One of the district’s eight electric school buses picks up students in September. Credit: Alexandria Thomas

Berkeley’s yellow school buses have gotten an upgrade. This fall, eight new electric buses joined the district’s fleet, picking up students throughout the city.

The new electric buses, which now make up a quarter of the district’s bus fleet, are intended to reduce emissions and children’s exposure to pollutants.

Across the country, school districts are beginning to trade diesel buses, which have been shown to exacerbate symptoms related to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, for electric buses, which reduce instances of these illnesses. A typical commute on a diesel bus accounts for one third of a student’s daily exposure to pollutants, even though the average student spends less than 10% of their day riding the bus, according to research conducted by California Air Resources Board.

“It’s about being good stewards of the environment,” said John Calise, executive director of facilities for the school district. And “it completely aligns with both the district’s and the city’s sustainability goals.”

With this move, the district is halfway to a goal set in its 2018 Sustainability Plan to convert half its fleet to electric buses by 2030.

Transportation manager Sheila Collier spearheaded the initiative to get the electric buses, writing grants that eventually funded the buses and the infrastructure needed to keep them running, including charging stations and a much larger transformer.

The buses and infrastructure cost $3.2 million, money that comes from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the state’s Hybrid Voucher Incentive Program. The charging stations, which are located at the district’s transportation yard, have the capacity to eventually charge 16 total buses. Calise said BUSD would have purchased even more charging stations, but they would need to be used within a few years, which was unrealistic.

While the electric buses have a steep upfront cost, they are less expensive to run and will pay for themselves over time, Calise said.

The arrival of the buses, which the district hoped to employ by fall 2019, was delayed due to COVID-19.

The electric buses also part of a larger effort on Berkeley Unified’s part to promote emissions-free transit to schools, such as walking and biking. This means, for instance, that the district is working with the city to develop bike lanes near schools.

In addition to the eight electric buses, the fleet includes 10 diesel buses, 11 gasoline buses, and one clean natural gas bus for a total of 30 yellow school buses. The eight diesel buses replaced by the electric ones have been destroyed.

School Board Director Ana Vasudeo is excited about the environmental and health benefits of the school buses. But she said the work isn’t done yet. Vasudeo, who previously oversaw San Francisco’s Safe Routes to School program, said she would like to see BUSD “keep promoting sustainable transportation options, such as walking, biking, and taking transit.”

About half of Berkeley students get to school by car, while a quarter use school buses or carpool and a quarter walk, bike, or roll, according to Alameda County Safe Routes to Schools. About 1,000 of the district’s elementary school students take the bus to school. There is no busing for middle and high school students, but the district does provide transportation for students with special needs who require it.

Berkeley kids and families celebrated the new buses. Alexandria Thomas, the parent of two children who attend Oxford Elementary, tweeted a video of her kids cheering when the bus arrived at their stop.

“It’s amazing to see money being put towards transportation that’s both new for the kids and good for the environment,” Thomas, who is also a commissioner with the Berkeley Housing Authority, wrote in a message to Berkeleyside. “My kids and I love them.”

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...