The World’s Largest Electric Bus Has Been Sitting In A Parking Lot For 3 Years

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With over 200,000 electric buses, China is the undisputed ruler of the electric bus market. With over 16,000, Shenzhen leads cities across the world. The rest of us are simply playing for second place.

And in that race, Bogota, home to 1,485 electric buses, is the surprising winner! The reasons are not all that good: Colombia’s capital, unlike most cities of similar size, decided to bet everything on buses (and is only now building its first metro line). The consequences of this, good and bad, are not within the scope of this article.

Regardless, this all-in bet means that Bogota has had to work to make buses work, and despite all its flaws, it currently offers a reliable and easy-to-use bus service with nearly full coverage. Recently, the city went through the effort of purchasing nearly 1,500 electric buses to improve service, reduce pollution, and ameliorate riding conditions. So far, the decision seems to have been a success, and the buses work exactly as intended.

Image courtesy of City of Bogota.

But, sadly, not all news is good, as the city has kept the largest electric bus — a 27-meter-long, bi-articulated, LFP-powered, BYD electric bus — sitting in a parking lot since 2019. The reasons are first and foremost bureaucratic, and to understand them, we first need to point out the differences between the two bus systems in Bogota:

Transmilenio & SITP

Transmilenio and the Integrated System of Public Transport (SITP) together compose the public transportation system in Bogota. Nowadays, they work under the same umbrella, but their histories differ, and they come from different places.

Transmilenio, the oldest of the two, was born in December 2001 as a BRT solution for the most crowded avenue in the city and an alternative to carry people from the north and west peripheries of the city into the center, but it has expanded significantly since then. It operates with articulated and bi-articulated buses that can carry up to 260 people each and, as any BRT, travel inside exclusive lanes. Oh, and they’re red.

SITP was born in 2012 to replace the chaotic private bus system that had existed in the city since the 1960s and to offer an integrated system with Transmilenio (previously, if you took a bus and then a BRT, you had to pay the two fares); as such, it operates regular buses (up to 120 passengers) that ride alongside personal vehicles. And it is the SITP, not Transmilenio, that currently owns and operates those 1,495 buses that we spoke of before. Unlike Transmilenio, the SITP does not have a unique color, though most of them are blue (and some of the electric ones were painted green).

It was Mayor Enrique Peñalosa who originally proposed Transmilenio back in 1998, and it was him once again who started the electrification of the system, as somewhere around half the electric buses purchased were planned during his second term (2016–2020). And yet, it was that same mayor who blocked any chance of getting articulated and bi-articulated electric buses, claiming that the technology was “not yet proven.” He blocked BYD from the bidding organized in 2019 for the renewal of the BRT fleet.

Mayor Enrique Peñalosa during an event held in the Portal de Suba patio-workshop. Image courtesy of City of Bogota.

BYD’s Trials

BYD was the main provider of the electric buses purchased for the SITP. The company clearly hoped to become a provider for Transmilenio as well — despite Mayor Peñalosa’s refusal — and to clear any doubt, it sent an articulated electric bus for a trial in 2017. For two years, the bus operated with no issues, and yet BYD wasn’t considered for the bidding. In case you’re wondering, the 18-meter-long bus averaged an efficiency between 0.82 and 0.94 kWh/km, depending on the type of service provided.

But the company was not going to give up so easily (after all, it made a killing with the SITP biddings), and in 2019 it doubled down on its bet, bringing a high-floor bi-articulated electric bus called K12A, the first of its kind and the only one ever built by then. And then … nothing happened. The bus never got to meet the streets of Bogota, to hear the sound of the jams and claxons amidst traffic, nor to feel the impatience of those who’re taking BRT because they’re late for a meeting (and I’ve been one of them) … because it was never allowed to leave the parking lot.

The reason? Bogota’s strict legislation has a weight limit for BRT buses, which this one, just barely, surpassed.

ICONTEC

The Colombian Institute for Technical Standards and Certification (ICONTEC) provides technical standards for, well, everything in the country. In the case of the articulated and bi-articulated buses, the standard is called ICONTEC NTC-4901, and it requires that they may not weigh more than 40 tons. Which is an issue, because BYD’s K12A bus weights 44 tons.

This norm was reviewed in 2016 and the upper limit increased so that a bus like this one could operate. However, 7 years after this fact, the Ministry of Transport has not yet adopted the new legislation, and the largest electric bus in the world remains in a parking lot, waiting for the time when it will finally be allowed to serve its purpose.

When asked in September 2022, the Ministry of Transport indicated that the issue “is being reviewed.”

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Hydrogen Bus Pilot

Regardless, Bogota remains committed to greener, cleaner public transportation and, despite already having a proven solution, the city has started a pilot with a locally assembled fuel cell hydrogen bus (though, the cells are certainly imported, and the source wasn’t provided). The bus, to be joined by 13 more in the following years, will be powered with green hydrogen produced locally. This pilot goes hand in hand with the Colombian government’s bet on green hydrogen as an alternative to replace oil and coal exports, based upon the cheap electricity that can be produced on the windy and sunny Caribbean coast. Whether that bet will be folly or will succeed, it remains to be seen.

For the next 8 years, the buses will operate in Bogota to provide information on their cost, their requirements, and their limitations in high altitudes.


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Juan Diego Celemín Mojica

Passionate for all things Latin American, I’ve been closely following the energy and mobility transitions since they started to become present south of the equator.

Juan Diego Celemín Mojica has 38 posts and counting. See all posts by Juan Diego Celemín Mojica