Five Breakthroughs That Could Make You Love the Bus - City Lab

The Union Station bus deck in Washington, D.C., is a loud and smelly place. Municipal and inter-city buses rumble in and out, perfuming the semi-enclosed depot with the stench of combusted diesel. The arrival of a lone battery electric bus on a recent weekday morning—one of fourteen electric buses that have just been added to D.C. Metro’s Circulator fleet—did not radically change the atmosphere. But it could be a tantalizing harbinger of things to come. The vehicle moves stealthily, with a low whine, and emits no fumes from its tailpipe, because it doesn’t have one.

Needless to say, a bus station served only by electric buses would be unrecognizable to the nose and ears. So would a whole city.

The appearance of battery-powered electric buses in American cities could represents a technological milestone for this workhorse of mass transit. Give or take the addition of air-conditioning and a few other tweaks, riding a bus hasn’t changed much in the decades since diesel coaches supplanted streetcars. But big changes are now coming to the bus world. Here are five breakthroughs in technology and design that could help this humble mode reclaim its place atop the urban mobility food chain.


My brief electric bus ride was not mind-blowingly different from a conventional one. From the inside, only a seasoned rider would notice that it’s slightly roomier, because the electric motor takes up less space. And once we got moving, I noticed that it seemed to accelerate faster than a diesel bus, too.

But Joseph Schwieterman, a professor of public policy at Depaul University and an expert on buses, calls the electrification of the Amercian bus fleet “a total game-changer.” Whereas diesel-powered “municipal buses are often iffy with respect to environmental benefits,” battery power will turn bus-riding into a truly green mode.

And they are closer than you might think. As CityLab’s Linda Poon reported, China is leading the way on electrification: In an effort to curb air pollution, the nation hosts 99 percent of the world’s 385,000 electric buses, and the city of Shenzhen now has a fully electric fleet. But rest of the world is catching on. The largest U.S. based manufacturer, Proterra, has sold buses to, or is negotiating orders with 70 U.S. transit agencies, or approximately 10 percent of the nationwide total; and New York City and Los Angeles plan to completely transition their fleets to electric in the coming years. All of this is happening as the economics are finally starting to add up for the electric bus: Acquisition costs are still $200,000 to $300,000 higher than for diesel buses, but maintenance and energy costs are lower, leading to a lifetime investment that is comparable, or cheaper.

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