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Clean Transport

Two Transit Systems Increase Their Commitment To Electrification

At the beginning of this month, New Flyer of America did some brisk business with King County, Washington and Westchester County, New York. In one deal, the company added 20 new battery-electric buses to an existing contract, and in the other order they sold 66 hybrid-electric buses. Both orders will reduce emissions, but the King County contract is part of an effort to achieve zero emissions.

One of King County’s first electric buses. Image provided by New Flyer & King County Metro.

King County Metro, known locally only as “Metro,” provides rides all over King County, and that includes the City of Seattle. The agency is one of the biggest in the United States, providing over 122 million passenger trips per year. One of its goals is to transition to a zero emission fleet, and adding these 20 additional buses puts it that much closer.

“Metro has long been an early adopter of advanced innovation, and the transition to zero-emission mobility is no exception. New Flyer battery-electric buses offer significant noise reduction, cost savings, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions – all while consistently performing through rigorous operating environments to keep the community moving,” said Chris Stoddart, President, New Flyer and MCI. “Having delivered over 1,830 buses to King County since 1979 – with over half comprised of zero-emission or hybrid electric propulsions on common and proven Xcelsior bus platforms – New Flyer technology has assisted Metro’s transition to clean, quiet, reliable and sustainable transit.”

Previously, the agency bought just two electric buses to dip its toes into the water. After years of testing to see how well a battery-electric bus could cover the agency’s needs, Metro decided to pick up 120 more last year. This order adds 20 more to that number. For some reason, the agency worked within a contract with the Commonwealth of Virginia to pick up the buses under an option order. This was likely to get better pricing as part of the other state’s volume buying.

The agency’s goal is to be completely zero emission by 2040. From what I can see on the website, they’ve ordered 142 buses so far, with at least two delivered, but that plan may have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan calls for 500 buses beyond that based out of two locations, making for over 600 electric buses by 2030.

A timeline of zero emissions bus adoption from the King County Metro website.

Westchester County, New York isn’t pushing as hard for zero emissions as King County, Washington. Instead of buying battery-electric buses, the Westchester County Department of Public Works and Transportation (known as the ”Bee-Line”) decided to pick up 66 hybrid-electric buses. These 40 foot buses could be joined by 52 more from the company, as well as 10 35-foot buses, so there’s probably a lot more electrification in the agency’s future.

The Bee-Line serves over 27 million passengers annually in the White Plains region of New York. Using a combination of state and federal transit funds, the agency is replacing other, more polluting vehicles that have reached their end of serviceable life, and plans to replace more.

“Hybrid-electric buses immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and are a safe and reliable way to move people through the community while contributing to cleaner air,” said Chris Stoddart, President, New Flyer and MCI. “New Flyer’s hybrid-electric technology is currently in motion across 5,500 buses, providing reductions in transmission and brake maintenance, requiring fewer parts and fluids, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through decreases of up to 50% in NOx and 90-100% in particulate matter levels. We are proud to have delivered more than 170 hybrid buses into Westchester County since 2009”.

The New Flyer website shows that the hybrid version of its bus uses a Cummins B6.7 diesel engine, but it’s smaller and emits less than the L9 engine that would go in a regular diesel bus. The smaller displacement, lower loads, and lack of idling all contribute to the reduced emissions that come from the hybrid buses.

While it’s less exciting to see the adoption of hybrid buses like the New York order, it’s still very impactful. 20 electric buses take 20 diesel buses off the road, but 66 hybrid buses cut emissions by around half, meaning they’re the equivalent of taking over 30 regular diesel buses off the road. The short-term pollution and CO2 emissions situation is better.

The only problem happens when the agency gets totally switched. Once they’ve switched from diesel to diesel-hybrid, they’re going to want to keep those buses in service until end of life and then possibly replace them with battery-electric buses at that point.

It’s tough to say which approach is better. Given limited budgets, often supplemented by grants from the state and federal level, an agency can buy a lot more hybrid buses then they could buy electric buses. The impact in the short run is definitely better, but keeping hybrids going in the long run until end of life cancels at least part of those gains out. On the other hand, buying a handful of battery-electric buses ends up happening a lot slower, and may require that the agency replace at least some diesel buses with new diesel buses at end of life.

The budgetary reality keeps the electric bus switching scenario from being better in at least some cases.

The obvious solution is to get more money going to transit agencies that allow them to pick up more electric buses, but that’s challenging. Spending any money at all on the state level is tricky, as states can’t run deficits and inflate the currency (read: print up money) the way the federal government can. But, when the federal government pulls their magic, it slowly becomes a regressive tax on the poor when consumer prices eventually rise. There’s just no such thing as a free lunch, unfortunately.

The COVID-19 impact on transit ridership is also a huge downer for these agencies.

The good news is that it won’t be like this for much longer. COVID is on the way out, and as the prices of batteries drop and drop, we will eventually reach the point where an electric bus and its giant battery pack doesn’t cost much more or more at all than a comparable gas or hybrid bus. When that happens, expect to see a lot more adoption by cash-strapped agencies like Westchester. It won’t happen overnight, but we will see it after and it will look a lot more inevitable than it looks today.

Featured image: Photo of one of King County’s first electric buses. Image provided by New Flyer and King County Metro.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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