Surbhi Bharadwaj, Senior Photographer

Yale Shuttle riders may soon spot “no idling” signs near bus operators’ seats, warning drivers of illegal idling practices that have recently landed the shuttle and its operating company, First Transit Inc., in the hot seat. 

The signs are one of several settlement conditions outlined in a Sept.7 consent decree between First Transit and the Conservation Law Foundation, or CLF, an environmental advocacy foundation that sued First Transit in March 2022 for violating Connecticut’s implementation of the Clean Air Act. In the lawsuit, the CLF accused First Transit of prolonged idling that they claim led to the spread of dangerous pollutants at the New Haven Go bus stop next to Union Station and the Yale School of Medicine shuttle stop, as well as another bus stop in Wethersfield, Connecticut. 

As part of the settlement conditions, Transdev U.S., a transportation company that acquired First Transit in March, will pay $362,500 each to local environmental justice organizations Gather New Haven and Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice — totaling $725,000. Both parties await final settlement approval by the Department of Justice by Oct. 23. 

“Idling vehicles spread toxic tailpipe pollution into many communities already overburdened with harmful emissions and asthma,” CLF attorney Erica Kyzmir-McKeon wrote in a press release. “Buses are some of the most egregious sources of this pollution, and First Transit will now take the right steps to address the problem.”

Lawsuit documents numerous Clean Air Act violations 

Under Connecticut’s implementation of the Clean Air Act, it is illegal for a vehicle to idle for more than three minutes, with some exemptions. Private investigators hired by the CLF, which is based in Massachusetts, reported 53 instances of illegal idling by First Transit vehicles in September and October 2020, October and November 2021 and January 2022. The data shared in the lawsuit detailed idling periods of up to 35 minutes at the Wethersfield stop, and a recorded high of 12 minutes at the two New Haven stops. 

When asked about the veracity of CLF’s idling claims, Mitun Seguin, a spokesperson for Transdev, said that both parties agreed on a settlement before factual determinations were made. Seguin said that the bus drivers may have been idling to regulate temperature for passenger safety, such as on cold mornings, which is an exemption for idling under Connecticut law. 

Under settlement conditions, Transdev must provide training for current and future operators, designate at least one Idling Enforcement Officer to monitor the YSM shuttle stop and submit semi-annual compliance reports to the CLF. If Transdev buses are found idling following the implementation of the settlement, it will be forced to make additional payments to Gather New Haven and the CCEJ. 

“The compliance measures are so important in the agreements because the idea is to try to make changes and it’s hard,” Kyzmir-McKeon told the News. 

Kyzmir-McKeon said that bus companies often blame idling on a lack of control over their drivers, but that she saw the requirements of the settlement as an opportunity to change organizational behavior.

The lawsuit against First Transit is one in a string of anti-idling lawsuits filed by the CLF. The CLF settled its first anti-idling lawsuit with Transdev in 2020 following accusations of the company idling while providing transportation for Boston Public Schools. Similar to the First Transit case, Transdev was required to pay $800,000 to local environmental non-profits. Seguin said that Transdev is in full compliance with all conditions outlined in their 2020 settlement.

Transdev will continue to operate the Yale Shuttle, but its contracts with the Connecticut Department of Transportation to run the New Haven, Hartford and Stamford buses ended last year.

The University declined to comment. 

Leigh Youngblood, interim executive director of Gather New Haven, said that the organization will use the settlement award to support their “comprehensive wellness initiatives.” These initiatives include supporting and expanding community gardens throughout New Haven, partnering with local libraries to teach community members about self-sustenance and nutrition and strengthening its entrepreneurship program that employs local high schoolers, according to Youngblood. 

“What we do every day and have done for 40 years is try to increase the health for local communities with our farms and gardens,” she told the News. “And [the settlement award] is going to help us do that.” 

In the lawsuit, the CLF said that urban agriculture, by absorbing pollutants and cutting down on produce transportation emissions, can directly improve air quality. Additionally, their portion of the settlement award, according to the lawsuit, will allow the CCEJ to enhance air monitoring in locations in Wethersfield and New Haven, as well as support curriculum and training development, community outreach and the publication of air quality findings. 

New Haven ranked fifth “asthma capital” in the nation

Exhaust pollution disproportionately affects children and the elderly. According to the lawsuit, the particulate matter in exhaust fumes can exacerbate asthma and lead to cancers, cardiovascular disease and premature death. 

The lawsuit noted that playgrounds, parks, hospitals and schools, as well as upwards of 100,000 residents, reside within two miles of the New Haven Go and YSM stops. 

In 2021, New Haven ranked fifth among the top 20 “asthma capitals” in the U.S. based on asthma rates, asthma-related emergency room visits and deaths due to asthma. According to Youngblood, the incidence of childhood asthma in New Haven — 18 percent — is double that of Connecticut statewide. 

Nationwide, racial and ethnic minorities, especially Black Americans, face disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease-related deaths caused by air pollution, according to a Yale-led study published in August.  

“It’s very obvious when you travel through the city, you can tell that the air quality changes from place to place,” Youngblood told the News. 

Weixi Wu, SPH and ENV ’23, echoed this sentiment. For her thesis on exposure to air pollutants among children in New Haven, Wu focused on air quality for children in the Dwight neighborhood, which she characterized as a lower-income neighborhood with ample traffic due to the nearby Yale New Haven Hospital and commercial businesses. Dwight is located a few blocks north of the Yale School of Medicine shuttle stop. 

With the help of children living in the Dwight neighborhood, Wu was able to compare the levels of pollutants to other cohorts that went through similar studies, such as in Springfield, Massachusetts and in South Africa. 

“We found that the Dwight cohort, the chemicals they’re exposed to are very similar to the South African kids. And they look nothing alike like other US [cohorts],” said Wu. “The reason [for South Africa’s pollutant levels] were people cooking at open fire, but obviously in New Haven and Dwight, this is not the case. I talked to my community partners in Dwight, and we think it’s mainly due to traffic.”

Dwight community members installed air quality monitors in 2021 to track traffic pollution. 

Alders from Wards 3 and 6, where the two alleged idling instances took place, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In addition to the $725,000 going toward the local environmental organizations, Transdev will pay $10,000 to the U.S. Treasury Department and more than $133,000 in legal costs.

Correction, Sept. 17: A previous version of this article’s headline did not note the settlement amount; it has been changed accordingly. 

Laura Ospina covers Yale-New Haven relations and the Latine community for the City desk. Originally from North Carolina's Research Triangle, she is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in Political Science.