means those areas may require additional investments for electric school buses.
- Workforce development. Not all workforce transitions will inherently benefit workers.
- Community engagement. Not all projects have sought out and valued expertise held by communities, particularly historically marginalized communities.
Without attention to these multiple and overlapping dimensions of equity, the transition to electric school buses could reinforce ingrained systems of inequality and further burden underserved communities, communities of color and other student populations and their families.
How Equity Intersects with Electric School Buses
Read on to learn more about the range of electric school bus equity considerations.
Access to a Clean Commute to School. All students need a clean, safe way to get to school, but not all students have equal access to one.
Many students cannot access education without school buses, and this is particularly true in certain communities. Students from Black households are more likely to take the school bus than students of other races or ethnicities; children with disabilities rely on school buses more frequently than children without disabilities; and 60% of low-income students take the bus to school compared to 45% of their higher-income peers.
Understanding that these groups are disproportionately reliant on school buses, we should include them in decision-making and prioritize them as we deploy clean, electric school buses. In addition to electric school buses, it is also important to ensure students can safely and equitably access other climate-friendly modes of school transportation, especially walking and biking to school.
Find out more from organizations working on increasing access to clean transportation:
The Greenlining Institute has brought attention to the inequitable adoption of electric vehicles since 2011. Their recent publication, Clean Mobility Equity: A Playbook, reviews California’s clean mobility equity programs to better understand whether and how clean transportation programs truly address equity. Their TEEM Community of Practice brings together peer-to-peer advocates from across the country that share policy goals, build capacity, and develop a mutual commitment towards advancing racial equity in electric mobility and climate change goals.
Access to Clean Air. Communities located in high traffic corridors or near school bus depots, as well as students who spend more time on buses, are more likely to bear the burden of air pollution.
Not only do the groups mentioned above rely more on school buses, but Black students travel farther to school in Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City and Washington, DC . Extended rides currently mean extended exposure to harmful diesel exhaust pollution, which can impact health.
Before and after their ride, students with disabilities can experience even higher exposure when wheelchair lifts—often located in the rear of the school bus—sit in tailpipe emissions as the engine idles to allow the lifts to operate for several minutes.
After the diesel-burning school buses return to the school bus depots, they can impact communities and employees around these locations, which are often a significant source of pollution.
All of this exists within the broader inequitable distribution of on-road fine particulate matter pollution which is 61% to 75% higher for communities of color than for white residents.
Find out more from organizations working on health equity and environmental justice:
Equitable Cities is a U.S.-based urban planning, public policy, and research firm working at the intersection of transportation, health, and equity. They work with federal, state and local governments and for-profit and non-profit organizations around the globe to center equity in planning, policy and decision-making processes.
New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance is an alliance of New Jersey-based organizations and individuals working together to identify, prevent, reduce and/or eliminate environmental injustices that exist in communities of color and low-income communities.
The National Tribal Air Association works to advance air quality management policies and programs, consistent with the needs, interests and unique legal status of American Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives.
Access to Financial Resources. Underserved communities often face financial barriers in the transition to electric school buses.
Access to funding is essential to make necessary investments in clean vehicles and infrastructure. However, underserved districts often face higher costs to borrow funds and have smaller tax bases for raising them on their own. This inequitable access to funding can also be linked to race. For example, one study found that in 2016, predominantly nonwhite school districts received $23 billion less in total state and local funding, with some exclusions, than predominantly white districts despite serving a similar number of children.
Understanding these disparities, many policies have directed funds to districts based on criteria such as income level, tribal status and designation as a rural district. Data reveal that, today, electric school bus commitments are relatively even across income. In addition, districts with higher numbers of non-white and/or Hispanic students and districts with higher levels of air pollution have the largest number of committed electric school buses.
Leading with equity means that electric school buses must continue to be prioritized in historically underserved school districts. With that aim in mind, the Electric School Bus Initiative targets its technical assistance to 1) districts that are in the top quartile nationwide — or in their respective states — for: percentage of households below 200% of the federal policy level, percentage of residents who identify as non-white or Hispanic, and levels of either fine particulate matter or ozone pollution, or 2) districts with Tribal status.
Find out more about organizations prioritizing underserved districts in the transition to electric school buses:
The Alliance for Electric School Buses is a diverse partnership of nonprofit organizations united by a commitment to fully transition the nation’s school bus fleet to electric models that will clean up the air for 25 million U.S. children and the communities these buses travel through — starting in the communities most harmed by air pollution.
The Electric School Bus Initiative is committed to centering equity in our work. Learn more here.
Energy Access and Resiliency. Electric school buses will have an impact on the grid and on equitable energy distribution.
The electric grid reflects broader inequities. Electric utilities have historically underinvested in communities of color, which means they may require supplemental investment for electric school buses and other renewable energy investments.
Electric school buses have the unique opportunity to serve their communities during the summer months of the school year when they are not used as frequently. Electric school buses can serve as portable resilience hubs, providing needed energy or even broadband connectivity to areas experiencing power outages from natural disasters. These services will be particularly important for areas with historic underinvestment.
Find out more from organizations working on energy equity:
Energy Equity Project is a collective, national endeavor that released the first national framework for measuring and advancing energy equity.
Partnership for Southern Equity works to ensure the fair distribution of benefits and burdens from energy production and consumption.
Workforce Development. Large scale technological change causes shifts in the workforce, which may not impact all workers equally.
While white, Black and Asian workers have relatively equal representation in the transportation manufacturing sector, Black and Latino workers are underrepresented in higher-level positions.
When it comes time to transition the workforce, programs should take these inequities into account to ensure everyone has equal access to all types of training.
Current manufacturing workers, maintenance workers and bus drivers will be impacted by this transition, as will younger generations, underscoring the importance of creating jobs with high wages and good benefits as well as a pipeline of technical learning opportunities for students.
Learn more about how reskilling and training can help deliver an equitable transition for workers.
Find out more from organizations doing workforce development work:
Jobs to Move America works to transform public spending and corporate behavior using a comprehensive approach that is rooted in racial and economic justice and community organizing.
Manufacturing Renaissance advances inclusive sustainable development anchored in manufacturing.
Community Engagement. Including community experts, particularly those that have been systemically silenced, in decision-making processes helps create more equitable systems.
Students, parents and caregivers, school district employees, communities located near depots, maintenance workers and other workers in the school bus supply chain are some of the groups with a stake in electrification and hold relevant expertise to contribute.
From decisions about which bus routes and depots to electrify, to preferred training methods for drivers and maintenance workers, the people who experience the impact of these projects often have great insight into what makes a project successful. Including their expertise can increase buy-in and avoid unintended consequences.
Find out more from groups that center community voices and mobilization across their work:
Chispa wields the power of the people and the strength in our voice to rally and engage grassroots communities, drive awareness and inclusiveness, and boost the local communities’ participation in governance and democracy to shape critical environmental policies and decisions that directly affect our people, our environments and ultimately, our future.
These are a few of the many ways this transition may impact different communities. As we strive to create an inclusive, equitable transition to electric school buses, we would love to hear from you. If you have any thoughts, resources or advice you would like to share with us please reach out to us at ESBinfo@wri.org.