Two empty dump trucks drive northbound on Pulaski while a school bus drives south. A pedestrian can be seen walking south on Pulaski Rd. The 31st St. street sign is visible.
Diesel-powered vehicles are constantly traveling through Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Credit: Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

On June 7, 2023, exactly 2,206 large trucks and buses passed through the intersection of Kedzie Avenue and 31st Street in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

That’s an average of 1.5 heavy-duty vehicles per minute — much more in the morning and afternoon — rumbling through this crossroads in a dense, residential neighborhood near multiple parks and schools.

The numbers are the results of a groundbreaking truck counting program carried out by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which is using the information to bolster its demands for electric trucks and an end to development that burdens communities of color with diesel pollution.

The Chicago Truck Data Project, carried out by LVEJO along with the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Fish Transportation Group, used cameras and software to systematically measure the number and types of vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians for 24-hour periods at 35 intersections around the city. The project website launched this spring, and organizers hope to continue compiling, analyzing and modeling truck counts, as well as helping allies carry out similar work in other cities.

“This is the power of community science,” said José Miguel Acosta Córdova, LVEJO transportation justice program manager. “We’ve had to collect this data, when this is data the city should have been doing.”

The highest concentration of truck traffic was just south of Little Village in the Archer Heights neighborhood, where 5,159 trucks and buses passed in a day. A few miles east in the heavily residential McKinley Park neighborhood, in a single day over 4,000 trucks and buses passed, along with more than 800 pedestrians.

“It paints a picture of pedestrian proximity to truck traffic, which is an air pollution concern, and a safety concern,” said Paulina Vaca, urban resilience advocate with the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Long-standing demands

In years past, LVEJO members had conducted grassroots manual truck counts — standing on corners to log the frequency of pollution-spewing traffic.

“Unfortunately we weren’t taken seriously by the Department of Planning,” said Vaca. “With [the Chicago Truck Data Project] we wanted to be more systematic with the research. This is hard evidence, hard proof. We wanted community advocates to be able to wield these numbers for organizing efforts, tying them to state-level policies.”

Electrifying trucks is a primary way to reduce truck emissions, protecting public health while reducing carbon emissions, especially as increasing amounts of electricity come from renewables.

LVEJO and other groups have for years been calling on Illinois to adopt California’s standards on clean trucks and zero-emissions vehicles. Only 11 states — none of them in the Midwest — have adopted California’s Advanced Clean Trucks standard, according to analysis by the Alternative Fuels Data Center. The standard requires manufacturers to sell an increasing percentage of zero-emissions trucks through 2035, and includes reporting requirements for large fleets. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia have adopted California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle standards, which create similar requirements for cars and light trucks. Minnesota is the only Midwestern state to adopt those standards.

A 2022 study by the American Lung Association estimates that if truck fleets electrify by 2050, the cumulative benefits could include $735 billion in public health benefits, 66,800 fewer deaths, 1.75 million fewer asthma attacks and 8.5 million fewer lost workdays. The Chicago area would be among the top 10 metro areas — and the only Midwestern one — that would see the most health benefits from truck electrification, the report found.

A winding road

The U.S. EPA reports that heavy duty trucks contribute more than 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector nationwide, though they make up only about 5% of traffic nationally. While greenhouse gases don’t have localized health impacts, such emissions from diesel vehicles come in tandem with particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and other compounds that hurt nearby residents most.

In Illinois, trucks are responsible for 67% of nitrogen oxide pollution, 59% of fine particulate pollution, and 36% of the greenhouse gas emissions from on-road vehicles despite making up only 7% of those vehicles, according to a 2022 study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Cleaning up truck emissions has long been a focus of advocates and policymakers, but progress has been slow.

An August 2021 executive order from President Joe Biden said that, “America must lead the world on clean and efficient cars and trucks,” and called for a rulemaking process for heavy-duty trucks under the Clean Air Act.

In December 2022 the EPA released a new rule regarding nitrogen oxides and other emissions from heavy-duty trucks starting with model year 2027, but environmental justice advocates blasted the rule as not protective enough.

In April 2023, the EPA launched a rulemaking to strengthen curbs on greenhouse gas emissions for heavy-duty trucks manufactured between 2027 and 2032. That led to a final “phase 3” rule governing truck greenhouse gas emissions, published in April 2024 and taking effect June 21.

The final phase 3 rule is billed by the EPA as more protective than the previous rule, but includes a slower phase-in of standards than an earlier phase 3 proposal backed by environmental justice advocates.

Union of Concerned Scientists senior vehicles analyst Dave Cooke wrote in a recent blog post that the phase 3 regulations mean up to 623,000 new electric trucks might hit the road between 2027 and 2032, “with zero-emission trucks making up over one third of all new truck sales by 2032.”

“But that number is highly dependent on manufacturer compliance strategy and complementary policies,” Cooke continued, “and the path to a zero-emission freight sector remains uncertain.”

Cooke fears that electric heavy-duty trucks will be sold primarily in states that have adopted California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule, leaving fewer available for other states.

“The rule risks having communities of haves (in ACT states) and have-nots (in the remainder of the country),” wrote Cooke, “precisely the sort of situation a federal rule is supposed to ward against.”

A national EJ issue

Reducing heavy-duty truck emissions has long been a focus for Clean Air for the Long Haul, a national coalition of environmental justice groups including the Wisconsin Green Muslims, South Bronx Unite, the Green Door Initiative in Detroit, WE-ACT for Environmental Justice and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

Wisconsin Green Muslims has organized several in-person and virtual events for community members to talk with state and local officials about truck emissions.

Huda Alkaff, co-founder of the organization, noted that their office is on Fond du Lac Avenue, a major thoroughfare plied by truck traffic. Alkaff described the fight for clean air in a blog during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, writing that people can fast from food and even water for limited times but cannot abstain from breathing air.

Alkaff said local leaders would like to do mobile air monitoring and truck counting, similar to LVEJO.

“Learning from each other, that’s our power,” she said.

In Milwaukee residential areas bisected by highway-type roads like Fond du Lac and Capitol Drive, meanwhile, air pollution is compounded by the safety risks posed by trucks.

“Let’s look at the routes, let’s look at the timing, the types of things that might be able to happen with minimum disruption,” she said.

She noted that residents don’t want to endanger the livelihood of truckers who can’t afford to invest in new equipment. But she’s hopeful the transition can be facilitated by federal funding, like recently announced EPA grants of $932 million for clean heavy-duty vehicles for government agencies, tribes and school districts.

Bridges, warehouses and railyards

In Detroit, construction of a new international bridge to Canada is expected to increase the heavy diesel burden on local residents already affected by trucks crossing the international Ambassador Bridge, as well as heavy industry.

“We have a huge issue with maternal health outcomes because Black moms are living near freeways and mobile sources [of pollution],” said Donele Wilkins, CEO of the Green Door Initiative and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “Birth outcomes are huge issues, asthma, issues with heart disease are elevated in ways they should not be because of exposure to mobile sources.”

The under-construction Gordie Howe International Bridge is aimed specifically at commercial truck traffic, and unlike the Ambassador, it will allow hazardous materials. The new bridge culminates in the Delray neighborhood, a heavily industrial enclave that has a much higher Latino population — 77% — than the city as a whole.

In Detroit, Chicago and other cities, warehouses are a major and growing source of diesel emissions from trucks. A 2023 investigation involving manual truck counts by Bridge Detroit and Outlier Media found that one truck per minute passes homes near an auto warehouse on Detroit’s East Side.

An Environmental Defense Fund study found that in Illinois, 1.9 million people live within half a mile of a warehouse, and Latino people make up 33% of such warehouse neighbors, while they make up only 17% of the total state population. Black people are also disproportionately represented among warehouse neighbors, while white people are underrepresented.

Little Village gained national attention with the closure of a coal plant in 2012, and city officials worked with community members on a stakeholder process to envision alternate uses for the site. Residents envisioned a community commercial kitchen, indoor sustainable agriculture and renewable energy-related light manufacturing as possible new identities.

Many were furious when the site became a Target warehouse, a magnet for truck traffic. LVEJO is now working with elected officials on drafting city and state legislation that would regulate and limit new warehouse development, even as new warehouses are proposed in the area, including a controversial 15-acre plan on Little Village’s northern border.

LVEJO’s Acosta notes that environmental justice is “not only about electrification but land-use reform.”

“The reason why all these facilities are concentrated where they are is because of zoning, historically racist practices,” said Acosta, who is pursuing a doctorate in geography and GIS mapping at the University of Illinois. “We want to completely reform the way we do land-use planning and industrial planning, not forcing our communities to coexist with trucks every day. It’s also thinking about pedestrian and bicyclist access and safety, mobility justice.”

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.