By on December 13, 2017

new flyer xcelsior-charge bus

Despite a surplus of cities seeking ways to reduce air pollution, electric buses haven’t taken off in the United States as expected. While analysts still anticipate a sudden surge in electrification in the years to come, present-day transit authorities have continued opting for dirty diesels as the primary method of moving urbanites around town.

The primary hurdles are infrastructure and cost. Whereas subway tunnels come with equipped with a third-rail ready to deliver the voltage necessary for mass transit, above-ground applications abandoned wire networks the second the trolley fell out of fashion. Electric buses don’t need either, but they do require reliable charging infrastructure and a larger-than-average initial investment. 

According to Reuters, a typical 40-foot e-bus costs around $750,000, compared to roughly $435,000 for a diesel-powered model of a similar size. While cities may recoup that expense via maintenance and fuel costs, they still have to spend additional capital to supply an electrified fleet with a reliable charging network.

That’s a tall order for congested cities with limited space at the depot. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is often faulted for being slow, unreliable, and disorganized. Subway delays are not uncommon and bus ridership has declined over the last few years. But when forced to counter rail lines entering into extended maintenance periods, it still opts for a diesel-based solution. In fact, the MTA only started a pilot program to test 10 electric buses in April of this year. Meanwhile, it’s planning to deploy 200 diesel buses to cope with the shutdown of the L Train in 2019.

An analysis by Reuters showed that, out of the more than 65,000 public buses currently on U.S. roads, only about 300 are electric. “People worry about being an early adopter. Remember 20 years ago someone paid $20,000 for a plasma TV and then 10 years later it was $900 at Best Buy,” explained Chris Stoddart, senior vice president of engineering and customer service for New Flyer. “People just don’t want a science project.”

A lot of transit agencies are also concerned that EV performance isn’t predictable enough in bad weather or in extreme circumstances. San Francisco held off on electrified buses specifically because city officials worry about the area’s exceptionally steep hills. “The technology isn’t quite there yet,” said Erica Kato, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

In Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority in Springfield and Worcester’s Regional Transit Authority have both ditched plans to purchase additional EVs after a test fleet performed poorly in extreme cold. Phoenix, Arizona, also found electric busses ill-suited for extreme conditions. The Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority reported one bus never achieved more than 89.9 miles on a full charge — less than two-thirds of its advertised range. It attributed the lackluster performance to running the the vehicle’s air conditioning in exceptionally warm weather.

Another serious concern is reduced government funding. Federal dough for bus buying is about 25 percent lower than it was just five years ago, according to Rob Healy, vice president of government affairs for the American Public Transportation Association.

However, EV technologies are improving as the cost of manufacturing high-yield batteries shrinks. That, combined with green initiatives, leaves plenty of market analysts believing electric fleets will surge in the years to come. Navigant Research expects electric units to make up 27 percent of new bus sales by 2027 while CALSTART, a California-based nonprofit promoting “clean” transportation, estimates 50 to 60 percent of new all buses will be zero emission compliant by 2030.

[Image: New Flyer]

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26 Comments on “Transit Authorities Tepid On Electric Buses Despite Promising Tech...”

  • avatar

    Change is good. You go first.

    • 0 avatar

      Agree. But why not do a stopgap: hybrid bases. Best of both worlds

      • 0 avatar

        We have some hybrid buses. But it was just a greenwashing exercise. They weren’t economically feasible at the time of purchase.

        I’m surprised electric buses wouldn’t be ideally suited to a hilly environment. Anything they lose going up they should make up on regen. Unless the regen is too weak and it has to rely mostly on brakes.

        • 0 avatar

          Because they still have to stop while going up and down. So they are making relatively short runs and aren’t generating a lot on the down hill. The other thing to think about is the fact that it takes more energy to get the bus rolling as compared to keep g it rolling, so frequent stops deplete the battery a lot faster compared to fewer stops with longer runs.

          • 0 avatar


            “Because they still have to stop while going up and down. So they are making relatively short runs and aren’t generating a lot on the down hill. The other thing to think about is the fact that it takes more energy to get the bus rolling as compared to keep g it rolling, so frequent stops deplete the battery a lot faster compared to fewer stops with longer runs.”

            Energy is recaptured while descending AND braking. Energy needed to get up to speed is regenerated when the bus eventually has to “brake”.

            The recapture is not 100% though. There are conversion losses and some use of the mechanical brakes. Stops and hills hurt hybrid mileage a little. But non-hybrids (and non-electrics) waste 100% while braking and descending.

            This same effect applies for loading. The weight of cargo or passengers hurts hybrid and ev mileage only a little, while they hurt pure-ICE powertrain mileage a lot.

          • 0 avatar

            So although hills and stops hurt hybrid and ev mileage, their advantage over ICE-only vehicles increases as the routes get hillier and have more stops.

      • 0 avatar

        Diesel-electric hybrid buses are great. The application really shows off the benefits of hybrid technology. Smooth, quick, cheap to maintain, and efficient.

        But battery-electric is the future, once ranges go up and prices go down a bit.

      • 0 avatar

        my city has some Gillig low-floor hybrids. I use them a few times a week and they are kinda nice. Unlike a car, the engine is always on, but its usually in a very low rev range. Its a quiet and smooth ride, and they’re quiet on the street too because they don’t have the engine roar on acceleration like an internal combustion-only bus would have.

      • 0 avatar

        Our hybrid fleet is maintenance-intensive and for the additional purchase price, does not provide an adequate ROI. Fuel savings are less than advertised. Hybrids work better in extremely dense urban environments. Our property is largely suburban, and for those purposes, diesel works better. Since the initial purchase of hybrids several years ago, our property has opted not to go further with hybrids. The future is electric, and as mentioned by the Flyer rep in the copy above, no one wants to be the early adopter. Once the technology is proven to be a viable alternative to a conventional diesel powertrain, transits will respond in kind.

  • avatar

    Commercial vehicles (where they really track cost per mile) will really determine when the economics of pure electric are solid. In transit, nearly half the buses already are running on CNG, biodiesel, or are diesel electric hybrids.

  • avatar
    George B

    Buses using compressed natural gas are considerably cleaner than diesel buses with no need for particulate filters and urea injection and they’re probably much less expensive than electric buses. Dallas Area Rapid Transit has a whole fleet of them.

    • 0 avatar

      CNG buses have a couple of operational issues.

      The first is that CNG is very space-inefficient, and bus-top tanks can only carry enough CNG for about 200 miles of range. That isn’t enough for a full day of service on many routes in typical systems. The max range my local system needs on any assignment is about 400 miles.

      The second is that existing CNG engines are low-budget conversions of diesel engines and, as a result, are ill-suited to CNG and have poor drivability characteristics. That’s not a problem with CNG per se, but with the small market for CNG-powered vehicles.

      • 0 avatar

        Phoenix, Vegas, NYC, Dallas, Seattle and New Orleans to name a few, use CNG busses, and it has seems to work well for them.

      • 0 avatar

        You recently said e-buses were the future, but the article said the longest range an e-bus achieved in testing was 89.9 miles. That’s the longest; not the mean or the mode. CNG’s 200 miles doesn’t seem so bad in context, and I’ve certainly seen CNGs in service. I used to see e-buses with trolley poles too, but somehow the e-buses’ enduring appeal has been in the future for over a hundred years.

    • 0 avatar

      I was going to mention the DART CNG buses; thanks for posting the fact sheet. CNG may not be the ideal solution, but they’re making it work. The buses and engines are designed to run CNG from the start, rather than being conversions.

  • avatar

    If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

    There isn’t anything wrong with either diesel or CNG busses. The funny thing is, these are the same problems consumers are facing with their own electric vehicles. Hybrids make more sense than all electric when it comes to large vehicles like busses and semi’s.

    • 0 avatar

      The diesels can be pretty terrible if you end up behind one while cycling. Maybe those are just older ones though.

    • 0 avatar

      So long as you dismiss climate warming.

    • 0 avatar
      Guitar man

      They produce a lot of source pollution, which is relevant to mega-cities like Paris and London where smog levels are beginning to get back up to the levels of the 1960s before emission controls were introduced.

      I don’t understand why trolley buses are not considered. Yes, a power line is fairly expensive but a four lane arterial road is anyway and the buses only go on a set route anyway.

  • avatar

    My local agency has 3 operational BEV buses, of a fleet of about 1300, with 8 more on the way. They are currently used on one route, a short suburban loop route. They have been good in that application, but don’t have the range to run most of the routes in the network.

    Nevertheless, the agency is plowing forward in the short term with another order of about 100 buses, for use on specific routes where they will work. They plan to order more as the technology gets more feasible. The buses are very popular politically because they are quiet and don’t smoke.

    The agency also has a fleet of 174 electric trolley buses that use overhead wire, all deployed on low-speed central city routes. The trolleybus technology works well on those routes and isn’t going anywhere soon; the agency just finished taking delivery of a complete brand-new trolleybus fleet this year.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The Prague CZ tram system has this figured out already. It’s pretty nice.

  • avatar

    Warren Buffett has 10% of BYD, the Chinese EV bus maker that is the world’s largest. In keeping with my observation that whatever the 0.01% richest want they get, cities will soon be buying E-buses whether they want them or not. Some excuse or other will be dreamed up and will suffice for government. Warren also has a hand in selling you Heinz Ketchup and Kraft Dinner, and his Brazilian business pals at 3 G Capital who are also involved, brew half the world’s watery beer including Bud, and the revolting coffee that is Canada’s favorite brew – no guesses which. You/we proles may think you/we rule the roost, but unless you’ve got a minimum $5 billion stashed away offshore, you couldn’t influence the way the rich run the world to their own advantage if you tried,

  • avatar

    Yep SoCal (Greater L.A.) Metro buses are CNG. I was happy to see the diesels phased out with their clouds of soot. IMHO the CNG ones are quieter along with reduced stench and particulates.
    Of course that did not stop the Directors at Metro from squandering money to get where they are. There were failed experiments with flywheel energy buses and some with aluminum frames. The flywheel buses often were without forward motion long short of claimed endurance and had to be towed back to the yard. The ‘lighter weight’ aluminum ones had the frames sag and crack. I remember seeing them in the yard with the rear bumper almost touching the pavement. IIRC these were all scrapped at a big loss.

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