Bus Systems Are Miles Ahead on Green Transport Technology

Cities are switching over diesel clunkers not just to natural gas or hybrid buses, but to fully electric vehicles.

Most Americans have never ridden in a car powered by natural gas. But millions have ridden in natural gas vehicles without even realizing it. For years, bus systems across the country have been going green by switching over to vehicles powered by natural gas. Los Angeles, not known for its public transportation prowess, put its last diesel bus out to pasture in January. And now, some cities are going one step further down the green-vehicle road, switching over to fully electric buses.

Bus systems are natural candidates for green innovation. They’re government-owned, so they can prioritize goals like air quality and invest in technology that will pay back over long periods of time. They’re set up in fleets, so they have some economy of scale. And from a government’s point of view, they’re cheaper to replace and to expand than subway or rail lines. On a federal level, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration has invested in the development of electric buses, and in a round of grant money released this week, projects from California to Georgia to Maine received funding to switch over old diesel buses to hybrid or electric buses.

Green Car Congress crunched the numbers and found that more than half of the funding is going to green bus projects. What’s more remarkable than that is the interest the DOT fielded from across the country in greening bus systems. The department has gave out $112 million to 46 green transit projects in total. But it received 266 project applications that contained $1 billion in funding requests.

Green bus projects also create green transportation options in communities that aren’t usually associated with rock star public transportation systems. Long Beach, California, which is adjacent to Los Angeles, received funding for two separate green bus projects, one to replace diesel buses with hybrids and one to put electric buses “on a heavily trafficked, highly visible, popular circulator route.” Hybrid buses are going into circulation in Columbus, Georgia; Des Moines, Iowa; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Lubbock, Texas. In addition to Long Beach, a fare-free system in South Carolina and the bus system in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are getting electric buses. The University of Utah is not only electrifying its shuttle system, it’s testing out wireless charging technology.

Just like electric cars, electric buses are coming into use slowly but surely. The first commercial electric bus system came online last year in South Korea, and already the use of the buses is expanding. Buses’ large sizes makes it more difficult to design an electric bus than an electric car. But it’s easier to design a system to charge buses, since they travel regular routes and charging time can be built into their schedules. The buses can be expensive, but any bus system requires a city to make a long term investment. These will continue to pay back in energy savings and in health benefits for years to come.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Metro Cincinnati

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