Electric Buses in America: Lessons from Cities Pioneering Clean Transportation

Media Contacts

Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center

Richmond, VA — Cities across the country are making the switch to electric buses and are reaping the benefits on dual fronts — reducing emissions as well as operating expenses. A new report from Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center and Frontier Group highlights the experience of six early adopters, illuminating the successes, challenges and lessons learned. 

“Getting to school or commuting to work shouldn’t include a daily dose of toxic pollution,” said Joe Rupp, Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center Climate Director. “Why would we continue to use dirty diesel buses — many of which our tax dollars pay for — if they are making the climate crisis worse?”

Transportation is now the number one contributor to greenhouse gases in Virginia, accounting for 46% of emissions. Fortunately, Virginia has recently taken steps to electrify transit and school buses across the commonwealth. In June, Gov Northam announced over $12 million that will fund electric transit bus pilot projects in three cities. Dominion Energy announced what could be the largest electric school bus initiative in the country and weeks later, Northam announced $20 million (also from the VW settlement) for electric school buses as well. By understanding common pitfalls and best practices, cities and counties, agencies and school districts can ensure a smoother roll-out of electric buses, helping reduce climate pollution and protect public health.

“Curbing tailpipe pollution that fuels the climate crisis and harms our health and our communities requires a fundamental shift in transportation investment toward transit, other alternatives to driving, and cleaner vehicles,” said Trip Pollard, Land & Community Program Director for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This report highlights the multiple benefits of transitioning to electric buses and offers a useful guide for the Commonwealth and our communities to make this important change.”

The report features case studies of six rollouts of electric buses, including in Seneca, South Carolina; Chicago; Seattle; Albuquerque; Twin Rivers, California, and Amherst, Cambridge and Concord, Massachusetts. 

Chicago has been a success story. There, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) found that electric buses perform well in extreme weather conditions and have saved the transit authority more than $24,000 annually in fuel costs and $30,000 annually in maintenance costs. The city also estimates that each electric bus will save nearly $55,000 a year in healthcare expenses because fewer diesel buses means less pollution and cleaner air. 

Some early adopters have also learned valuable lessons to share with other transit agencies and school districts considering electric buses. Transportation authorities need to account for local conditions — including geography and climate — to ensure that the buses can perform as needed. In addition, bus purchasers need to work with local utilities on rate structure revisions to prevent demand charges or other fees from undercutting the financial benefits of electric buses.  

But these issues shouldn’t impede adoption of electric buses. 

“Every new technology goes through growing pains and electric buses are no different,” said James Horrox, policy analyst with Frontier Group and lead author of the report. “But the early experiences of cities that have adopted electric buses show that the hurdles can be overcome — and that the payoff in cleaner air, better health and monetary savings can be massive.”

The report outlines many best practices that can be applied to maximize the benefits of new electric transit and school bus programs here in Virginia. The report recommends that cities, transit agencies and school districts transitioning to electric buses learn from those who came before them.  In addition, agencies should ensure that contracts with bus manufacturers have warranties in the event that the vehicles delivered do not perform as promised. And after a successful pilot run, transit agencies and schools should invest in as large a fleet as possible to benefit from economies of scale. 

There is no shortage of interest in electrifying transportation in Virginia. School officials have expressed  eagerness to participate in programs that lower the upfront costs of electric buses. 

“We are excited about the possibility of bringing electric buses to Richmond Public Schools,” said Richmond Public Schools Superintendent, Jason Kamras. “We hope to be one of the first school divisions in Virginia who can provide a cleaner and more cost-effective way to transport students to and from school.”

“Chesterfield is excited for the potential health, environmental and cost savings benefits that electric school buses present and we’re eager to learn more about how we can best pilot and incorporate electric school buses into our fleet in the future,” added Merv Daughterty, Chesterfield Public Schools Superintendent. 

These early adopters are pioneering electric bus technology, which has the potential to help us clean our air and promote healthier communities,” said Rupp. “Their experiences prove that electric buses are ready for prime-time, and that with careful planning and execution, we can have zero-emission bus fleets here in Virginia.”