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01/12/2020

Electric buses can transport us towards a zero-carbon future

Electric bus

Electrification of public transport will be integral to resolving environment issues. But this will take the right combination of planning approach and political will, says Dr. Gavin Bailey

Local authorities around Europe are faced with myriad environmental issues they are expected to deal with over the coming years. Principal among these are achieving net zero carbon emissions, addressing deteriorating air quality, and reducing noise pollution. 

While there are many contributing factors to these environmental woes that blight Europe’s towns and cities, transport is currently the largest single source. To tackle this polluting sector, many local authorities and municipalities across the continent have identified a solution: the electrification of public transport, especially buses.

In 2019, 1,683 electric buses (e-buses) were placed on Europe’s roads, and for planners there is much to consider when it comes to implementing a successful e-bus system. As with any new transport intervention, it is important to undertake a period of collaborative and considered design as part of implementation. When considering a switch over from diesel to e-buses it is all too easy to assume that once the electric charging infrastructure, staff training and maintenance services are resolved, that the planning is complete. 

“It is all too easy to assume that once the electric charging infrastructure, staff training and maintenance services are resolved, that the planning is complete”

However, the reality is far more complex, and there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration to achieve a successful implementation of e-buses, as our recent research at Eunomia Research & Consulting outlines. These are:

  • Political leadership which leads to cooperation and collaboration between multiple stakeholders to enable effective communication and knowledge sharing regarding e-bus technology and deployment;
  • Financial support, obtaining funding and maintaining commitment from all relevant stakeholders;
  • Trialling, monitoring and evaluation in order to ensure the technology performs optimally over its lifetime and achieves desired outcomes;
  • Proactive and innovative procurement to set the foundations for successful and cost-effective e-bus implementation; and
  • A considered and integrated design of e-bus services, which is complete, practical and user-centric.

Within these, there are two primary factors that planners should take into consideration. 

Firstly, planners need to account for longer vehicle operating lifetimes of e-buses (circa 10 years opposed to the usual eight years) which are enabled due to fewer moving parts in electric drive trains which to some extent offset the high costs associated with charging infrastructure installation and upgrades. 

Planning for longer vehicle lifecycles can demonstrate a total cost of ownership for electric alternatives comparable to diesel technologies – helping to make the case for change. In Rotterdam in the Netherlands, one of the most successful examples of an e-bus deployment in Europe, operator contracts were generally for 10 years and found that the total costs of ownership of e-buses were just under 11 per cent lower than diesel buses.

Secondly, effective planning which considers how e-bus services are designed and integrated with an area’s wider mobility network underpins successful implementation of such services. 

This includes integration with other transport modes, providing opportunity charging on routes for e-buses to help achieve longer operational ranges, and ensuring inter-operability of charging infrastructure between vehicle manufacturers to avoid early redundancy of fixed-base assets. 

This is best achieved through collaborative planning and procurement with prospective e-bus manufacturers and suppliers. Furthermore, a well-designed service which seeks to maximise user satisfaction and awareness can support objectives to increase public transport patronage, which in turn will raise profits, thus boosting the viability of the scheme.

Examples of user-centric e-bus deployment and innovative procurement can be seen in another Dutch city, Groningen. The incumbent bus operator in the city, Qbuzz, aimed to stimulate the market and competition by purchasing e-buses from three different manufacturers, while also making use of data and technology, monitoring fleets and charging stations through ViriCiti software.

“Central and local government need to support a new form of decision-making which accounts for all of the negative externalities of existing fossil fuelled propulsion technologies, and the full range of benefits yielded by new clean technologies such as electric”

In addition to this, they sought to boost customer satisfaction through the TURNN app that gave real-time notifications to travellers while using the e-buses. Furthermore, Qbuzz engaged with charging infrastructure provider Heliox to develop a system of slow and fast chargers to allow e-buses to travel around 350-400 kilometres a day. Cooperation with all stakeholders ensured this charging infrastructure was optimised for inter-operability. 

To facilitate the full range of benefits outlined above, central and local government need to support a new form of decision-making which accounts for all of the negative externalities of existing fossil fuelled propulsion technologies, and the full range of benefits yielded by new clean technologies such as electric – in many cases that accounting now falls in favour of electrification.

The Netherlands provides a leading example of a proactive government facilitating the implementation of zero-emission public transport. In 2016, the Dutch government declared that all newly-procured buses must be zero-emission from 2025, and all buses in use must be zero-emission from 2030, with public bus contracts only awarded to those operators on the road to meeting or exceeding these targets.

With the UK Government outlining support for increased uptake of electric vehicles and zero-emission forms of public transport – though stopping short of outlining how much of the £5 billion committed to zero-emission transport would be spent on e-bus implementation  – in its 10-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, there is indication that such support will be forthcoming. 

While change appears to be on the horizon, planners need to account for the full range of pros and cons of clean technologies within the existing remit of appraisal frameworks. Doing so may help to achieve change faster than we are used to. 

Dr Gavin Bailey is principal consultant and lead for future sustainable transport with Eunomia Research & Consulting

Photo | Shutterstock

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