Celebrating Zero-emission Vehicles for NYC

by Wayne Arden, Sierra Club NYC Group

On October 23, New York City's Mayor Adams signed into law the ZEV (zero-emission vehicles) for NYC Act (279-A), which will greatly accelerate NYC's deployment of zero-emission vehicles. The bill signing ceremony followed the September 28 NYC Council vote when the bill passed 47-0; four council members were absent. The council members who were absent are Democrats. Thus, both the Democrat and Republican conferences voted in favor of the bill.

In summary, the ZEV for NYC Act requires NYC to begin purchasing only zero-emission motorcycles, light-duty, and medium-duty vehicles by July 1, 2025, and heavy-duty vehicles by July 1, 2028. NYC must deploy only zero-emission motorcycles, light-duty, and medium-duty vehicles by July 1, 2035, and heavy-duty vehicles by July 1, 2038. The bill includes limited exceptions in cases where a ZEV in a specific vehicle category is more than 50% more expensive than the next least-polluting alternative, where ZEVs do not yet meet the duty-cycle requirements of a specific application, or where charging infrastructure is not available. In short, the cases where NYC continues to buy fossil-fueled vehicles should be rare.

The ZEV for NYC Act is the most ambitious bill of its kind in the country. In addition, NYC has the largest municipal fleet in the U.S. by far—approximately 30,000 vehicles.

From a climate perspective, faster progress is desperately needed. The World Meteorological Organization published a report in July stating that we lived through the hottest three-week period on record—and almost certainly in more than 100,000 years. When combined with 2019’s Climate Mobilization Act, which addresses building emissions, NYC can now accurately state that it is an international leader in reducing emissions from its two largest sources, buildings and vehicles, thereby tackling climate change.

The ZEV for NYC Act will reduce the severity of respiratory health conditions and disease. According to Department of Health research, NYC has the highest density of primary particulate matter (PM 2.5 ) emissions among large U.S. cities. And like in other large cities, New York’s environmental justice communities suffer disproportionately. Tailpipe emissions contribute to rates of emergency-department visits for cases of PM 2.5-attributable asthma being over eight-times higher in environmental justice communities. This type of health disparity has lasting impacts, with some disadvantaged communities having life expectancies that are ten years lower than their more affluent neighbors. Taking fossil fuel vehicles off the road and replacing them with ZEVs is a necessary step to improve the health of all New Yorkers. 

The third pillar of the bill is economic opportunity. States and cities that take real action will experience the most job creation as the world transitions from oil to electricity. New York businesses and consumers spend over $20 billion each year on gasoline and diesel fuel produced in other states and countries. As electricity is substituted for oil, this money will increasingly stay in-state, creating livable wage jobs in renewable energy production, both at utilities and in construction. The bill will accelerate this state-wide trend and also strengthen the prospects of New York City-based mobility and energy infrastructure firms. Five NYC-based companies enthusiastically supported the bill. Their support proved to be important—we argued to the City that one of the keys to building out the necessary charging infrastructure to support city vehicles is leveraging the expertise of the private sector.

The journey from idea to law was nearly three years. I first proposed the idea to Carl Arnold in late 2020. During 2021, Karl Palmquist and I reached out to council members to find a sponsor. Two were interested: Council Member Powers and Council Member Rivera. In April 2022, Council Member Powers, who is the majority leader, introduced the bill. For the remainder of 2022, we met with council members and their staffs—recruiting sponsors and building support for the bill. The NYC Council Environmental Protection Committee held a hearing for the bill on December 15, 2022, and the Sierra Club formed a coalition of thirteen advocacy groups and five NYC-based companies to support the bill. On June 22 the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, in partnership with eleven other advocacy groups, sent a letter to Mayor Adams urging him to support the bill. To promote the bill and increase its visibility, I moderated two panel discussions at CUNY featuring Majority Leader Powers during Climate Week NYC 2022 and again during Climate Week NYC 2023. Somewhat dramatically, at the Climate Week 2023 event on September 20, Majority Leader Powers announced that the NYC Council will vote on the bill at the next meeting in a little over a week.

Now that the bill is law, we can pause for a moment and reflect on a few insights. One is that achieving significant progress takes sustained effort over time—multiple years. A second is that one of the keys to getting this bill passed was the breadth of the coalition supporting it: thirteen advocacy groups, five NYC-based companies that focus on sustainability, and several influential labor groups. A third is that we benefited from Majority Leader Powers’ deft leadership; throughout this past summer, he navigated the bill past some difficult shoals. A surprising result was the unanimity of the NYC Council vote, which we did not anticipate. Yes, all politics is local, but the NYC Council vote of 47-0 may indicate that the climate tent can be larger than assumed. Thus, we should be open to the possibility of finding new allies when building support for initiatives that tackle climate change and protect the environment.

Lastly, Karl and I believe that NYC has a special role to play. It is one of the world’s most influential cities and the seat of the UN, the organization leading the charge to limit global temperature rise. When feasible, we should champion ideas that resonate regionally or nationally. Thus, it is our hope that Sierra Club persuades other cities to adopt their versions of the ZEV for NYC Act. That is how we can truly amplify the consequences of this bill.


Mayor Adams' ZEV for NYC Bill Signing Ceremony, Oct. 23, 2023


Mayor Adams' group photo at ZEV for NYC Act signing ceremony, Oct. 23, 2023