No More Small Pilots: It’s Time to Rapidly Increase Electric Transit Buses

Just days ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sent a letter to the leaders of L.A.’s transit agency,  L.A. Metro, urging them to transition to 100 percent electric buses by 2030. Now it’s up to the leaders of L.A. Metro to decide if they will make this important commitment. Given L.A. Metro’s enormous size, approximately 2,248 transit buses, this would be a very big deal.

It would not be the only transit agency making a large commitment to electric buses. King County Metro Transit, which serves the Seattle area, announced it will be adding 120 new all-electric buses over the next three years. Antelope Valley Transit Authority, south of Los Angeles, has announced a goal of a 100 percent electric bus fleet by 2018. Philadelphia recently announced it will add at least 25 new electric buses to its transit fleet. Miami-Dade County, Florida has put out a request for proposals to bus manufacturers for 33-75 electric buses. And Foothill Transit, which runs from Los Angeles to San Bernardino County, has committed to fully electrify its bus fleet, replacing all 361 buses in its fleet with zero emission buses by 2030.

Photo Above: A zero-emission bus in Antelope Valley, CA. 
Photo Credit: Evan Gillespie

Recently, New York Governor Cuomo and the New York City transit agency, MTA, announced a three year pilot program to test a mere 10 electric buses. For the largest transit agency in the United States with more than 5,800 buses, 10 buses is barely a drop in the bucket, and three years is way too long for a pilot, especially given that MTA has run previous electric bus pilot programs. Even MTA’s own sponsored analysis by Columbia University recommended a one year pilot and a much bigger electric bus commitment. In the meantime with each year we wait, MTA continues to purchase hundreds of diesel buses that spew up to 40 toxic contaminants each.

You can do better, New York. Smaller cities all over the country have realized the benefits of zero emission buses. Surely, if Seattle can commit to 120 electric buses, Rochester, New York to five electric transit buses, and Eugene, Oregon, a city a fraction of the size of New York City, to 10 electric transit buses (the same amount as NYC’s pilot), then our nation’s largest booming urban center can do much, much better.

Transit agencies and the residents and neighborhoods they serve are learning that zero emission buses are better for air quality, quieter, and lower in fueling costs and greenhouse gas emissions. But the time for pilot programs should be in the rear-view mirror. These buses have been tested over the last several years, and dirty diesel and natural gas buses are part of the reason urban air quality is so bad and climate emissions are so high.

Low-income people and people of color are two to three times more likely to be exposed to dangerous particulate pollution that largely comes from cars and trucks. Children in low-income urban neighborhoods suffer the most -- they live their lives surrounded by soot from dirty buses at a time when their lungs are still developing.

Fortunately, clean electric bus prices have dropped roughly 25 percent in the last four years, and further price drops are expected with declining battery costs. Mileage ranges are increasing, too.  Proterra now sells buses with ranges of up to 350 miles, New Flyer now has a 208 mile range bus, and BYD has a 60’ bus with a 200 mile range. With average routes in many transit agencies fewer than 150 miles, these depot charged buses can meet the needs of many routes today.  En-route charging can take care of most of the rest. Some companies are providing long-term battery warranties, while others are allowing for battery financing. Fueling and maintenance costs of electric buses are much lower than those of diesel and CNG buses, too.

To reduce the costs of buses further, many transit agencies are applying for federal LoNo grants. Additionally, many transit agencies are working with governors to use funding from the  Volkswagen settlement that could be set aside for electric transit or school buses.

Photo Above: Sierra Club rallies for zero-emission buses at a National Drive Electric Week event last year. 
Photo Credit: Sierra Club

New York City Council Members Rafael Espinal and Stephen Levin are criticizing the MTA, including in this op-ed co-authored by Sierra Club’s Kat Fisher, for planning to bring hundreds of diesel (and non-electric) buses online as it shuts down one of the subway lines damaged by Hurricane Sandy. As Sierra Club Foundation Board member and New York City-based Oscar-nominated film-maker Darren Aronofsky said, "The MTA's decision to retreat to diesel is a depressing and an antiquated move. Hurricane Sandy, which damaged our beloved L train, was a product of human dependency on fossil fuels. Isn't it bitterly ironic that we are resorting to diesel [buses], the same poison that caused this problem in the first place? We need to pivot to the future [of electric buses] for our children's sake."

Last week, 100 New York City small businesses sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and other leaders of the MTA urging them to commit to: 1) 200 zero emission buses and hundreds of electric cars in its fleet (for MTA’s repair vehicles, etc.) to be in operation by 2019; and 2) all bus purchases by 2030 to be zero emission.

Similarly, in Massachusetts, environmental, labor, and health groups signed a letter to the state Secretary of Transportation last year urging the state and its regional transit agencies to commit in 2017 to: 1) by 2019, 100 Zero Emission Buses (ZEBs) incorporated into state transit bus fleets and 50 percent of new “non-revenue” transit fleet passenger vehicles purchased are electric; 2) by 2025, 50 percent new bus purchases are ZEBs; and 3) by 2030, 100 percent of new bus purchases are ZEBs. The six electric buses in Worcester, five committed for Boston, and three in Springfield/Holyoke are a nice start, but Massachusetts (my home state where I take the #72 MBTA bus nearly every day) needs to show its clean transportation leadership by significantly picking up the pace.

The leaders of L.A. Metro in Los Angeles should not only heed the call of the mayor from his recent letter urging a commitment to an all-electric transit bus fleet, but from community groups making the same call. While it is encouraging that LA Metro has previously committed to electrify its Orange and Silver bus lines, L.A. Metro operates the second largest bus fleet in the nation and could make a much bigger commitment. Surely, the County’s transit agency can show some compassion on its residents who suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the country. In Southern California, most of the air pollution comes from the cars, trucks, and buses that guzzle dirty oil and natural gas. In fact, Californians are more likely to die from that air pollution than from a car accident in the very vehicles that pump it out of their tailpipes.

People across California are watching closely to see what L.A. Metro does. Recently, Sierra Club, Jobs to Move America, IBEW, Environment California, Local 11, Food & Water Watch, South Bay 350, and others have been showing up at transit agency hearings to press for electric buses. The California Air Resources Board is currently drafting a statewide zero emission bus rule that may include a transition to zero emission buses by 2040. Opponents in the gas industry are working hard to weaken the rule in the hopes that agencies like L.A. Metro will stick with dirty compressed natural gas (CNG) buses for decades to come. L.A. Metro's fleet represents about 25 percent of all the buses in California. If big agencies like L.A. Metro can go electric, and small agencies like Antelope Valley Transit can do it by 2030 or sooner, so can everyone.

According to the California Air Resources Board, an electric bus emits the equivalent of 650 grams per mile of greenhouse gas pollutants compared to a whopping 3,000 from a diesel bus and 2,800 from a compressed natural gas bus. Electricity is the only transportation fuel that can be truly zero emission as we shift to clean energy. As we face increasing droughts, storms, and fires from climate change, and as the American Lung Association’s recent report tells us, nearly 40 percent of Americans live in areas with air that is unsafe to breathe, so cleaner transportation becomes more essential each passing day.

The time is now ripe to go all in on zero emission buses -with commitments that move us toward 100 percent electric. If San Bernardino County, California; Seattle, Washington; and Eugene, Oregon can do it, then so can New York, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and every small and large transit agency in between.

Sierra Club intern Maggie Newsham contributed to this article.


Up Next

Próximo Artículo