Why U.S. Cities Aren’t Using More Electric Buses. Also Re-engineering the city around the bicycle

Two reports from the World Resource Institute look at the biggest barriers to electrifying the global bus fleet—and how cities can overcome them  LINDA POON, CityLab, JUN 27, 2019

There were about 425,000 electric buses in service in the world’s cities last year. Almost all—99 percent of them—were in China. The booming industrial city of Shenzhen, in particular, is one of only a few cities to have fully electrified its fleet. The rest of the globe, meanwhile, is racing to catch up, and falling further behind.


A new short film reveals how the Dutch city reengineered itself around the bicycle, with life- and money-saving results. SHARE

When you think of the world’s most bike-friendly cities, Amsterdam and Copenhagen probably come to mind first. But another contender has edged into the top tier: Utrecht, the fourth-largest and fastest-growing city in the Netherlands, where average daily bike trips number 125,000.

A new short film from the transit-oriented documentary-makers at Streetfilms reveals how this city of 330,000 turned into a cyclist’s paradise. As in Nijmegen—star of yet another recent Streetfilms project—it’s all about the infrastructure. Specialized roads and parking facilities gives bike riders the upper hand over cars, which make up less than 15 percent of trips into city center. Some 60 percent happen in the saddle.

For example, a new, state-of-the-art bike parking garage beneath the Utrecht Centraal train station is about to double its available spaces to 12,000, after the first 6,000 were absorbed in less than two years. Cyclists can cruise from the street down a ramp and into their spots (just like in a downtown garage for conventional vehicles), and from there, walk onto a rail platform.

Elsewhere downtown, streets once meant for cars have been redesigned to prioritize bikes. A canal that was buried by a highway in the 1970s is now returning to its original form, with greenery, pedestrian pathways, and cycle tracks declaring Utrecht’s modern priorities. “You really have the idea that people are the boss of the city, not the machines,” Lott van Hooijdonk, the city’s vice mayor, says in the film.The savings from reduced air pollution and healthcare costs are estimated to be worth about $300 million annually.

The Dafne Schippersbrug, an extraordinary multi-use bridge-path that uses the roof of an elementary school as its foundation, is further evidence of how utterly normalized cycling has become. “These things are pipe dreams in most other parts of the world,” says one unnamed neighbor.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the cities of the Netherlands were nearly as auto-friendly as much any other wealthy European country. But in the 1970s, the rising number of children killed in traffic sparked a wave of activism and protests, which brought attention to the folly of streets designed for cars. Rising gas prices and the environmental movement helped bolster national policies to reorient urban centers towards walking, cycling, and transit.

Today, 98 percent of Utrecht households own at least one bike, according to the film; half own three or more. Nationally, bikes now outnumber people. “All politicians now take cycling seriously,” Mark Wagenbuur, a Dutch bike activist and blogger, told the New York Times in 2017.


What does it cost? According to the Times, the city spends an average of $55 million annually to build and improve bike facilities. Cyclists complain that bike parking is still hard to come by downtown, and some Dutch drivers are frustrated by their relative disadvantage in urban centers. And not all neighborhoods are equally well-served by these amazing bike amenities.

But the costs of building and maintaining Utrecht’s enormous bike-based mobility network—which the city aims to double by 2030, according to Wired—have brought on much-larger windfall of social benefits, according to the local government. The savings from reduced air pollution and healthcare costs are estimated to be worth about $300 million annually.

The savings don’t stop there: The number of cyclists and pedestrians killed in traffic has plummeted in recent years. As Van Hooijdonk told the New York Times: “Cycling is like a piece of magic: It only has advantages.”

It’s not the lack of ambition that’s stopping them: With the goal of curbing carbon emissions in mind, municipal leaders all over have pledged to partially, if not fully, replace their city’s fleet with e-buses over the next decades. A number of cities, from large metropolises like Mexico City to more modest ones like Philadelphia, have started pilot tests.

What prevents cities from adopting electric buses en masse is a mix of technological, financial, and institutional challenges, according to a pair of reports from the World Resource Institute looking at efforts in 16 cities at various stages of adopting e-buses. That first report focuses on three major types of barriers, while the second highlights how to overcome them.

The cities studied range from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia—where there’s been “no substantial planning” around electric buses—to cities like Philadelphia and Campinas, Brazil, which, respectively, are running a pilot test and expanding its number of e-buses, to successful cases in Shenzhen and the nearby Zhengzhou. They vary geographically, with some in developed nations like Chile and Spain, and other in emerging countries like India.“Understanding that electric vehicles are about more than just vehicles is one of the hardest barriers.”

The biggest takeaway is the cities that want to hop aboard the e-bus revolution need to completely rewire their thinking about electricity and vehicles. “Understanding that electric vehicles are about more than just vehicles is one of the hardest barriers for people to cross over, in both the energy and transportation sectors,” says Camron Gorguinpour, one of the lead authors of the twin reports. “It’s hard on people who have gone through their whole careers thinking that vehicles and electrical systems are [separate] to now internalize that these things are one in the same.”

That means when cities consider adopting electric buses, they need to understand the power grid upgrades and charging infrastructure required, and challenges associated with that. Failure to do so is the most common mistake, according to Gorguinpour. Many cities just set up their charging stations thinking that things would “work themselves out.”

That’s why he says one of the most overlooked stories from Shenzhen’s experience is the city’s long process in setting up the charging infrastructure to support more than 16,000 electric buses. Each bus has a range of about 124 miles on a single charge of 252 kilowatt hours (KWh). In total, the fleet can eat more than 4,000 megawatt-hours (MWh). For comparison’s sake, 1 MWh is enough to power about 300 homes for an hour. “That’s an insane amount of power required, not to mention real estate,” he says. “And the process to identify what land is available, then to work with the utilities—even just figuring out the optimal location—is a hugely important task, and incredibly challenging.”

That’s what Philadelphia discovered when it decided to expand its existing fleet of e-buses with newer models—ones that featured bigger batteries. The city failed to recognize in the early planning process that it would be prohibitively expensive to acquire land in its busy downtown area for charging stations along the bus routes. So they decided to install all the charging infrastructure in the bus depots.

“They made that decision without realizing that [it would cost] $1.5 million to upgrade the electrical system in that one location to install a substation that can power 20 vehicles,” Gorguinpour says. “These things can get out of control real fast.”

That gets into the financial barriers. Cities across the globe often cited higher expenses as the primary challenge to procuring a fleet. While cities that adopt e-buses do end up saving money over the longer term in things like fuel (not to mention the harder-to-quantify value of cleaner air and fewer greenhouse emission), the upfront costs represent significant challenges. In the case studies, the price of a new e-bus ranged between $300,000 and $900,000 per bus, with the report noting that the prices vary dramatically depending on the manufacturer, specifications, and the location of the transit agency. In the U.S., an electric bus averages around $750,000, while a conventional diesel bus is around $435,000.

When cities decide to implement electric buses, Gorguinpour says the cities too focus too much on those upfront costs and not enough on the “life cycle cost.” That could mean delaying the the adoption process altogether or funding small pilot tests—sometimes  with just a handful of buses—without a larger plan to scale up. “We encourage cities to do whatever they can afford,” he says. “But if you’re going to get five electric buses in your city, you should work with a group of stakeholders to come up with a strategy, to say, ‘How am I going to learn enough from these five buses to construct a plan to get me to 500 or to thousands of buses?’”

Or, in the case of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, to get operators on board with full adoption. The city and its bus operators are locked into a long-term contract that provides no requirements or incentives for operators to replace its diesel-bus stock. After the city ran a pilot program without any involvement from the operators—in hopes of showcasing the technology—the report notes that “to date, no operators have expressed interest in investing in what is seen as an expensive and risky endeavor.”

That cautionary tale illustrates the importance of bring all potential stakeholders together before making any decisions—something that WRI’s second report, which offers a roadmap to adopting electric buses, strongly emphasizes. That includes not only transit officials, but also utility companies, bus operators, and organizations that can help the city finance such a costly endeavor. That includes multinational and national development banks, which Gorguinpour call the “obvious places to start.” In some cases—as in Chile’s capital city of Santiago, which has the largest e-bus fleet outside of China—it’s utility companies, not transit agencies, that have stepped up to finance the projects.

For cities that have already started its procurement process, this second report provides guidance for various stages of the process, including the stage at which a city is ready to scale up. All in all those, the report stresses one major step: “A lot of these reports are about city officials going out and getting all the stakeholders in a room to build a comprehensive plan,” Gorguinpour says. “It’s a lot harder to do anything in large scale in a silo, because the technology is so interdependent on other things.”

Linda Poon is a staff writer atCityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.Expand Comments +

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