How Electrified, Equitable Mobility Can Transform US Cities

By Phil Jonat via GreenBiz
Sep 15, 2021 11:10 AM ET
Article

The transportation sector drives nearly a quarter of carbon emissions globally, so there is a clear need to decarbonize transportation. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a leading choice. While next-generation electric cars and long-haul trucks have generated considerable fanfare, electric transit buses far outnumber electric trucks and are a largely overlooked — but more accessible — option. 

For decades, public transit agencies have been quietly working to grow the nation’s fleet of electric buses, a growing trend that could change U.S. cities as we have known them for the past 100 years. 

Public transit leads the way to zero-emission mobility 

In nearly every American city and county, buses are the most-used form of public transit. The vast majority still run on diesel fuel, releasing carbon emissions and particulate pollution that contributes to poor health outcomes. In the early 2000s, forward-looking public transit officials started working with existing and startup bus manufacturers to build electric buses that would provide cleaner, quieter transportation.

Transit agencies have been doing the work — and paying the upfront premium — to remove risks and bring down costs. Their investment is spurring innovation and holds the promise of bringing medium and heavy duty EVs closer to price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. While the upfront cost of EVs is higher, they are quickly becoming cost-competitive, particularly when factoring the total cost of ownership, including fuel and maintenance. When also considering public health and the social costs of carbon (harmful climate and health impacts of GHG emissions), electric buses are a wise investment — one that is reshaping our cities for the better. 

Reimagining our cities as cleaner, healthier and more equitable 

Traffic has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, and American cities are once again paying the price in pollution and congestion. More than 40 percent of people in the U.S. live in places with dangerously high air pollution, and people of color are at the greatest risk. Research shows that people of color in the U.S. face higher levels of air pollution than white people, regardless of their wealth

This is a serious issue of health and equity: air pollution is linked to lungheart and neurological diseases, and many forms of cancer. It puts people at greater risk of contracting, and dying from, COVID-19. Poor air quality also can function as a silent, insidious barrier to upward mobility through its physical, cognitive and social impacts. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates it may cause lower test scores in children, decreased cognitive function in adults, and even increased crime rates

The World Health Organization reports similar impacts from noise pollution, which "seriously harms human health, interferes with daily activities ... can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects ... and change[s] social behavior." Traffic noise is a key contributor to this problem.

As the high cost of the status quo becomes clearer, and we reckon with the mistakes of the past, U.S. cities are outlining plans to reduce air and noise pollution. Electric buses are a key technology in this burgeoning movement.

The electric city 

Few people want to live near a bus depot, waste transfer station, railyard or airport. Yet, many have little choice. With all-electric transit and careful urban planning, urban transportation infrastructure can become an asset that benefits not only society as a whole, but also the typically low-income communities that surround essential infrastructure. 

Electrification also may shift which streets are desirable. Consider the New York City subway. It has always been all-electric, and housing close to subway stations has always commanded a price premium. It’s an inspiring model for urban planners who imagine the convenience of being close to a bus stop or depot, with little noise or air pollution. 

Thinking beyond the bus, electrifying public vehicles will change the experience of garbage collection and reduce the noise and smell when walking or waiting in traffic behind a school bus, or riding on one. As school districts electrify America’s 500,000 school buses, they also could boost grid reliability and support clean renewable energy by providing much-needed energy storage capacity when vehicles are plugged in. 

As a New Jersey native, I am eager to see these changes play out in Jersey City and Hoboken, one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S. Those cities have many fossil fuel-powered transportation options: diesel buses; regional diesel rail; diesel ferries to NYC; gas-driven taxis; and helicopters buzzing overhead. All take a toll on residents in terms of health and congestion. But last year, New Jersey Transit, the nation’s largest statewide transit system, adopted a five-year modernization plan that includes transitioning to electrified buses, including at the Jersey City Greenville bus depot. These plans are one example of a silent shift happening nationwide.

More all-electric buses are rolling out 

In 2014, Seneca, South Carolina, a hamlet of about 8,000, became the world’s first municipality to launch an all-electric bus fleet. London, New York City and Tokyo are among the cities that have announced all-electric plans since then. 

In the Los Angeles area, which has the nation’s largest population of color exposed to dangerously high air pollution, LA Metro aims to electrify its 2,500 bus fleet by 2030, the most aggressive timeframe in America. Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have set targets for all-electric bus fleets by 2040. Agencies can order electric buses today, with delivery in less than a year.

But powering buses with clean energy still takes a coordinated effort among policymakers, bus operators, utility providers and citizen groups. It takes strategic planning to get large new electric grid connections ready for this transition, optimize routes and ensure that all new battery electric buses can complete their routes in any weather conditions. Put another way: Buying vehicles is easy but building infrastructure is hard. 

In this, NYC took a huge step forward in May, when the New York Power Authority, America’s largest state power provider, finalized an agreement to install more than 50 overhead electric bus chargers. It is one step to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority commitment to purchase only electric buses starting in 2028 and owning an all-electric fleet by 2040. The rollout begins next year, with hope that it could help address another challenge: Ridership.

Rejuvenating municipal bus systems 

Unfortunately, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, bus ridership was steadily declining nationwide. While millions of people, particularly low-income earners, depend on buses, many who have the choice are opting for other modes of transportation. What’s more, 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transportation, and even in areas where public transit is accessible, usage hovers around 25 percent of the population.

That’s bad news for the environment, road safety and communities engulfed in congestion and air and noise pollution, and for the economy. Every $1 invested in public transit generates a $5 return. If we want to create healthier, congestion-free cities, we need to increase bus ridership and improve the experience. By reimagining fleets for reduced emissions, transit agencies can turn to the public bus as an appealing symbol of cleantech innovation — a rolling billboard for a decarbonized, fully connected and more equitable future.