New York is home to the most famous electrified transportation system in the United States. It’s true. During normal times, the New York City subway carries over 5.5 million riders on a typical workday, for a total of over 1.7 billion rides annually.
Our electric subway system clearly deserves credit for the fact that the average carbon footprint of a New York City resident is 6.1 metric tons – less than a third of the national average. Electric transportation is a climate win, and if you count the subway, the city is off to a great start.
However, New York still has a long way to go when it comes to electrifying the rest of the state’s transportation sector. Despite all those avoided car trips in the New York City metro area, transportation still accounts for 37% of the state’s total greenhouse gas footprint — a higher share of total emissions than for the U.S. as a whole (where transportation accounts for 28% of total emissions).
Thankfully, New York has a tough new climate law and a specific commitment to zero-emission passenger vehicles, with a goal of 850,000 on the street by 2025. To support this 18-fold increase in electric vehicles over a short period, the staff of New York’s Department of Public Service released a whitepaper in January, proposing a program to ensure the construction of sufficient charging infrastructure and electric grid upgrades to support this transformation.
The proposals in the whitepaper are a step in the right direction, but they fall far short of what New York needs: a plan to address the charging requirements of both passenger EVs as well as trucks and buses. Delaying any planning to address the charging needs of trucks and buses, while moving forward with a program for light-duty vehicle charging, would be a costly mistake — in dollars and in public health.
The cost of overlooking trucks and buses
In New York City, trucks alone account for 10% of citywide transportation greenhouse gas emissions. Most concerning, these impacts could increase as freight volumes grow nearly 70% by 2045. But climate pollution is not the only concern. Diesel-fueled trucks and buses are a significant and dangerous source of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide pollution, which cause asthma, cancer and respiratory issues. This pollution has significant impact on the health and well-being of New Yorkers, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which have been disproportionately burdened by diesel-fueled pollution for far too long.
Electrification is the most mature pathway we know of that has the potential to bring transportation emissions down to zero. But it can only happen if the supporting infrastructure comes online in time, at the right scale and with the right capabilities. Done right, the build out of this infrastructure can be done cost-effectively, but missteps can make the costs far higher in the long run.
For example, the supportive infrastructure needed to electrify trucks and buses will be even more challenging to construct and will take longer than charging stations for cars. Costs that could have been contained will balloon as a result of the delay — since upgrades to the system made only with light-duty vehicles in mind will have to be revisited in short order to serve the much higher-capacity needs of large charging depots.
The time is now
America’s largest transit bus fleet — NYC Transit — has committed to electrifying its entire fleet of more than 5,700 buses by 2040, and it has already gotten started. Gov. Cuomo has directed upstate transit fleets to follow suit. Truck fleets with national and international profiles have stated their interest in electrifying their fleets specifically in New York. Yet the January whitepaper does not even attempt to address the charging needs of trucks and buses, instead promising that they will be addressed “expeditiously” in the same proceeding.
There is no time to lose in getting started, as delay will have costs in health and lives. Diesel vehicles are a major source of pollution that harms public health, especially in communities that are overburdened from air pollution. Electrification represents one of the best opportunities to eliminate that pollution. Passing up this opportunity to save lives in vulnerable communities is a tragic mistake, and one that we hope to see remedied by the New York Department of Public Service at the earliest possible time.