Tuesday, April 2, 2013

EV buses, not cars, will be the real urban revolution

For the past two, maybe three decades, the arrival and widespread adoption of the electric vehicle (EV) has been seen as some kind holy grail for transportation, cities, and well, the world. The benefits are obvious; the replacement of gasoline with electricity would mean a massive decrease in pollution, from global-warming causing carbon dioxide to those pesky particulates which make their way into lungs.

Sadly, the development and adoption has been excruciatingly slow. The EV-lite, also known as the hybrid, hit the roads well over a decade ago (the Prius is turning 15!). The two major mainstream EV's, the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, have been rolling around for over two years with anemic sales. And that's without even mentioning the false starts, like the electric Toyota of a decade ago. Even though the technology exists, is somewhat affordable, and is no longer new, the sales aren't there. Today, in the US, hybrids and EVs combined together make up a tiny 3% of monthly sales. The most optimistic projections? 8% of new cars sold by 2020 (LAtimes)

And again, that's hybrids and EVs combined - and new sales only. The existing fleet has an even smaller market percentage,

As important as the widespread adoption of the EV will be to improving the way we live, thanks to cleaner air, I believe the real revolution will come with the widespread use of the electric bus.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking along a street, when an articulated bus roared by. And by roared, I mean the one bus was creating the noise of an army rushing to the battlefront, with full aerial support. You see, the bus had hit a minor hill, and the engine revved up to push the vehicle up the gentle slope.

The noise was an assault on me, the pedestrian, and to those poor souls whose apartments had their windows shaken by the bus. And yet, this assault is repeated over and over again, in cities around the world as the trusty transit bus delivers happy commuters to their destinations.

The electric vehicle doesn't just promise to rid cities of dirty exhaust and carbon pollution, but it brings with it a very special benefit that will greatly enhance livability - quiet.

Today, both diesel and CNG engines have the unpleasant side-effect of being very, very noisy. The biggest problem with the side-effect is that it makes living near transit unattractive.

When moving to a new town, the average person is more likely to ask which street the buses run, not so they can pick a prime location closest to a stop, but to search elsewhere to avoid the constant roar of the engines. Today, bus routes can be a major nuisance, preventing sleep and waking up babies, rather than an essential amenity,

Of course, as one seeks to move away from the bus route to avoid the noise, one is less likely to use it. Out of sight, out of mind after all.

But with electric buses? Near silence. Noise wouldn't be completely eliminated, as the friction from the tires is still audible, but that kind of noise disappears in the background and is easily blocked by windows.

Suddenly, living on a bus route wouldn't be something to avoid, it would be something to value.

Ask most people if they would prefer to live by a streetcar or a bus line, and the majority will answer streetcar. Ask them why, and you'll start to see the reasons have less to do with the types of tires (steel vs rubber) but mostly related to where the power comes from. That is, to the average person, the streetcar is electric (even though not all are), and the bus is fossil-fueled (even though electric trolley-buses have been around for decades).

Streetcars " glide" because electric power provides silky smooth acceleration. Buses "belch" because of the ugly diesel engines. At the end of the day, people want to live near the electric line, not the diesel line.

As all buses move to EV technology, I think you'll see the stigma around the bus change, and with it, the use of transit will rise as the vehicle becomes more attractive.

Electric buses, both powered by wire and battery already exist. On the battery side of things, the cost, reliability and efficiency isn't quite there yet for most transit agencies to take the plunge. The government has spent millions working to improve EV technology, but wouldn't it be better to focus on the short term on EV buses? Especially considering that one of the biggest barriers to batteries in cars is space (no one wants to sacrifice their trunk) - obviously not an issue with the city bus.

Cleaner air, quieter streets, and more transit riders. That's quite the package, and I think, quite the revolution.


  1. Electric buses have already been around for 100 years or so, in the form of trolleybuses. Newer models have limited off-wire capability thanks to modern battery technology, and there are also dual-mode buses that can run on diesel or overhead power. Trolleybuses also last longer than diesels, thanks to not having the vibration of the diesel engine shaking the bus apart, and require less maintenance, even if you take into account maintenance of the overhead wire system. And like any electric vehicle, they have far better acceleration, especially at low speeds.
    But they're not not very widespread in the US, and the obvious question is why not? I suspect part of it is that historically, gas has been very cheap compared to electricity. Another part is that a trolleybus network requires a significant investment in infrastructure and upkeep, and that's a tough sell for a declining system, as was the case for most of te US for the 1950s-80s. Finally, because there aren't very many trolleybus systems, the buses themselves are expensive, because there aren't as many economies of scale.
    So what can the federal government do? Well, instead of throwing subsidies at fuel cells and EVs and technologies of the future, they can subsidize any city that wants to wire its bus network and buy trolleybuses.

    1. In many places, people are simply against the wires. Its not logical because ugly traffic signals are ok...

  2. The thing is, once asphalt starts becoming expensive (...and it will), it starts being cheaper to run streetcars/interurbans rather than electric buses.

    I have nothing against trolleybuses and battery buses are great too. But once the economics start tilting towards them, the economics will *also* be tilting towards rail and away from roads. Streetcars last longer than trolleybuses, *and* the track lasts longer than the roads; roads are popular because asphalt is cheap.

    I expect a lot of rural areas to revert to dirt roads, or at least gravel. Urban areas might return to brick.

    1. I agree that gravel will make a comeback