Electrifying a Fraction of Vehicles in the Lower Great Lakes Could Save Over a Thousand Lives Annually, Studies Suggest

New research reveals that even a “mid-transition” to electrified transportation could have outsized health and economic benefits for Black and Latino residents.

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Inspecting a new Rivian van.
Amazon Vice President of Transportation Udit Madan, Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe and Director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Sylvia Garcia inspect the interior of the new electric van during a launch event between Amazon and Rivian at an Amazon facility on July 21, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Mustafa Hussain/Getty Images)

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Electrifying just 30 percent of all light- and heavy-duty vehicles in the lower Great Lakes region could save more than 1,000 lives and more than $10 billion in healthcare costs per year, according to a study led by researchers at Northwestern University. And the benefits of the pollution reductions would be concentrated in disadvantaged communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollutant emissions from transportation.

The study, published last week, simulated and measured the potential environmental and health impacts of electrifying a fraction of all vehicles on the road—including light- and heavy-duty trucks, passenger cars, motorcycles and buses—in the lower Great Lakes region. 

The findings build on another study from the same research group released on Sept. 5 that focused on heavy-duty vehicles. The earlier study found that although heavy-duty vehicles make up only 6 percent of all vehicles on the road, they’d account for approximately half of the lives and money saved if 30 percent of all vehicle miles traveled shifted to electric.

In both studies, researchers simulated weather conditions and tracked hourly levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter pollution. They tracked changes in pollution concentrations in on-road, refueling and power plant emissions from the increased electricity demand needed for electric vehicle charging. 

They then evaluated the varying air quality exposure and health implications between one-kilometer areas in the region studied, including Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Achieving 30 percent electrification of all vehicle miles traveled had significant public health benefits—specifically, 1,120 and 170 avoided premature deaths from reduced nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the air, respectively. However, it also resulted in an estimated annual rise of around 80 premature deaths from ozone.

More research is needed to monitor and regulate volatile organic compounds like ozone as the transportation sector electrifies, said Daniel Horton, senior author of both studies.

“The health benefits from reductions in nitrogen dioxide are still so high — irrespective of the increase in ozone — that the overall benefits are substantial,” said Sara Camilleri, who led the Sept. 5 study, in an announcement of the heavy-duty vehicles study

The highest emission and pollution reductions were concentrated at transportation hubs, urban centers and along highway corridors, where people of color are more likely to live. A shift to more emissions-free electricity sources in the power grid would save even more lives, according to the study.

The findings from both studies help identify which types of vehicles, if electrified, would provide the largest economic and health benefits to the most vulnerable communities, says Maxime Visa, lead author of the study focused on heavy-duty vehicles.

“The takeaway is that even small reductions can have a large health impact and benefits to the people who most need it,” said Camilleri. This is especially true in Chicago, where air pollution from transportation is concentrated in disadvantaged communities, said added.

The South and Southwest sides of Chicago deal with some of the highest diesel pollution from traffic in the area, with industrial facilities and warehouses deploying heavy-duty trucks that often travel through neighborhoods as they make their way to nearby highways. 

When estimating health benefits, researchers considered higher occurrences of underlying health conditions, like asthma and respiratory disease, said Camilleri. They also considered systemic disadvantages, including limited access to regular health care, and lack of the financial stability to seek treatments for these underlying conditions.

Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association, a local non-profit public health organization, said the studies highlight how pollution from vehicles, especially heavy-duty ones, is “pushing a lot of already medically vulnerable people over the edge.”

“People who are already dealing with a lot of chronic diseases and a lot of chronic health problems are seeing a much bigger impact from the emissions coming off the vehicles,” said Urbaszewski.

The study suggests that reducing air pollution burdens in environmental justice communities doesn’t have to depend on hyperlocal solutions like reducing traffic congestion or adding green infrastructure and trees in a neighborhood. Electrification of vehicles region-wide is one potential solution for addressing disparities in air pollution exposure, said Camilleri.

The studies point out something that some environmental justice organizations in the area have voiced and already know, said Horton.

“They know where the pollution is,” he said. “They experience and live it daily and are asking for solutions.”

José Miguel Acosta Córdova, an environmental justice advocate in Little Village, agrees that a wide effort to electrify heavy-duty vehicles will have an outsized benefit on people who need it the most. Little Village is a neighborhood in Chicago’s Southwest Side adjacent to a major highway with some of the most polluted air in the city.

Still, “electrification is not going to solve all of our issues,” said Acosta Córdova. The number of cars on the road, electric or not, should be reduced also, he added.

Horton hopes this research can help inform electrification efforts in and outside of Chicago. He expects findings in the study to be consistent in other cities as communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to be located near warehouses and manufacturing plants as well as highways.

Acosta Córdova said environmental justice groups are working to introduce a bill in Illinois’ next legislative session to adopt new truck manufacturing rules that would work toward making all new trucks and buses sold zero-emission and impose emissions standards on new medium- and heavy-duty trucks. 

Even if new rules and actions to electrify vehicles come soon, electrification of 30 percent of the light- and heavy-duty vehicles in the region is not going to happen for a while, said Urbaszewski, who has advocated for the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles for years.

“It’s a long transition, but you have to start by steadily starting that ramp up to get to that goal,” he said.

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