LA Metro Is Already Buying Electric Buses. Now Everyone Else Will Too.

An electric bus produced by China's BYD Co., is parked outside the the manufacturing plant in Lancaster, Calif, in 2013. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

There are only 132 electric buses right now in California, but by 2040, there could be more than 14,000.

Already, the big boys — LA Metro, LADOT, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and Foothill Transit — have committed to getting rid of fossil-fuel powered buses by 2030. Now, a new state rule could require all other bus agencies to do the same by 2040.

That means smaller bus agencies that do not have electric buses yet, from counties like Ventura and Riverside, to small cities like Culver City and Palos Verdes, will have to begin buying electric buses exclusively in less than 10 years.

I'M NOT A BUS NERD. WHY SHOULD I CARE?

Well, electric buses are better for both air pollution and climate change.

Electric buses have 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent fewer smog-forming, nitrogen oxide emissions than the cleanest natural gas bus, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"We're not just talking about the long term effects of climate change," said Dr. Mark Horton, the former director of the California Department of Public Health, "we're talking about today. People are dying and suffering from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases."

BUSES → TRUCKS?

And if bus makers can figure how to make electric or hydrogen-fuel cell engines work in buses, they could tackle the biggest polluters next: heavy duty trucks.

Heavy-duty diesel trucks in Southern California emit six times as much smog-forming nitrogen oxide as transit buses, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Heavy-duty diesel trucks are the largest source of smog-forming pollution in Southern California.

But trucks, which go long distances carrying very heavy cargo, are harder to electrify than buses, which run on a fixed route and return to a depot every night where they can be charged.

"The bus system is really the proving ground," said Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA. "And when the transit systems do it, and when they succeed, the trucking industry will follow."

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO RIDE AN ELECTRIC BUS?

Much quieter than on natural gas bus. And you don't get that nasty back draft of fresh bus emissions when the door opens, and outside air gets sucked in, said Jimmy O'Dea, who works on clean technology issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And waiting at the bus stop is better, too, because, you're exposed to fewer harmful emissions from idling buses.

I WANT TO RIDE AN ELECTRIC BUS NOW! WHERE CAN I DO IT?

If you live in LA, sorry, you're (mostly) out of luck: Although LA Metro has a goal of transitioning its entire, 2452-bus fleet to zero emissions buses by 2030, it doesn't have any operating right now. LADOT's has four electric buses and you'll know when you see them because they say Zero Emissions on the side.

Only seven transit agencies in Southern California currently have electric buses on the road. Many others, including LA Metro and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, have placed orders for them.

Outside of LA, your best bet is to head to the San Gabriel Valley and hop one of Foothills Transit's 30 electric buses. Or go to the Antelope Valley, where all the buses will be electric by the end of this year (!!). Santa Barbara and Long Beach also have a bunch of electric buses, and in fact, those four agencies, combined, own more than half of the electric buses running in California.

Oh, and this is fun: and in 2019, Foothill Valley transit will have two double-decker electric buses — the only ones in North America!

ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES?

Well, cost. Electric buses are $200,000 more expensive than natural gas buses. LA Metro alone is expecting to spend $3 billion to switch Metro's entire fleet and build charging infrastructure.

That's why Bradley Weaver, a spokesman for the Riverside Transit Authority, isn't a fan of the proposed rule.

"While we applaud all efforts to reduce emissions, the enactment of this regulation would force RTA to incur millions of dollars in unexpected costs to buy zero emission buses," he said, which could result in the agency running fewer buses on the road, period.

And long-haul zero emission bus technology isn't quite there yet. When Metro voted in June 2017 to switch its entire fleet to zero emission buses, staff noted that there is not an electric bus on the market that can run 250 miles a day.

"I worry all the time," John Drayton, Metro's former head of vehicle technology, told KPCC in June 2017, "This is not a comfortable 'go and buy buses that have been driven for 12 years and are service proven.' We're going into new territory here."

The Air Resources Board will vote on the new rule in January.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.


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