Rafael Espinal

How yellow school buses could green New York City

Shutterstock/Leonard Zhukovsky

Is it possible to reduce income inequality and improve environmental sustainability through a New York City Department of Education contract? The answer is yes, and an electric school bus worker cooperative is the first step, but the city needs to get on board.

Imagine school bus workers running and owning a school bus company while also greening our city. A coalition of elected officials, transit and environmental advocates has emerged to push the city to adopt a unionized electric school bus worker cooperative. This co-op would be owned by New York City bus drivers and could be funded by getting a contract for some of the Education Department’s current school bus routes.

Transportation Workers Union Local 100, a union representing city bus and train operators, has proposed a plan that would empower workers through offering them ownership of their bus company, while helping to green our city and reduce the dirty fossil fuels emitted into our air.

Rather than direct profits to a corporation, a unionized worker-led cooperative will help raise wages through collective bargaining by employees and promote a sense of pride in the workplace. This will in turn incentivize smoother service and improve the quality of rides for students. The worker cooperative will be run by a board that is democratically elected by bus employees and could even have seats reserved for school parents.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the City Council have already made clear their interest in building worker cooperatives. The Department of Small Business Services has created the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative that received $3 million in funding from the city council to educate, support and grow worker cooperative businesses. Now is the time act on this commitment.

Beyond improving labor relations, an electric school bus worker cooperative would help sustain our environment and protect the health of New Yorkers. Diesel buses are bad for us. You don’t need to read scientific journals to discover these negative consequences; it’s evident in every tailpipe spitting noxious, brown soot over our roadways and into our lungs. The black carbon and nitrogen oxide emitted from diesel school buses are bad for our environment and particularly bad for children whose lungs are still developing.

New York City is rated among the top 25 most polluted cities for ozone and year-round particle pollution in the American Lung Association's State of the Air report. This means more bad air days and more asthma for New Yorkers. More than 2 million people in the New York metropolitan area have asthma, including nearly half a million children.

From the age of 3 or 4 years old, our students are being transported on outdated, fume-emitting buses. In 2018 that does not have to be the case. We have the clean technology to reduce pollution and protect our health. Unfortunately, since much of New York’s electricity comes from coal, charging electric buses do cause pollution from power plants ­– including the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But, with the state and city governments moving our energy portfolio in the direction of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar power, over the long run using electric vehicles can significantly reduce our carbon footprint, not to mention reduce the air pollution emitted into our local communities.

Our city is presented right now with a tremendous opportunity to put this plan into action. The Education Department has recently put out a request for 1,600 bus routes to be run by transportation companies with a five-year contract. The companies have until Feb. 22 to make their proposals.

These new bids should be given to school bus providers who plan to run zero-emission electric vehicles and who have a vision for worker empowerment. That is why I join with TWU and environmental advocates in calling on the department to allocate at least 25 bus routes to electric bus operators. The administration should commit to setting aside a portion of the bids for these electric bus operators, because the way requests for proposals are written, these operators will never have a chance in a system that only rewards the lowest-cost bidder. Although 25 is a very small share of 1,600, a pilot program now could pave the path for the future.

Climate change won’t wait for us to get our act together. Extracting and burning oil to power vehicles creates more than 40 percent of the climate-disrupting emissions in the United States. We must rethink our modes of transportation and commit to only investing in vehicles that will be good for our future. The de Blasio administration has made clear its commitment to fighting climate change and empowering workers. This pilot program would be a win-win for both of those goals. 

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal represents the 37th District, covering parts of Bushwick, East New York, Cypress Hills and Brownsville. He is the chairman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs. 

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