Commentary: Things to ponder during Asthma Awareness Month

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing global suffering, pain, and loss of life. It is changing how we live, work, and get around, and having a growing impact on our economy. This public health crisis has forced us to physically distance from one another at a time when social connection is particularly important. World Asthma Awareness Month is a stark reminder that high air pollution levels result in worse health outcomes, especially for those without access to quality healthcare. The need to fix our long-neglected transportation system, a leading source of harmful air pollution and carbon emissions, is more apparent than ever. 

With the nation sheltering in place, there were very few cars on the road. Cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City are seeing a significant drop in transportation pollution and emissions since the COVID-19 health crisis began. Although satellite images of clear skies are being momentarily highlighted, pollution levels are likely to return now that stay-at-home orders are being eased. 

The pandemic has exposed the flaws and disparities in our public health and transportation systems. A recent nationwide Harvard study found that COVID-19 patients with historically long-term exposure to air pollution are 15 percent more likely to die than those who live in less polluted areas. Communities of color have consistently borne a disproportionate burden from air pollution and new data shows that these communities—particularly Black and Latino populations—face a higher risk when it comes to the novel coronavirus, as well as other respiratory illnesses.

We are seeing this play out in neighborhoods like Chelsea, Brockton, Everett, Lynn, Lawrence, Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester that have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Massachusetts. These are the same communities where many essential workers live, that experience higher air pollution levels, and rely on public transit.

Vehicle electrification should be a key component of our clean transportation and public health strategy and a part of any federal COVID recovery plan. Our bus networks are the perfect starting point for accelerating our electrification efforts. They transport the highest number of low-income riders dependent on transit, and when they run on diesel, they emit pollutants that have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Electric buses, on the other hand, have no tailpipe emissions. Further, electric buses produce significantly fewer global warming emissions than their fossil fuel counterparts. 

Not only that, once lifetime fuel and maintenance savings are factored in, each electric bus ends up paying dividends that can be reinvested into expanding the bus fleet. According to a report from MASSPIRG, the lifetime savings of an electric bus add up to $140,000. And to cover the initial cost, city governments can and should use municipal bonds, supplemented by gas tax and toll revenue. Prioritizing electrification should go hand in hand with expanding dedicated bus lanes along key routes, increasing frequency of service, and strengthening sanitation protocols to keep transit workers and riders safe. 

Clean air should not be just a temporary outcome of a global health crisis. By electrifying our cars, buses, and trucks, we can make way for the long-term public health and climate benefits that come from phasing out fossil fuel emissions in our transportation sector. 

Ethan Evans is a national campaign associate with the US Public Interest Research Group and Veena Dharmaraj is the director of transportation for the Massachusetts Sierra Club.