At last month's Metro board meeting in downtown Los Angeles, a young woman named Gia Mack stepped forward to speak during the public comment period. The issue on the table was the city's commitment to shift to an all-electric bus fleet by 2030.
"I just want you to think about how you're risking black and brown lungs," Mack said, referring to the measured pace of the electric bus rollout. "My mom has asthma. The majority of my friends have asthma. I'm surprised I don't have asthma."
Others spoke before and after her; the morning had also included a contentious, multi-hour procurement debate and a man who delivered his comments to the board through a small hand puppet. (Local democracy is a strange and beautiful thing.) That day the Metro board, chaired by Mayor Eric Garcetti, voted unanimously to support the 2030 deadline. The decision, along with the procurement of 95 electric buses, marks the first step to an emissions-free bus system and makes Los Angeles the largest city yet to commit to going all electric.
This is not the first time Garcetti has led LA to the forefront of urban environmental leadership; the Los Angeles Mayor spoke out forcefully in his support of the Paris climate agreement and has been pushing his city and region to go greener in the face of a regressive federal climate agenda.
But Mack's comments were one of several that morning that showed the next frontier of the debate in the city; the first electric buses will be deployed first along the Orange Line, in the San Fernando Valley, one of the wealthier areas of the city. Local advocates say the next fight will be in bringing those buses from the Valley to the parts of town like the ones Mack's testimony described, where suffering residents need them most.
"Low-income people and people of color are two to three times more likely to be exposed to dangerous particulate pollution that largely comes from cars and trucks."
Kent Minault is an organizer with the Sierra Club, one of the leading advocates in the coalition that supported the city's commitment. He says he sees widespread support for electric buses across the city, but that the motivations for that support differ greatly from area to area.
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"When you talk to people in higher income areas, people say they want them because of the climate," he says. But in areas in South LA, he says, between the 110 freeway and the oil refineries in Torrance, residents were more concerned about health than global warming.
"It gets to be 10 o'clock in the morning," he says, "and kids pull out their inhalers."
The Los Angeles basin, by virtue of its weather and topography, is a challenging place for clean air even under the best of circumstances. In 1542, long before the combustion engine, Spanish sailors remarked upon the area's smoky air. Jump forward to today, with thousands of cars idling on the city's traffic-choked freeways, and the situation is far worse.
The American Lung Association gives the city a failing grade for pollution and their LA policy director, Bonnie Holmes-Gen, says simply living in Los Angeles is "a high risk factor" for respiratory issues. But already-disadvantaged neighborhoods and residents are more likely to be the victims. Asthma rates are significantly higher for African Americans in Los Angeles than for any other ethnic group; according to Los Angeles County's statistics, the rate for black Angelenos hovers close to 18 percent while it's barely ten for Asian, Latino and white residents. Families living below the poverty line are also more likely to suffer from asthma than wealthier households.
"The next phase of things is going to be about health. It's about making sure the most impacted communities get priority in how those lines are deployed."
Gina Coplon-Newfield is the director of the Clean Transit for All program at the Sierra Club. She says that environmental justice is at the heart of the push toward electric buses.
"Low-income people and people of color are two to three times more likely to be exposed to dangerous particulate pollution that largely comes from cars and trucks," she says. "Children in low-income urban neighborhoods suffer the most -- they live their lives surrounded by soot from dirty buses at a time when their lungs are still developing."
Los Angeles joins a growing movement of cities shifting to electric fleets, from Philadelphia to Eugene, Oregon, and an attendant movement to distribute them in an equitable way.
Seattle, for example, has made huge strides towards a zero emission fleet and earlier put in one of the largest orders yet for electric buses. While the first vehicles went to wealthy Bellevue, Pete Melin, the director of Zero Emissions Fleet Technologies for King County Metro, says the county used air quality measurements to determine where the next "tranche" of buses would go. After analyzing the data and engaging with community members, the county decided to deploy the new vehicles to the south side of Seattle, residents not only suffer from poorer air quality but are also often more dependent on public transport.
Seattle's example shows what is possible for Los Angeles and Kent Minault sees public health and equity as the next front in the electric bus fight. He says Sierra Club be working with residents from neighborhoods like Watts and Wilmington to bring more community members into Metro Board meetings.
"The next phase of things is going to be about health," he says. "It's about making sure the most impacted communities get priority in how those lines are deployed."
Follow LA's lead and get your mayor to support a switch to 100 percent renewable energy. Check out Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign to see how your city can get involved.