Transit Authorities Tepid On Electric Buses Despite Promising Tech

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
transit authorities tepid on electric buses despite promising tech

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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  • Conundrum Conundrum on Dec 13, 2017

    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,

  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Dec 14, 2017

    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.

  • Tassos Before you rush to buy this heap of rusty metal, maybe you should wait a day or two.I hear Tim will have an Model T next time.
  • Redapple2 I d just buy one already sorted. Too many high level skills (wiring, paint, body panel fitment et. al.) that i dont have. And I dont fancy working 100 s of hours for $3 /hour.
  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)