Susan Mudd

Cut diesel pollution while maintaining Chicago’s robust freight business

At the crossroads of North American train and truck routes, Chicago hosts terminals of almost all U.S. and Canadian railroads. One quarter of U.S. freight passes through the region, and over half of all intermodal shipments originate from or terminate here. Daily these generate 15,000 truck trips to customers and 7,500 trips between the intermodal facilities where trains and trucks exchange freight.

The pandemic has led people and businesses to get needed supplies delivered to their doorstep, accelerating a boom in warehouses and distribution centers.

However, the blessings of convenience and freight-related jobs come with a cost, as trains and trucks are overwhelmingly diesel. They belch emissions laden with asthma-inducing fine particles, emit nitrogen dioxides contributing to smog and acid rain, as well as greenhouse gases and toxic substances.

The blessings of convenience and freight-related jobs come with a cost, as trains and trucks are overwhelmingly diesel.

Particle pollution, the air pollutant causing more health problems than any other, is worst near major roadways, much of it due to diesel-powered trucks. Chicagoans who live, work or are in school near these facilities and the roads leading to them can be negatively affected. Most impacted are low-income individuals and communities of color. The Environmental Law & Policy Center is involved with some of those neighborhoods through our AirQualityChicago.org monitoring program, engaging residents in measuring exposure and seeking improvements to local air.

Fortunately, there is a way for dangerous pollution to be dramatically reduced while enhancing the Chicago area’s booming freight distribution industry. Promising actions already available to slash freight-related diesel pollution in Chicago include:

Electrifying Fleets

Regional and local delivery vehicles have great potential for electrification, and half their trips making stops within the Chicago metro area are local or regional deliveries. Electric trucks have zero emissions, are cheaper to operate and maintain, and are approaching a lower total cost of ownership than diesel. Electricity is generated domestically and is rapidly becoming more renewably based.

Rivian’s plant in Normal has benefited from other states’ actions toward requiring electric trucks and Amazon’s order of 100,000 electric delivery vehicles. With over a dozen distribution sites in our region, Amazon should be using those here. Chicago and other local governments could boost in-state employment by requiring or incentivizing new centers to use electric vehicles for local deliveries.

Add Illinois to multistate electric truck agreement

In keeping with his recent Putting Consumers & Climate First: Eight Principles for a Clean & Renewable Illinois Economy, Gov. J.B. Pritzker can add Illinois to the 15 states and District of Columbia as signatories to the Multi-state Medium- and Heavy-Duty Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum of Understanding. Illinois would join the path toward all new trucks and buses sold in 2050 having zero greenhouse gas emissions. ELPC supports Warehouse Workers for Justice in seeking zero-emission trucks for the protection of workers’ and neighbors’ health.

While the transition to electric is underway, Chicago can act now to reduce unnecessary idling of diesels in the following ways:

Unclog freight rail movement

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program is key to unclogging freight rail movements. Through targeted upgrades to specific rail junctions, passenger and freight movements can be improved, thus reducing motorist delays and making rail crossings safer while improving air quality. If freight can move through Chicago more efficiently by rail, it can gain market share from long-haul trucks and reduce air pollution.

Institute off-peak delivery in congested areas

Recognizing that heavy-duty truck emissions are twice as high in congestion than in free-flow conditions, our region could institute an off-peak delivery system in congested areas. Pilots in New York City, London and Paris show nighttime deliveries can improve traffic conditions and lower travel times for daytime road users, as well as increase competitiveness for transportation companies, deliveries’ reliability for receiving businesses and daytime road safety.

Adopt and enforce idling limits

Idling engines waste fuel and cost money, while contributing to noise and air pollution. Chicago has a three-minute limit that’s rarely enforced, and the new 311 app doesn’t allow residents to report violations. Let’s empower residents to report and be rewarded with cleaner air.

Freight distribution is a valuable and growing part of the Chicago area’s economy. Embracing clean energy strategies will enhance this growth. By adopting these recommendations, Chicago can retain its premier status as the freight crossroads of America, while protecting our most vulnerable residents’ health and livelihoods.

*This post originally ran in Crain’s Chicago Business

Susan Mudd,

Senior Policy Advocate

Susan Mudd is an attorney and senior policy advocate for ELPC, where she directs ELPC’s Diesel Pollution Reduction Initiative to protect children’s and community health, ELPC's Electric School bus campaign and with ELPC’s Science Advisory Council.

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