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Oakland Schools Ditch Diesel With New All-Electric School Bus Fleet

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A row of yellow school buses hooked up to charging ports.
The school-transportation company Zum is providing and managing a fleet of 74 all-electric school buses and bidirectional chargers to Oakland Unified starting in August. (Courtesy of Zum)

Oakland Unified will soon become the first major district in the country to host an all-electric fleet of school buses.

Some 1,300 special education students in the district, who have the option of riding the buses, can look forward to quieter and cleaner rides starting at the beginning of the next school year, in August. (Unlike some other Bay Area districts, OUSD does not offer busing for most of its students.)

In a Facebook post last month, the district announced its new partnership with school transportation company Zum (pronounced ZOOM), based in Redwood City, which is providing and managing the 74-bus fleet.

Zum estimates the buses will prevent about 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases from entering the environment each year — the amount it said that 74 diesel buses would likely produce.

The vehicles are all equipped with bidirectional chargers that replenish the buses overnight but can also enable them to serve as power sources when needed. Zum said its AI technology monitors the buses’ energy use and determines the best times to return power back to the grid while calculating the most efficient bus routes based on traffic patterns.


Families will also be able to use an app to track the buses their children are riding on and receive updates about delays, the company said.

As part of its initial five-year contract, OUSD will pay Zum $11.2 million a year to run the buses, according to Kimberly Raney, OUSD’s transportation director. About half of the district’s total costs for the service will be covered by federal, state and private grants, she said.

“It’s a true partnership of how we do what’s right for the kids,” Raney said. “Oakland is really the perfect place for this. We have a lot of special education kids who need to travel to school using our bus systems.”

Diesel exhaust is one of the main air pollutants in California and has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer and aggravated asthma, among other negative health impacts.

A 2017 study found significantly elevated rates of asthma among children in West and East Oakland living near freeways, the port and other high-traffic corridors, with Black and Latino children making up more than 60% of Alameda County’s asthma-related hospitalizations.

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“OUSD is the first, but there is an eagerness from federal, state, and local partners across the country to electrify their school bus fleets,” Ritu Narayan, Zum’s CEO and co-founder, said in an email. The company, she notes, already has existing contracts with smaller Southern California districts as well as contracts with San Francisco and Los Angeles school districts. “Our goal is to expand the program and have 10,000 electric school buses deployed across the country over the next several years.”

PG&E worked with Zum for two years to complete the large East Oakland charging site for the bus fleet, a project that required significant infrastructure upgrades, including the installation of a new transformer and 171 feet of underground infrastructure, according to Paul Doherty, a spokesperson for the utility.

Although OUSD is ahead of the curve in its bus electrification efforts, the district’s move marks a transition that most school districts in California will have to start making within the next decade. That’s due to a 2023 state law requiring all new or leased state school buses to be zero-emission beginning in 2035 — with extensions for rural school districts.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is pushing for the state to spend $1.8 billion over the next five years to help districts acquire more zero-emission buses and charging equipment.

The state Legislature had initially committed $500 million annually toward electric school buses for the next two school years. Newson’s budget plan would add nearly $400 million more to the pot for next year.

A woman wearing a green shirt and a man wearing a dark shirt stand in between two school buses and a charging station.
Zum CEO Ritu Narayan (front) and COO Vivek Garg pose with the first of the 74 electric school buses it will be running in Oakland. (Courtesy of Zum)

However, that proposal has proven controversial among some education advocates and parents, as the money would come at the expense of the state’s Inclusive Early Education Expansion Program, which helps train preschool teachers to better serve children with disabilities.

“As a special education administrator and somebody who’s been in the special education field, I think students with disabilities are more important than electric buses,” Anthony Rebelo, chair of the Coalition for Adequate Funding for Special Education, recently told EdSource.

School bus driver Marjorie Urbina has been picking up and dropping off students in San Francisco for decades and has experience driving more than a dozen different types of school buses. She began working in Oakland two years ago and now drives for Zum on a contract basis.

Urbina said the Zum buses are much quieter and easier to clean, and the driver’s seat is more comfortable than other buses she’s driven.

The new buses also have driver-side tablets that display navigation tools and allow drivers and dispatchers to connect in real-time.

“With the new buses, we asked for certain things, like making the ceiling more soundproof to help diffuse the noise of the kids,” Urbina said, noting that those improvements have made her job a bit easier. “That atmosphere of having a quiet bus keeps the environment inside a little more relaxed.”

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