New York’s Green Transit, Green Jobs Bill is the Blueprint for Transportation Electrification

New legislation would facilitate the transition to zero-emissions buses while creating high-paying union jobs.

New York State has a serious vehicle pollution problem. In fact, transportation accounts for 41% of all fuel combustion emissions in the state. Of course, these greenhouse gas emissions drive climate change, but beyond that, vehicle pollution is costing the lives of our loved ones, alongside billions in public health damages.

To get specific, each year more than 2,000 New Yorkers die prematurely from ingesting toxic pollution from tailpipe emissions. This is an expensive problem. Public health damages from vehicle emissions cost the state $21 billion annually.

Luckily, New York lawmakers have an opportunity to substantially slash vehicle pollution by electrifying a class of vehicles that millions of New Yorkers rely on each day: buses. New York already recognized the need to electrify fleets of medium and heavy-duty vehicles (MHDVs) with its commitment to electrify school buses last year. Like school buses, transit buses run on diesel fuel, which is an even more potent source of toxic particulate matter than gasoline. On a ton-for-ton basis, buses in the New York-Newark-Jersey City metropolitan area alone had health damages at $4 million for every ton of particulate matter emitted.

The opportunity to address this pollution problem comes in the form of the Green Transit, Green Jobs bill, which would require that all new buses purchased by New York public transit authorities are electric by 2029. This deadline keeps the state in line with its Scoping Plan to reach net zero emissions.

In tandem, Green Transit, Green Jobs ensures that the state incentivizes the creation of good clean energy jobs by offering “extra credit” for procuring buses from companies that provide their workers with good wages, benefits, and safety protections. Companies are also rewarded for hiring low-income individuals and people of color, as well as for offering workers registered apprenticeship programs and training to advance career growth. Further, Green Transit, Green Jobs would improve transparency and public accountability across the industry by requiring that the transit agency post the labor commitments and compliance reports on their website. Transit agencies are also supported in making the transition so that the pathway to 100% electric buses does not disrupt their other planning efforts.

Why Electric Buses?

Climate advocates and policymakers across the country are now in consensus that electrifying our public transportation system is one of the simplest and most effective steps we can take to improve air quality and reduce the impacts of climate change. Transit buses in particular are considered one of the vehicle classes most primed for electrification since they run on shorter, fixed routes.

Transit authorities are already investing in electric buses at a large scale. In fact, in 2022 nearly half of all new buses sold globally were zero emissions. This number is also substantially growing year over year. Between 2021 and 2022 there was a 66% increase in new zero emissions bus sales in the U.S. Substantial federal funding is flowing to jumpstart transit bus electrification across New York State and nationwide, including a $116 million grant to electrify a large chunk of MTA’s buses (and launch a comprehensive workforce development program) — and an additional $57M in funding in seven counties across the state. With the right policy support, a future without diesel buses is entirely within reach.

Yet as it stands now, less than 1% of all buses on New York’s roads are electric. The vast majority of non-electric buses run on diesel fuel, a potent source of toxic fumes and particulate matter known to cause cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illness. The lack of electric buses on the roads underscores the need for legislation like Green Transit, Green Jobs, which would guarantee that fossil fuel bus sales are phased out statewide. Other states, such as California, passed similar legislation years ago — further demonstrating the bill’s feasibility and effectiveness. It’s time for New York to catch up.

Protecting Workers and Environmental Justice Communities

Green Transit, Green Jobs centers justice across the board. In New York State, there are startling disparities in who bears the brunt of vehicle pollution due to decades of exclusionary decisions around transportation, housing, and land use. For instance, Asian residents are exposed to twice as much diesel particulate matter pollution as White residents. Latino residents and Black residents are exposed to 35% more and 28% more diesel particulate matter pollution, respectively. Electrifying public transportation is a proven way to slash these inequities and spare communities from the many health harms associated with vehicle pollution.

Further, Green Transit, Green Jobs shows the country that climate legislation can prioritize the creation of high-quality jobs. When electrifying transportation and other sectors, we have the opportunity to rebuild blue-collar jobs with more safeguards for wages, benefits, and growth opportunities than ever before. Green Transit, Green Jobs does just that. With proper policy signals, there’s a huge opportunity to support local jobs throughout the electric supply chain.

The Greater Puzzle

New York lawmakers delivered major benefits to public transit riders in the 2023 budget — including boosting subway service and piloting fare-free buses. However, in order to fully meet our climate goals in New York, public transportation systems need to be both accessible and environmentally sustainable. Transit buses are pound-for-pound the most health-harming vehicle class, and these emissions impact riders, drivers, and communities near transit bus depots. Transit equity requires an expansion of transit service alongside electrification and pollution-free transit buses. In this case, electrification is absolutely not at odds with affordability and quality of transit service. It’s a core pillar of a zero-emissions future imagined by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) back in 2019. To the extent that infrastructure and cost is a barrier to public transit electrification, climate advocates are working with lawmakers to make sure supportive policies are in place.

It is rare that lawmakers have a bill with such a wide range of benefits as Green Transit, Green Jobs. This bill is a perfect example of legislation that protects us from climate change and delivers valuable benefits in real-time.

Alok works at the Northeast regional office in New York, where he supports the region’s energy, agriculture and toxics docket. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.

Electric transit bus charging station, West Side Highway, New York City.
Electric transit bus charging station, West Side Highway, New York City. (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)