The warm weather that has persisted through much of the country is a reminder that climate change will typically bring warmer temperatures, which will exacerbate the health impacts of air quality pollutants. In particular, the chemical reactions that create ozone, a component of smog, occur faster in strong sunlight and heat. One major source of ozone-creating chemicals is vehicle tailpipes, which – in addition to CO2 emissions – produce nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Diesel buses are also a significant source of fine particulate matter emissions. These pollutants and others, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as criteria air pollutants affecting public health, can lead to higher rates of asthma and lung disease and irregular heart functions. Transportation sources account for a significant portion of criteria air pollutant emissions—more than half of U.S. NOx emissions are produced by the transportation sector.
Unequal Harm and Electric Opportunities
The harm that criteria air pollutants produce is not distributed evenly across society—low-income and minority populations are more likely to be exposed to vehicle tailpipe emissions because they are often situated near major roadways. As such, air quality distribution has become a significant environmental justice issue for city and regional planners.
Zero emission vehicles can reduce air pollution, but the higher upfront cost of electric vehicles (EVs) may make EV purchases difficult for households with modest incomes. Noted experts argue that low-income residents are interested in, and could benefit from, EV adoption, but purchasing incentives and purchasing power may not be aligned to benefit low-income buyers. Consequently, city planners are considering new strategies to help the benefits of zero emission vehicles reach low-income communities.
For example, Los Angeles has implemented BlueLA, the first large-scale effort to implement an all-electric car share program in low-income communities. Mayor Eric Garcetti has been promoting the program, arguing that “getting more drivers into electric vehicles is a good way to clean out our air,” while also pointing to the greenhouse gas reductions that the EVs will produce. In New York City, City Council members are pushing for the adoption of electric transit buses to replace a closing subway line, citing the need to reduce the particulate matter breathed in by vulnerable populations. Electric transit and school buses are also being adopted in a growing number of cities and school districts around the United States—last month, twelve large international cities committed to purchasing only electric transit buses by 2025. The cities, which include Seattle and Los Angeles, will also designate major areas of their cities as free of fossil fuel emissions by 2030.
What Cities Can Do
City and fleet managers interested in promoting EV adoption or purchasing fleet vehicles may also have remaining questions about the full costs and benefits to their communities. A new C2ES brief, Electrified Transportation for All, identifies key factors that local decision makers may consider when looking for ways to improve air quality for low-income residents.
The brief provides considerations and resources for decision makers to manage the deployment of electric passenger vehicles, transit buses, and school buses in their communities. The suggested steps allow for comparisons between vehicle and fuel types by calculating total cost of ownership, the hidden costs of criteria air pollution, and the production of greenhouse gas emissions. The brief also identifies available funding resources and tools to estimate costs and emissions.
Electrified transportation, from incentives for ownership and car sharing to strategic routing of electrified buses, offers a potential “triple win” of lower total cost of ownership of a vehicle while improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Low-income households stand to benefit more than average households, particularly for improved clean air impacts and reduced climate change impacts. With the right resources and strategies, city managers and transportation planners may be able to extend the benefits of EVs to all residents.