Even as electric vehicles become increasingly common on California roads and freeways, the price tags of the most popular models put EVs out of reach for most Californians (even with local and federal subsidies). But next year, at least one group of Los Angeles commuters might be the newest beneficiaries of the EV transition: LA Unified School District (LAUSD) students.
In January, the district received nearly $20 million in Environmental Protection Agency funding to purchase new electric buses, part of LAUSD’s push to transition its yellow bus fleet away from fossil fuels by 2040. The plan includes replacing the current buses with electric ones and updating infrastructure at its six bus yards, where buses are parked, refueled, and maintained. The district has already put in a purchase order for its first round of electric buses, with an estimated delivery set for the 2024-2025 school year.
The second biggest bus transportation system in LA County
While the district transports a small minority of its students on a daily basis—it limits rides to special education students, students at magnet schools and other integration programs, students with other accommodations relating to access to distance, and field-trip transportation—the size of the district’s student body makes its transportation division comparable to some of the biggest transportation systems in LA County.
LAUSD Transportation Services Division reports that, on average, 43,230 students ride its buses each day. Assuming that each of those students take buses round trip, LAUSD would have a daily ridership number of 86,460 on school days, making it the second largest transit system by ridership in LA County. This puts LAUSD behind Metro, the county’s primary transit agency, in terms of ridership but ahead of both Long Beach Transit and Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus. All three of these transit agencies have committed to 100% electric fleets by 2030.
In the next few years, the number of riders on LAUSD buses is to grow, after Superintendent Carvalho announced a new goal of increasing bus ridership by 50% at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year. That means that the transportation options available to the youngest Angelenos could have an outsized impact on overall transit emissions across the county.
For Héctor Huezo, California director of advocacy organization Jobs to Move America and member of the Los Angeles County Electric Truck & Bus Coalition, any conversation about the green transition in transportation has to include yellow school buses.
“School bus transportation is the largest transportation system that we have in the US, and it dwarfs public transit in comparison,” he explains, citing a statistic from the New York School Bus Contractors Association showing that the total US school bus fleet has over twice as many vehicles as all other public transit agencies combined.
The effects of tailpipe emissions
For individual students, transitioning to electric school buses could also yield benefits to both health and academic performance. Yifang Zhu is a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA who has studied LAUSD bus emissions and student health. She explains that because children’s lungs are still developing, they are particularly sensitive to the effects of tailpipe emissions, with the greatest harm coming from diesel-powered buses.
”There are well-documented health effects from exposures to diesel particulate matter,” she said. “It’s a known human carcinogen, and children spend a lot of their school days riding buses back and forth nationwide.” Poorly engineered onboard exhaust and filtration systems also mean that these fumes often make their way into the cabin of buses and accumulate throughout the ride, meaning that in many cases, measured air quality within a school bus is often worse than the air around it.
Long-term exposure to diesel particulate matter can increase children’s likelihood of developing asthma, pneumonia, and other respiratory issues—all conditions that carry increased risk as respiratory infections like COVID-19 and RSV continue to circulate. Researchers at Georgia State University have also identified a link between exposure and cognitive function, showing that riding on diesel-powered school buses can lead to lower scores on math and English tests.
Rebecca Schenker is the mother of two LAUSD students in first and fourth grade. Schenker is also from LA and remembers her own experiences with LAUSD transportation as a student.
“We had kids at our magnet program who drove up to an hour and a half a day, depending on traffic, sitting on those buses,” she says. For her kids, the oldest of whom is now considering magnet schools for middle school, electric school buses could mean “a lot of avoided smoke.”
The first electrification site: Sun Valley Magnet School
The transition will also bring air quality improvements for the local communities that house the bus yards. Currently, the fleet of 1300 is split among six bus yards spread across the city. “It’s historically where they would fuel their vehicles, and they would warm up and idle vehicles in the morning,” increasing the pollution burden for the neighborhood surrounding the bus yards, explains Huezo. “That will go away with electric buses.”
The first site slated for electrification upgrades is Sun Valley, a bus yard located adjacent to Sun Valley Magnet School, just a couple hundred yards from the school’s athletics fields and outdoor amphitheater. According to CalEnviroScreen, a public database that rates areas based on their pollutant levels and population factors like community health, poverty, and housing insecurity, the Sun Valley census tract has a combined pollution burden and population vulnerability score greater than 91% of other areas in California. Its score is also greater than all other six census tracts containing bus yards, making the location a district priority for environmental equity reasons.
In recent years, there has been a push to retrofit school buses to include filtration systems and use less emitting fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane to address some of these concerns. Already, approximately half of LAUSD’s yellow bus fleet has been converted to CNG. And while CNG medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles have been shown to lower harmful emissions that affect air quality and local health, researchers say that vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions such as electric buses would yield an additional 25-31% improvement in health benefits from air quality.
“When the school district made investments in lower emitting natural gas, that was the best available technology at the time. They should absolutely be commended for that. But the best available technology now is electric,” says Schenker, who has also been involved in advocating for a green transition in her children’s schools. “I would like to think that we can have green schools and places where kids don’t have to sit on hot asphalt in a burning city, but can go outside to campuses with grass and trees, with air that’s safe to breathe.”
That’s the vision of LAUSD Schenker is working towards, alongside advocates within and outside the school system. For her, it’s one of the most urgent issues facing the city, not just for her own kids and their classmates, but generations of LAUSD students to come.