PAUSD, City of Palo Alto adopt eco-friendly transportation services


Palo Alto’s transportation services have become more environmentally friendly in recent years through ongoing efforts to promote sustainable practices.

Palo Alto Unified School District has started by replacing some older diesel school buses for greener electric ones. The district recently received a grant from Bay Area Air Quality Management for two electric buses, which are scheduled to arrive before the end of April.

PAUSD’s current fleet consists of larger buses that are powered by diesel and compressed natural gas along with smaller gasoline-powered vehicles. According to Green Team President senior Katie Rueff, these vehicles carry harmful environmental impacts. “(Diesel) is not just a carbon producing thing when it burns, but it’s contributing to a larger system of overconsumption,” she said. “A couple decades ago, there was this whole movement to replace diesel with natural gas because they were like, ‘Oh, it’s natural, and it’s gas, so it’s much better for the atmosphere.’ But actually, (methane) gas is much more potent.”

The use of diesel buses also affects students’ well-being, especially for those with preexisting medical conditions: The California Air Resources Board estimates that exposure to diesel particulate matter causes 730 cases of cardiopulmonary death each year. Although diesel buses may impact student health, Transportation Supervisor Andrew Ramirez emphasized that their detrimental effects have lessened over time. “The new diesel buses are not as clean (as the electric buses), but they are getting a lot cleaner than they were 20 years ago,” he said.

Junior Maya Perkash has worked alongside peers in her Advanced Authentic Research project to call for the use of more eco-friendly transportation alternatives within the district. Although her ultimate goal is to help the district transition to an entirely electric fleet, Perkash doesn’t expect this process to be immediate. “It’s not very feasible to take diesel buses that are still working out of commission early,” she said. “But I definitely think that if they start switching now, it’ll happen a lot sooner because each diesel bus has about 20 years of run time. Every time they buy a new diesel bus, that’s 20 more years before the fleet could potentially be all electric.”

According to Ramirez, however, the district is still hesitant to transition to an all-electric fleet. “During a disaster, you want something that’s going to be able to last two or three weeks if, for whatever reason, the systems go down,” he said. “You don’t want to go all electric and just be sitting with a bunch of buses in your yard that you can’t use.”

Furthermore, Ramirez noted the various logistical issues that need to be resolved in order to effectively maintain the new fleet. “The turnaround for broken (electric) buses that need repair is much longer right now,” he said. “(In terms of) the infrastructure, recharging buses that might not be here on site—maybe on a field trip—is something that has to really be worked out.”

Although these concerns and issues have slowed the implementation of a full electric fleet, Rueff is content with the district’s efforts. “It’s awesome that PAUSD is thinking about investing more in converting the public transportation they offer, which (encourages students) to be more sustainable in their lives,” she said.

At the city-wide level, Palo Alto launched rideshare service Palo Alto Link on March 7. This program gives commuters the ability to carpool to a location within Palo Alto with someone taking a similar route. According to Palo Alto Transportation Planning Manager Sylvia Star-Lack, there are numerous benefits that stem from having fewer vehicles on the road. “If everyone is in their own car, then the capacity of the road is less, (causing) traffic and congestion,” she said. “If we can reduce greenhouse gasses by sharing rides (as well as) getting people into buses (and) trains, it’s better from an environmental perspective, but also from (a) quality of life perspective.”

Palo Alto Link’s fleet currently consists of 10 vehicles: seven hybrid Toyota Sienna minivans and three electric Tesla Model 3 sedans. Similar to the district’s efforts with electric buses, the city hopes to continue electrifying its transportation fleet. “We put in a grant to see if we can convert everything to electric in the future,” Star-Lack said. “Part of this issue was supply. There just aren’t a lot of those vehicles available that are all electric right now. More and more are coming online, so we know (that) in the future, we’ll be able to do it.”

Along with the environmental benefits of these new transportation services, Perkash hopes that they will also have a positive impact on communities outside of Palo Alto. “Palo Alto acts as a trailblazer for a lot of climate issues, so other neighbors and the state look to (us) as a role model,” she said. “If we’re starting these efforts now, that will have a lot more of a domino effect than just (within) our city.”