Can All-Electric Buses Put a Charge into Urban Planning?

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

Take a drive 75 miles north of Los Angeles, and you’ll happen upon Lancaster, Calif. It’s a sleepy city in the Mojave Desert, home to about 160,000 people and one business that has become a big factor in the future of urban travel. Lancaster is the factory site of BYD  Motors, the first vehicle-maker from China to have headquarters in the United States. But that’s not BYD’s biggest claim to fame. Warren Buffet owns nearly 10 percent of the company, which is trying to carve out a niche in the U.S. with its electric buses.

The billionaire-backing aside, two major cities have begun to incorporate BYD’s zero-emission buses into their green planning. Los Angeles has a contract with BYD for 25 buses. And last fall, New York City completed a successful two-month trial of BYD buses.

“The general purpose of the program was to evaluate how an electric bus could perform in New York City’s heavy traffic, whether the electric bus can meet the twin challenges of operating in the stop-and-go traffic of Manhattan while maintaining high levels of passenger comfort and operational performance,” said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz.

As urban planners continue looking for ways to reduce emissions and noise pollution while also saving money, electric buses could be a quiet key in shaping the way “smart” cities develop.

“It could be a pivotal change for the department and for our environmental footprint,” Henry Sullivan, the New York’s chief maintenance officer for buses, said last fall.

One issue that cities are exploring is the cost-benefit of electric buses. The BYD ebus’s $850,000 pricetag is about twice that of a diesel bus. However, federal grants can pick up about 80 percent of the tab. Also, studies have found that in the long run, electric buses are cheaper because power is cheaper than diesel, and they require less maintenance. That is what Seattle transportation authorities found when gauging whether the city should replace its electric trolley buses — powered by 70 miles of fixed overhead wires — with hybrid buses that were 30 percent cheaper to purchase.

Seattle decided to keep its electric trolley system and will bring in a new fleet in 2015 that will run on electric wires and have batteries that allow the vehicles to run for two hours off the wire. The city is also considering all-electric non-trolley buses for other parts of the city later this decade.

“It was not just the cost side [that impacted the decision] but also the significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with the trolley buses,” says Christine O’Claire, supervisor of strategic planning and analysis for King County (Washington) Metro Transit. “These buses are powered with really clean energy. There’s reduced noise and environmental justice impacts. We felt that was very important.”

As with all-electric cars, one additional concern with e-buses is “range anxiety” — how far can they travel before needing a charge? BYD buses can go up to 24 hours and 155 miles before needing to be charged. (They take about four hours to reload.) Proterra, an American company based in South Carolina, made news when its electric bus set a record by traveling 700 miles in 24 hours during a test run. (The bus was charged periodically throughout the day, a process that takes about six minutes.) Proterra buses are contracted in eight medium-sized cities, including Nashville and San Antonio.

Look at it this way: The urban landscape is ideal for all-electric buses. There’s no need to travel long distances or reach high speeds in the city, and buses can comfortably charge at a depot overnight. Plus, they can serve as short-term generators in the event of a power outage.

Cities planners are keeping those points front of mind as they move ahead with their green initiatives, and there’s hope that electric buses will soon provide a big charge to the urban “smart” movement.

 “It’s a small beginning — a few buses,” California governor Jerry Brown said at a ceremony unveiling two BYD buses in Los Angeles last month. “But like many things, it holds promise as something very big and very important.”

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