Hey Bus Driver, Is this Bus Electric? A Movement Builds for All-Electric Fleet in Los Angeles

PHOTO: A worker at BYD’s Los Angeles County facility. The facility has hired 500 staff and is currently expanding as demand for electric buses increases. The company is also working with local union SMART to develop a contract. Good jobs, a clean environment, and a thriving business environment go hand in hand when the right policies are in place.

It was a coincidence that advocates from a handful of organizations got together on November 9 last year, as the #resistance took root, to discuss plans to launch a new effort in Southern California to electrify the region’s buses. With uncertainty ahead in D.C., folks in the room agreed that California’s best response was to continue its path forward building policies and programs that clean our air, create good jobs, and enhance equity.

The campaign that emerged over the coming months has a few straightforward goals starting with shifting the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) to 100 percent electric buses by 2030. From there, we seek to ensure those buses are built and powered with union labor, fueled with clean energy, and hit the streets first in environmental justice communities most impacted by fossil fuel pollution today. In laying out these goals, the campaign is as much persisting with policies and programs that fulfill a set of values Angelenos hold as it is about resisting the dumpster fire in Washington D.C.

Metro has long been a leader on the environment, but that leadership has not come without the hard work of many to make this so. We stand on the shoulders of some giants who have spent decades advocating for change at Metro. Eric Mann and the Bus Riders Union, for example, successfully pressed the agency away from diesel engines and secured expanded service, the latter fight continuing today. Another leader in the movement, Move LA,  has run multiple initiatives to raise funding for expanded rail. These changes have helped clean up Los Angeles’ air and improve quality of life for many by providing an alternative to traffic and an option for folks without access to a car.

Now is the time to take the next big step forward in public transit here in LA. The benefits of electric buses are clear: cleaner air, lower greenhouse gas emissions, good jobs, and a better ride to work. Let’s take a minute to break those down.

  • Clean Air: the Los Angeles region is responsible for the worst air in the nation. Our cars, trucks, buses, power plants, ports, and more generate smog forming pollution that kills more than 5,000 people every year, according to the South Coast Air District. Electric buses have zero emissions (no tailpipe!) but on a lifecycle basis also outperform natural gas and renewable natural gas when it comes to smog forming and climate disrupting pollutants. As LA County and LA’s Department of Water and Power continue toward 100 percent clean energy, the gap between natural gas buses and electric will grow.

  • Good Jobs: from bus manufacturing to the infrastructure to support electrification of the bus fleet, the transition to electric can help provide family sustaining jobs. Bus manufacturing facilities are popping up across LA County, while Southern California Edison, the Department of Water and Power, and IBEW are all looking hard at how to ensure the electrical infrastructure is in place to support an all-electric fleet.

I had the privilege of touring the BYD facility a few weeks ago. It was awesome to see the manufacturing line buzzing with more than 500 workers, and all the more satisfying to know that BYD and the SMART Union are close to finalizing a community benefits agreement that ensures that workers have access to benefits, fair pay, and job training. It’s crucial that as Los Angeles drives (sorry, terrible pun)an innovative 21st century economy that is enhancing equity and the rights of workers along the way.  

  • A Better Ride to Work: seeing is believing. Electric buses are quieter, which means a better ride for you and a quieter neighborhood for your community. Don’t take my word for it. Check out this news clip report covering one transit agency’s electric bus test.

For the last many months, the LA County Electric Bus Coalition has been hard at work: collecting petitions, mobilizing for board meetings, holding press conferences, touring bus facilities, and much more building the case for an all-electric fleet.

Earlier this month, the campaign got a major lift when Mayor Garcetti sent a letter to Metro CEO Phil Washington. It read, in part:

“Zero emission buses will improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, these buses have the potential to reduce lifecycle maintenance costs, reduce the cost of fueling, eliminate exposure to fluctuations in the fossil fuel market, reduce noise pollution, and improve public health...."

MTA can further lead to combat toxic air pollution and fight climate change by implementing a fully zero emissions bus fleet. Therefore, please consider developing a strategy to accomplish the following: set a goal of a 100 percent zero emission MTA bus fleet by the end of fiscal year 2030.

It’s about as strong and ambitious a letter as you’re going to read about the benefits of electric vehicles. Mayor Garcetti should know, too. Over the last few years, LA has quietly built a set of programs aimed at electrifying the transportation system that should put the fossil fuel industry on notice. To list a few: a low-income car-share program, infrastructure to support to almost 600,000 electric vehicles by 2030, electric fleet purchase requirements for new vehicles, and convincing dozens of cities to come together and run a $10 billion Request for Offers for municipal fleet vehicles (everything from police cars to garbage trucks).  It’s hard to identify a more thoughtful and aggressive elected official in the country on transportation electrification. Go ahead and try, I’ll wait...

So, in some ways it’s no surprise the Mayor is moving in on the next big electric vehicle goal: an all-electric bus fleet by 2030. For Los Angeles, it’s just the next piece of the transportation puzzle, the next in rebuilding its transportation system. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of work left to do before a fully electric bus fleet is zipping around the County, but with the right vision from the Mayor and a coalition that spans labor, environment, health, and community, Angelenos can breath a bit easier knowing that more clean transportation is on the way.

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