T needs to move fast on electric buses

Black carbon, other particulates are real dangers

Editor’s note: This op-ed was written prior to the filing of Senate climate legislation mandating an all-electric MBTA bus fleet by 2040.

 RESIDENTS OF THE BOSTON AREA feel the pain of transportation problems daily. Congestion is crippling the region and policy-makers are struggling to implement short-term solutions to improve public transit services. But it is not just the physical presence of vehicles that makes us miserable. The pollution from these vehicles also undermines the efforts to curb climate change and compromises our health. Traffic pollution should outrage us as much as gridlock does.

All vehicles emit carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to global warming, along with organic gases, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particles of different chemical composition and sizes. These emissions lead to the formation of ground-level ozone, a lung irritant that can trigger asthma. They also cause cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. And a growing body of research is finding more evidence on the dangers of ultrafine particles, which can travel through tissues due to their extremely small size, and deposit in every organ of the human body, including the brain.

Better bus service, utilized by more people who might otherwise rely on a personal car, would help alleviate traffic congestion and reduce pollution by removing cars from the road. However, most buses in the MBTA fleet run on diesel, which makes black carbon when combusted. Black carbon is the most toxic among all particle types, and a short-lived but potent climate-forcing agent. Eliminating diesel fuel, and the black carbon that comes with it, is imperative for public health.

And we have the technology to do that.

Electric buses completely eliminate tailpipe emissions. Their efficiency, combined with an electric grid that is getting progressively cleaner, offer the greatest opportunity to reduce pollution. Bus fleet electrification has been underway in China and Europe for years now. The United States is catching up, and according to a recent report by Calstart, the US zero-emission bus fleet in 2019 grew 37 percent over the previous year. Early adopters have already reported significant operational and maintenance savings. And now, several cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, Miami, and New York, have pledged to fully transition their bus fleets to electric by 2040 or even 2035. Just a few weeks ago, New York announced the purchase of 500 electric buses as part of its  2020-2024 capital investment plan.

Boston, however, has barely gotten off the blocks. The MBTA introduced five electric buses on the Silver Line routes this past July, and is looking at the procurement of 35 electric buses after 2020, while working on restructuring and rebuilding the ageing garage facilities. However, the agency plans to rely heavily on diesel-hybrid buses for future procurements for both fleet replacement and expansion. While better than old diesel vehicles, diesel-hybrid buses only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. And diesel-hybrid technology doesn’t mitigate the invisible ultrafine soot particles that are so hazardous to human health.

That is why the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) coalition – a collective of environmental, transit, labor, community, and public health organizations dedicated to accelerating the electrification of public transit – last month delivered this letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, and the chairman of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, Joseph Aiello. It is time for the MBTA to set on a clear, rapid path to decarbonization to achieve complete fleet electrification by 2040. In addition, the Commonwealth should prioritize deployment of electric buses in environmental justice communities that are disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

We recognize that such a transition requires a considerable effort and a serious investment in time, money, and resources. Unfortunately, we no longer have time for slow, incremental steps to remove carbon pollution. Not when the latest United Nations science report finds that we need to ratchet down emissions by 7.5 percent every year for the next decade. Not when air quality in Boston is worsening. (In 2019, the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America ranked the city the eighth worst US city to live in with asthma). Not when diesel pollution displacement is valued at $55,000 annually per bus in healthcare savings, due to reduced or avoided diseases.

Meet the Author

Paola Massoli

Policy research analyst, Green Energy Consumers Alliance
Meet the Author
We are facing a climate crisis that is accelerating every day and an air quality crisis that is most detrimental to communities that rely on bus services. It is short-sighted and impractical to think that we can tackle the congestion problem now and the environmental one later. A transformed MBTA bus network should be designed to be more efficient, reliable, and clean. As we head into 2020, electric buses have to be a key component of this transformation, starting today.

Paola Massoli is a policy research analyst at Green Energy Consumers Alliance and Matt Casale is a director at US PIRG.