Clearing the Air for New England 

In a string of victories against transit companies that allow buses to idle, CLF protects the region’s air quality. 

By Sarah White

Every morning, New Haven, Connecticut resident Kevin Sullivan used to bike past idling buses on his morning commute. The idling buses – operated by First Transit – spewed toxic exhaust fumes into a neighborhood where asthma rates were already 10 times the national average. Poor air quality, its burden on New Haven residents, and damage to the climate led CLF to sue First Transit in 2022. Last September, in a victory for the climate and New Haven residents like Sullivan, CLF settled the lawsuit.

“[Idling] smells bad. I’m told it’s bad for the lungs,” says Sullivan. 

The settlement with First Transit is just one in a string of CLF victories against companies that allowed buses and shuttles to idle illegally, impacting the health of residents across the region. CLF’s tailpipe pollution campaign has been dedicated to holding these polluters accountable, ensuring that anti-idling laws are enforced so that New Englanders can breathe a little easier. CLF has also sued Transdev for its idling school buses in Boston and other companies for spreading tailpipe pollution in Everett, Chelsea, Malden, and many more neighborhoods. 

A breath of fresh air for New Haven residents

Idling buses produce harmful fumes linked to asthma, lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. These fumes are especially hazardous to children whose lungs are still developing.  

“It’s often hard for people to understand just how dangerous and bad for people’s health tailpipe pollution is, so these cases are really important,” says Erica Kyzmir-McKeon, a CLF attorney who worked on the First Transit case.  

The settlement will benefit air quality in New Haven in two ways. First, the company must stop allowing its vehicles to idle and spew noxious pollutants. First Transit must remain accountable from now on, including hiring an independent auditor with input from CLF. This auditor will regularly inspect bus stops for illegal idling and report violations if they occur. Operators will receive regular training on avoiding idling, and stickers will be added to vehicles as reminders.  

Second, the company must pay $725,000 to local nonprofits that will use the money to improve the community’s air quality. Half the money will go to Gather New Haven, an urban farming organization that develops and funds community gardens and educational programs. Community gardens directly remove pollutants from the air while producing cooling shade that reduces the need for air conditioning. The other half of the money will go to the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental and Economic Justice (CCEEJ). The organization will use the funds to improve air pollution monitoring in key areas, including in the environmental justice communities that pollution impacts the most. If the new independent auditor discovers more illegal idling, First Transit will give Gather and CCEEJ further payments. 

The under-recognized effects of idling

While tailpipe pollution affects all New Haven residents, a recent study found that low-income communities experience significantly worse air quality than wealthier ones. One reason is that communities of color and lower-income communities are more likely to have been chopped up by major thoroughfares that carry heavy traffic. Studies have found urban communities of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution due to car traffic in their neighborhoods. 

Aaron Goode, a witness in the First Transit case, was motivated to fight idling in part because he attributes his parents’ cancer diagnoses to air pollution from the oil refinery near his childhood home. 

“I worry that the same could happen to me,” Goode said in a statement for the case. “Exposure to air pollution, including emissions from First Transit’s buses, adds to that psychological burden and causes me to worry about the long-term impacts on my health.” He’s concerned that polluters might get away with damaging the health of people in his community.  

In addition to harming human health, idling harms people by fueling climate change. Across New England, moving around in gas-powered vehicles accounts for about 40% of carbon emissions. And running engines while not moving burns an average of six billion gallons of fuel annually in the United States alone. What’s more, climate change impacts like extreme heat make air quality even worse. 

Ending idling for everyone

While these cases represent a small fraction of the commercial vehicles in New England, the ripple effects of such lawsuits can be significant. Colin Antayacs, another witness for the First Transit case, says, “I believe that it’ll have a bigger impact because people are used to getting away with [idling], even if it’s against the law.”  

Because anti-idling laws are so rarely enforced, companies are accustomed to polluting with impunity. But our legal victories are setting a precedent that shows polluters that we won’t stand for that any longer. New England has sensible, smart clean air laws on the books, and CLF is on the case to enforce them. It’s past time to make unnecessary idling and its toxic fumes a thing of the past.