Major emissions. Major opportunity.
When Kim Stone and Pam Tate learned that transportation is the biggest contributor to US emissions, they knew how they could make a difference. Having seen Chicago's famous rush-hour traffic regularly snarl city streets, they were big believers in the power of public transit to cut emissions in a big way. But they also knew that the region was heavily reliant on dirty diesel and gas-powered buses that only added to the noxious pollution earning the city failing grades for air quality.
So, their Task Force on Electrifying Public Transit joined forces with a host of partners from Sierra Club to Warehouse Workers for Justice, and they began a campaign to persuade the region’s transit agencies that they could tackle both air and climate pollution at once by transitioning Chicago to an all-electric bus fleet.
It hasn’t been easy. Agency heads were initially skeptical of the technology and weren't seeing the big picture on cost. So Kim and Pam and other Task Force members worked from both ends, reaching out to the communities these agencies served to educate them on the many benefits electric buses could bring both families and workers while also keeping the pressure on decision-makers.
Through their persistence and broad coalition, Pace, the suburban transit agency, has committed to an electric fleet by 2040, and Pam and Kim and their Task Force are continuing to work on other regional transit agencies to speed up the planned transition.
So what advice would they offer to other activists and advocates?
"Identify a problem and a solution. Have your facts straight before proceeding. Determine who is responsible for the decisions and implementation of the solution, and then pull together a coalition to advocate directly to those decisionmakers. Personal stories are always helpful. Be sure decision-makers hear stories from real people about the impacts of climate change on their lives. Be persistent and alert members of the media where possible."
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In Their Own Words
What was the problem you saw and which of the solution areas does it relate to?
Transportation is the largest contributor to GHG emissions in the US currently. Public transit is inherently beneficial for the environment, but the Chicago region is overly reliant on polluting diesel and gas powered buses. Given the climate emergency, we have focused our efforts on convincing our transit agencies to transition to zero-emission vehicles within a short timeframe.
What was your idea/insight to solve it and the end result/vision you wanted to achieve?
The transition to a zero-emission bus fleet would save money in fuel and maintenance for our financially strapped transit agencies, while helping the environment. We believed that there was a need to educate the agencies – board and staff – on the benefits and promise of electric bus technology, and to convince them to make the transition to electric buses much more quickly than they were planning to do.
Why is this solution important to your country and community?
The Chicago region has consistently failing grades for air pollution, and worsening traffic congestion in recent years is only increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector. It is important to transition to zero-emission vehicles to stop GHG emissions that are contributing to the climate emergency, and to improve air quality in the region.
What were the biggest challenges you faced/ran into?
There is a lack of knowledge and accurate information about electric vehicles among the board and some staff members at our transit agencies. Plus, Chicago has four different transit agencies, each of which needs to be convinced. Agency leaders said that they could not afford electric buses and were concerned about their ability to operate successfully in cold weather and on longer routes. In spite of this, we have been successful in moving Pace, the suburban transit agency, to commit to a fully electric bus fleet by 2040, and we have now begun working to speed up the transition at CTA, which serves the city and inner ring suburbs.
How did you mobilize people to take actions?
We focused on transit agency boards and the elected officials who appoint these board members. In most cases, these people had not been targets of advocacy efforts in their roles. Working with partner organizations, we mobilized people to contact their representatives on these boards by email, phone, and in person. We provided accurate information on electric buses and continued to show up at their board and budget meetings and stay focused on this issue.
Who were key stakeholders/partners that worked with you?
Other environmental groups, social justice, and worker's rights groups were key partners. Sierra Club, Respiratory Health Association, Active Transportation Alliance, Warehouse Workers for Justice, Jobs to Move America, Metropolitan Planning Council, and Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) were key partners, along with other members of the Illinois Clean Transportation group of IEC.
What insight, ideas, or suggestions would you offer someone looking to take action in a similar way?
Identify a problem and a solution. Have your facts straight before proceeding. Determine who is responsible for the decisions and implementation of the solution, and then pull together a coalition to advocate directly to those decisionmakers. Personal stories are always helpful. Be sure decisionmakers hear stories from real people about the impacts of climate change on their lives. Be persistent and alert members of the media where possible.
How did this project you created promote equity or justice in your community?
Learning from our social justice and workers’ rights partners, we incorporated information into our advocacy campaign about equitable procurement, as well as worker training, living wage, and other components of equity and justice. In addition, certain communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution from these buses, and we made it clear that these communities should be served first.