Riding to School in an Anthropocene School Bus

A year and a half ago, when the University of Montana’s student-led transit agency made it the first college campus in the nation to buy its own electric buses, one line delivered by the bus manufacturer’s CEO Ryan Popple at the hand-over ceremony stuck out above all the others.

“If parents realized how many diesel fumes they were exposing their children to on those orange school buses, things would change pretty quickly.”

In Missoula, things weren’t changing all that quickly. Popple’s company, Proterra, were delivering only two buses to the University’s transportation system. The University’s pool of buses is small compared to the City’s zero-fare fleet that runs alongside it. Montanans, students and townsfolk alike, still love their big trucks. Add to these factors the air inversions that plague Missoula in winter and the forest fires that surround it in summer, and it becomes clear that the bus purchase was not going to transform the region’s air quality overnight.

UM Electric BusNevertheless, the purchase was significant. Over the twelve year life of the buses, they will avoid the burning of 123,000 gallons of diesel. Their electric motors will keep 1,392 tons of emissions out of the Missoula air shed while delivering a remarkable 21.4 MPG equivalent to a vehicle that can haul forty people around on snowy winter roads. The fact that the decision to buy the buses was made by students, most of whom will have moved on from Missoula before they can reap the full benefits of the purchase, made the choice all the more remarkable.

There is also the matter of style. Having ridden my bike alongside them for more than a year now, it is still exciting to be at a stoplight alongside a large and silent passenger vehicle that accelerates off with a whir when the light changes, leaving nothing in the air behind it but a swirl of leaves, summer pollen, or winter snowflakes.

Last week, the Sierra Club posted the headline “children deserve to ride on zero emission school buses.” What spurred the Sierra Club’s demand was news that millions of dollars of funding are becoming available to states as a result of payments that followed from Volkswagen’s 2015 emissions scandal.  At total of $2.7 billion dollars is being paid into an Environmental Mitigation Fund by the company after they were found guilty of systematically employing software on new vehicles to cheat on air pollution tests.

The Mitigation Fund is expressly designed to lessen the impacts of the transportation sector on communities and on the environment. Thanks to the payout from Volkswagen, states will have access to tens of millions of dollars that can be put towards cleaner air.

Disbursements from the fund will be overseen by the various state agencies and departments that are concerned with natural resources and environmental control. In Montana’s case, the share of the Trust Fund given to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be $12.6 million.

Vehicle replacement projects are a strong candidate for these funds. In Montana, the agency responsible  for handing out the VW funds has a proven track record with electric buses. The DEQ was one of the parties that kicked in money to support the University of Montana students’ purchase of the Proterra vehicles.

The electrification of urban transportation is some of the lowest hanging fruit in the clean energy transition. Vox writer David Roberts calls it “the EV [electric vehicle] sweet spot.” Global populations are urbanizing, city bus routes are relatively short, and city buses are big enough to carry around weighty battery packs. Moreover, funding mechanisms for urban transit can be favorable.

Pointing to similar advantages as Popple did during his visit to the University of Montana, Roberts makes clear in his article the unquestionable health advantages of electric buses. Clogged city streets are some of the worst offenders for the global scourge of air pollution that kills up to 6.5 million people per year. He also notes the aesthetic advantages of electric buses: roomier, quieter, lower to the ground, less odiferous.

IMG_1002While there is no doubt that electric buses are more expensive than their diesel counterparts, when you look at their lifecycle costs, they turn out to be considerably cheaper. Much lower maintenance costs ($151,000 lower than a regular diesel bus and $237,000 less than low-emitting diesel-hybrids) and the avoided costs of about $300,000 of diesel fuel means that, over the life of the bus, they more than pay back the additional up front expense.

Of course, three quarters of a million dollars for a brand new 40 foot electric bus is no chump change. It might take large legal settlements, forward-looking municipal bond measures, or the assistance of state and federal governments to motivate these sorts of investments. Since the payoffs are not immediate, smaller municipalities, universities, and private transportation companies responsible for paying full costs up front might all find reasons to blink.

Yet it is clear that wise planners should look first at the wider economics of it and then look beyond the economics. Not only must they compare the costs of buses over the expected life of the bus, they should also think about how lighter buses take less of a toll on roads, requiring less maintenance of city streets. They should look at how clean electric buses will encourage more bikers and pedestrians who can be confident they won’t be engulfed in a cloud of harmful particulate emissions at stop signs. They should also consider how much more desirable urban neighborhoods will become as noisy diesel engines are replaced by almost silent electric motors. (Have you felt the joy yet of a Nissan leaf or Tesla going by when sitting on your stoop on a quiet summer’s evening?)

When talking about the demise of gas and diesel powered transportation, I can’t resist quoting again the Saudi Arabian oil minister. “The stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.” A better product can be better in any number of ways.

Even so, many of these arguments won’t be persuasive to cash-strapped institutions caught up in entrenched and obsolescent mindsets.

So then there is the most powerful argument of all. The one embedded in the thought of packing your children off to school in an old bus cabin saturated with millions of lung-destroying particulates.


First image by Todd Goodrich


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