The California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to require that all new buses be carbon-free by 2029, in essence phasing out purchasing any new gas- or diesel-powered buses by 2029 and requiring only zero-emission buses by 2040. The mandate will eventually take an estimated 14,000 gas-powered buses off the roads. California currently has 153 zero-emission buses, most of which are electric, and hundreds more on order. The long lead time on the rule will enable transit agencies to phase out existing buses over their current lifespan of 10-plus years.

The transportation sector accounts for 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gases, and those emissions must be drastically reduced to meet the state’s climate change goals. The California Transit Association, however, is concerned that zero-emission buses cannot match the performance of the existing fleet and that there is insufficient money available for the transition, despite subsidies from the state.

Performance issues with electric buses include how far they can run on a single charge and whether they will hold up with a full passenger load (especially in hilly cities like San Francisco). Los Angeles and San Francisco had each passed their own rules requiring electric bus fleets, despite the Los Angeles Times reporting that some electric buses have broken down in the city. Albuquerque, New Mexico had to cancel a contract with Chinese electric bus manufacturer BYD over safety concerns with the vehicles’ batteries and chargers. The city ordered a fleet of 20, but their performance was so poor the city canceled the order and switched back to natural gas and diesel.

The Los Angeles Times investigation found the city’s buses stalled on hills, required service calls much more frequently than older buses and had unpredictable driving ranges below advertised distances, which were impaired by heat, cold, and the way drivers braked. A federal testing center and transit agencies across the country logged driving ranges that were dozens of miles short of company claims, limiting the routes they can handle and requiring passengers to shuffle onto replacement buses when the batteries were low.

Other Investment in Electric Buses

Despite issues with the performance of electric buses, other cities and states (Columbus, Ohio; Virginia; the District of Columbia; and Chicago) have invested in them. Central Ohio Transit Authority approved adding 10 electric buses to the fleet while continuing to phase out its existing diesel vehicles for delivery in 2019 and 2020. The electric buses cost between $739,000 and $958,000—more than a diesel or compressed natural gas-powered bus—but annual fuel and maintenance costs are expected to be comparatively less. The transit authority will add $2 million in electric vehicle charging stations.

Recently, Virginia announced that it will spend $14 million to help local transit authorities switch their public bus fleets to electric vehicles. The state’s contributions will cover the difference between the cost of a traditional bus and an electric bus to encourage localities to purchase the latter. A recently released report indicates that electric transit buses are 40 percent more expensive than diesel versions, and electric school buses are more than double the cost of diesel versions.

Chicago has a goal of transitioning its passenger fleet to 25 percent electric vehicles by 2023. Earlier this year, the Chicago Transit Authority requested proposals for the manufacture of between 20 and 45 all-electric buses and up to 13 en-route charging stations. Last fall, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning awarded Chicago a $15.5 million federal grant for electric vehicle infrastructure, funding 182 electric fleet vehicles including six electric airport buses, plus nine fast-charging stations and 182 lower level charging stations.

Last May, Washington, DC purchased a new fleet of 14 battery-electric buses on its DC Circulator system, making it the largest electric bus fleet in the DC metropolitan area. The DC Circulator system is not a part of the region’s primary bus system. It has six lines, mostly in the city center, that transport people along heavily traveled corridors with stops at popular destinations such as museums and monuments. The buses are expected to last about 12 years and displace 89,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year.

More on electric buses and issues with their performance is found in this IER blog.


U.S. cities and states are investing in electric buses despite performance and range problems and their significantly higher initial costs. California is now the first state in the nation to mandate all emission-free buses by 2040, allowing time to phase out gas and diesel buses. But, California mass transit users need to realize that the reliability of bus service may no longer be a priority and that they may be forced to delay their arrival time or not make it to their destination at all.

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