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Why the Transition to Bus Fleet Electrification is Accelerating Around the Globe

Mass transit agencies in cities all over the world are increasingly responding to the call to initiate positive climate action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by defining and establishing mandates to transition to sustainable zero-emission bus fleets.



February 17, 2022

Zero-emission bus fleets around the world

Mass transit agencies in cities all over the world are increasingly responding to the call to initiate positive climate action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by defining and establishing mandates to transition to sustainable zero-emission bus fleets.

By far, the world leader in bus electrification is China, with some 98% of the world’s electrified buses operating within the country’s borders, including in the city of Shenzen, which boasts a municipal bus fleet of more than 16,000 vehicles.

In Europe, where centralized funding agencies are actively supporting the development of clean bus projects, electrified bus fleets can be found in cities and towns across the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and France. In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan, India, Pakistan and South Korea also have major bus electrification initiatives either undertaken or in the works.

In North America, the pace of change has particularly quickened over just the past one to two years, with public transit bus fleet electrification initiatives being introduced in large metropolises like Toronto, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, as well as many small and medium-sized cities such as Waterloo, Ont. and Edmonton, Alta.

Greenhouse gas and the transportation sector

The widespread growth of politically powerful voices demanding governments, agencies and business organizations around the world take meaningful action to address climate change is driving many transit agencies to rapidly accelerate plans to electrify their bus fleets.

The transportation sector has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S., with surface transportation such as cars, trucks and buses accounting for the bulk of those GHG emissions. Thus, tangible efforts by public transit agencies to adopt zero-emission practices within their transportation fleets are generally high-visibility public initiatives that are often positively received as an important step forward in the battle to stem human-caused climate change.

However, while electrification can offer both significant environmental and operating cost benefits over traditional fossil-fueled buses, the associated capital costs to establish a new zero-emission fleet can be a barrier to transitioning to a zero-emission fleet, due in particular to electric-charging infrastructure requirements.

The fact is, vehicle electrification technology has matured enough in recent years that it is now feasibly practical to implement a fleet-wide electrification, but many key considerations still exist. Switching an entire municipal transit fleet over to electrified vehicles is not as simple as buying new buses to replace existing ones.

Transit agencies need to be able to formulate a strategic plan to phase in their transition from older gas and diesel buses to electrified vehicles at a pace that matches the availability of capital both for the vehicles themselves and for the electric charging and maintenance infrastructure upgrades required to keep the buses rolling. Personnel training for operators and maintenance staff also needs to be factored into the plan.

Other critical fleet transition factors typically also include adjusting service schedules to account for the shorter driving range of electric buses, optimizing facility power profiles and determining relevant analytics for operational data, among many other complex considerations.

With municipal transit agencies typically replacing approximately only five to ten per cent of their bus fleet each year, they necessarily need to look at how to implement a methodical, stepwise deployment of the electrification of their fleet over a number of years. However, because electric vehicles and charging technology are continuously evolving, the strategic implementation plan will need to factor in that upgraded electric vehicle and operating infrastructure capabilities will be available in the future.

Most existing bus garage procedures, maintenance staff training and experience, and service block configurations are based on meeting service needs using fossil-fueled bus fleets. As the shift to an electric fleet will almost always takes years to complete, a tremendous amount of interim planning and resource management will be needed as each agency works its way through its transition.

We’ll explore some of these transit fleet electrification issues in future Insight articles, including:

  1. The pros, cons and other strategic considerations of battery-electric (BEB) versus hydrogen-fuel cell electric (FCEB) buses.
  2. How to manage the limiting factors on green transportation through block modelling.
  3. What does the future look like for transit fleet electrification?
An electric bus that is a part of GoRaleigh's IBI-designed electric fleet.

Doug Parker is a transportation systems engineer and planner, specializing in assisting public agencies with applying advanced technology. He is a recognized leader in transit technology consulting, working closely with the transit technology consulting practice across IBI Group.

His 33 years of experience spans all public transit modes, including rail, fixed route bus, bus rapid transit, ferries, demand responsive transit, and rural transit. It also includes the full range of transit technologies, including those in support of planning, operations management, public information, revenue management, security, and business intelligence.

Doug has been involved with numerous planning, research and evaluation efforts including regional deployment program development, architectures, evaluations, and several Transit Cooperative Research Program projects.

Headshot of Doug Parker

Written by Doug Parker

Director | Sr. Practice Lead, Transit Technology
Toronto, ON
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