Cities across the United States have set mandates for electric buses. Now they must figure out how to meet those mandates.

Meeting mandates with action
October 2019

City governments, one after the other, are mandating their transit agencies phase out diesel and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses in favor of zero-emission electric buses. The federal government may soon dramatically increase support to accelerate that transformation. But critical questions remain: Can city planners effectively manage the transformation? And can transit agencies build the infrastructure to support zero-emission buses?

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has mandated that all their buses be electronic powered by 2030. Indianapolis the same by 2032. New York and Chicago by 2040.

Now comes reality. Cities that have pledged provide zero-emission bus service are now grappling with the cost of supporting electric buses and the risk that electric buses might not work.

Here’s a set of best practices we think cities and transit agencies can employ to meet these ambitious goals:

Do your research. Manufacturers of battery-powered buses might advertise that their buses can operate for 250 miles on a single charge … and they could be right, if the bus is going in a straight line without stopping.

It’s critical for transit agencies to map out routes, identify hills that could squeeze electric batteries, and understand how electric buses can be challenged during the cold winter months, and plan accordingly.

Research will guide the required supporting infrastructure needed to sustain battery-powered buses. To keep even one battery-powered bus in service, an entire system of charging stations and support personnel will be needed. What precisely will that infrastructure look like?

Transit agencies will also need to identify sources of power and identify the life cycle of the battery. The typical appreciated value of a bus is about 12 years; will batteries see the end of that life cycle?

Have clear performance indicators. Transit agencies need to understand how to monitor their battery-powered buses, including service miles and operating costs, and observe if the buses are performing as expected.

The Massachusetts Transportation Authority recently launched a pilot program, purchasing five electric buses with five overnight charging stations, to first measure how the buses will consume power and perform in extreme conditions before purchasing additional procurements.

Battery-powered buses provide transit agencies with critical cost savings in fuel and maintenance – they do not require oil changes and they have fewer parts to maintain – but up-front costs, including the cost of supporting infrastructure and of the bus itself, remain well above that of diesel and CNG bus service. The price tag for an electric bus is significantly is as much as $200,000 more than natural gas buses.

How quickly can battery-powered buses recoup the additional up-front costs through avoided costs? A single bus can burn as much as $35,000 a month in diesel fuel. If battery-powered buses can avoid these reoccurring costs, how quickly can they become cost effective?

Know your funding streams. The Federal Transit Administration has provided tens of millions of grant dollars for transit agencies to purchase low- or no-emissions buses and supportive infrastructure, including charging stations. The program was authorized by Congress in 2015 and funded through 2020.

If federal support goes away, what then? Have an answer. Funding programs change across administrations. If you’re planning to 2030, expect some of that will be grants, but that transit agencies might need to raise fees and taxes.

Then think deeper. How do funding streams integrate into your retirement plans? Can raise additional revenue by selling legacy buses in secondary market (to college campuses or amusement parks, for example)?

Understand your infrastructure limitations. Simply buying buses without the supporting infrastructure is risky. Transit agencies need to work with local utility providers ahead of time to understand their capabilities and avoid overcharging the power grid. You also need to completely understand the costs associated with building additional infrastructure.

Transit agencies may be required to add capacity to infrastructure to sustain battery-powered buses. The City of Philadelphia learned after buying 25 additional electronic buses that they did not yet have the charging infrastructure to charge the new buses. They then were left with two pricey options: acquire downtown real estate to build new charging stations or spend more than $1 million to upgrade the electrical capacity of the city bus depot. (They chose the latter.)

The problems can be amplified for cities in extreme climates and terrain.

Cities in Switzerland have even gone as far as adding trolley wires along routes to aid electric buses getting up mountains.

Efforts to integrate electric buses into fleets have stalled because of insufficient charging infrastructure.

Start small. Purchase five to ten electric buses, no more, and learn from pilot routes.

Transit agencies will want to avoid the experiences of city officials in Albuquerque, N.M., who recently returned 15 60-foot buses they had purchased from BYD after finding that buses could travel only 177 miles on a single charge, nearly 100 miles short of what had been promised. The city had paid more than $1.2 million for each bus.

Don’t forget disaster planning. The service geography in extreme climates will have much different demands on the bus than in more temperate environments. A transit agency planning for a battery-powered bus in Aspen, Colo., won’t have the same requirements that one in the plains of Iowa might have.

Think forward. Even as electric buses gain adoption, there’s the new frontier emerging in urban transportation: hydrogen fuel-cell buses, powered by the fusion of hydrogen from the fuel tank with oxygen from the air. The technology is not new – New Flyer piloted the technology more than 25 years ago – but the costs are only now appearing to approach price parity with electric buses, raising the possibility of simply skipping electric batteries in favor of fuel cells.

In 2016, then-Hyundai CEO Dave Zuchowski admitted that their own investment in electric buses was only “an intermediate step before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles take hold in the coming decades.”

New Flyer’s XCelsior fuel cell bus, introduced in 2019, can be refueled in as little as six minutes and can travel up to 300 miles without refueling

Already fuel cell buses have been deployed in Orange County, Calif., and Stark County, Ohio, (south of Cleveland) which has operated with fuel cell buses since 2016. Their bus fleet now includes at least 13 fuel cell buses, with more on order.

Caution is required. Producing hydrogen fuel – through reforming natural gas or by splitting hydrogen from water, to name two methods – requires an external power source, which if not renewable, would offset the carbon emissions saved by transitioning from a combustion engine to a fuel cell.

And production costs are anything but constant. If a transit agency is going to rely on renewable-produced hydrogen – hydrogen produced with wind or solar energy – production costs will vary widely based on peak demand and supply coming into the grid (if the wind is or is not blowing, for example), and will remain reliant on federal tax incentives.

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