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The Electric-Bus Opportunity

A large-scale rollout not only would significantly improve air quality but also holds the promise of good new jobs for the disadvantaged.

Electric bus in Los Angeles.
(Twitter/LA Metro)
Jobs vs. climate-safe infrastructure: It's one of the classic arguments that sandbags progress on climate change. How can we shift to cleaner technologies without disrupting the livelihood of frontline workers? It's a challenging question, but solutions are already taking shape at transit agencies around the country.

I recently conducted a comprehensive study that shows how cities and states can implement a large-scale rollout of battery-electric buses (BEBs) that will improve air quality and ensure that everyone benefits from the transition. And if we do it right, one of the outcomes will be tens of thousands of good new jobs that can help boost American manufacturing in the electric-vehicles sector.

There is no doubt that electric buses produce significant environmental benefits. Although still a relatively small fraction of the global vehicle fleet, BEBs are already reducing demand for diesel fuel. And because they have zero tailpipe emissions, BEBs lower risks for many serious illnesses, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and multiple kinds of cancer.

But it's not enough for cities to just buy the technology and hope that everyone benefits; cities must also think carefully about equity in their communities. Take air quality: Historically, the burden of air pollution and its many associated health risks has lain most heavily on communities of color. Several cities are prioritizing BEB deployment along routes that serve neighborhoods with high levels of air pollution, and more should follow suit.

We need to do the same for jobs. As the new study points out, bus mechanics and other frontline transit workers are worried that adopting BEB technology may result in big layoffs. That's why we recommend that transit agencies ensure that BEB manufacturers train existing workers on how to maintain and operate the new equipment.

In many ways, Los Angeles is on the cutting edge of equitable BEB deployment. The city and county have committed to transitioning their 2,240-bus fleet to 100 percent zero-emission vehicles by 2030, which would be a remarkable feat that should serve as a goal for other localities. Furthermore, Los Angeles' transit agency, LA Metro, has recognized that purchasing electric buses and other transit vehicles presents an opportunity to create good jobs that can become career pathways for women, people of color and other workers who have faced limited access to manufacturing careers for far too long.

Take Danny Alvarez as an example. In an interview with the Greenlining Institute, the Lancaster, Calif., man recounted how he had been involved in a gang and had served four years in jail. During that time, he became determined to get his life back together and take care of his three children. After struggling to find stable employment, Alvarez got his opportunity when he interviewed at the Lancaster factory of BYD, an electric-bus manufacturer that is building BEBs for LA Metro. BYD hired Alvarez and gave him the training he needed to succeed and eventually become a department lead.

BYD has an agreement with community groups and the sheet metal workers' union, along with the support of LA Metro, that commits the company to ensuring that 40 percent of its workforce in Lancaster is comprised of people from communities typically underrepresented in manufacturing. Not only is LA Metro's commitment to electrification contributing to cleaner air, it's helping folks like Danny Alvarez build stable, family-sustaining careers.

The shift to BEBs will not be easy. Bus design and battery technology will continue to evolve, and it will take years for transit agencies to gather the data they need to develop a strong understanding of electric bus fueling and maintenance costs. Agencies also face tough questions about how to convene a broad and inclusive collection of key stakeholders, enable ongoing accountability and transparency throughout the electrification process, and ensure that their transition is guided by policies that build healthier, fairer communities.

But the ways in which BEBs can improve public transit, public health, the workforce and the economy present the kind of opportunity that comes along only once in several generations. Let's make the most of it.

National program director at Jobs to Move America
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