RTD One of the Only Transit Agencies Nationally Operating Electric Buses

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Electric Buses Reduce Pollution, Save Money for Transit Agencies and School Districts

CoPIRG Foundation

Denver’s transit agency, RTD, is one of the only large transit agencies in the country that has deployed electric buses in its fleet, reducing air pollution and saving money according to a new report on electric buses by CoPIRG Foundation, Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center, and Frontier Group. RTD currently has 36 electric buses. 

As of 2016, when the latest data was available, only Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, San Antonio, and Chicago joined Denver among the largest transit agencies with electric buses on the road. The report found that if transit agencies like RTD converted all its buses to electric, it would not only reduce dangerous air pollution from diesel exhaust it could save on average $81,000 over the lifetime of each bus.

The report also targeted school buses, which could see savings for each electric bus it adopts depending on how long the buses are deployed and would immediately remove a source of toxic diesel exhaust that impacts kids and neighborhoods. In Colorado there are nearly 4,000 yellow school buses, which transport 42% of the public school population according to School Bus Fleet Magazine.  

“Electric buses remove dangerous air pollution from our communities and eliminate the exposure of kids on schools buses and commuters using transit to dirty exhaust,” said Danny Katz, CoPIRG Foundation Director. “Electric buses are also cheaper to maintain, fuel, and operate. Every transit agency and school district should begin converting 100% of their buses to electric.”

“RTD is proud to have one of the largest electric bus fleets in the country. The experience we gain from operating this fleet will help us make better choices as we move toward a future where electric vehicles are the norm rather than the exception,” said Michael Ford, Chief Operating Officer of RTD. 

Nationally, 95 percent of school buses run on diesel and more than 60 percent of the nation’s nearly 70,000 transit buses run on diesel. Nearly 38 percent of the diesel transit buses were manufactured before 2007 when more stringent diesel air pollution requirements went into effect. However, even buses that meet those requirements or buses that operate using natural gas have dirty exhaust. 

Kids and transit riders are all impacted by the exhaust from buses, even if they are on board the vehicle. Numerous studies have shown that inhaling diesel exhaust can cause respiratory diseases and worsen existing conditions like asthma. The negative effects are especially pronounced in children and add to health care costs. 

Diesel exhaust from buses poses a particular public health risk in urban areas like Denver, struggling with dirty air days, because buses primarily travel where there are lots of people, including in the more densely-crowded areas of cities, on the busiest roads, and near schools. According to the American Lung Association, the Denver metro area was the 14th most polluted city by ozone, which is fueled by vehicle emissions. 

“Diesel can cause a number of health problems, including asthma and cancer, and unfortunately that’s what is powering most of America’s buses,” said Alana Miller, policy analyst at Frontier Group and coauthor of the report. “Our report shows that all-electric buses can help cities address public health and climate concerns while saving money in the long-run.”

The good news is that electric buses are available and ready to roll, and they’re cleaner, healthier and often cheaper for transit agencies to run in the long-term. And with zero tailpipe emissions, electric school buses can significantly reduce people’s exposure to toxic fumes.

One of the reasons electric buses will save transit agencies and school districts money is that they are more energy efficient. An electric bus can travel 4 times farther than a diesel bus on an equivalent amount of energy. They are also cheaper to maintain because they have 30% fewer parts, do not require oil changes, and have no exhaust systems. 

Currently, electric buses have a higher up front cost than diesel and natural gas buses. However, with the potential for lower lifetime costs every transit agency and school district should prioritize purchasing electric vehicles moving forward.  

Colorado is receiving $68 million as part of the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” settlement and the state has already earmarked at least $18 million to vehicles like school buses and $18 million to transit buses, which can be used to pay the higher up-front costs of an electric bus and help build the charging infrastructure. In addition, there are state and federal grants that fleet managers can pursue as well as a role for utilities like creating a loan program to help spread out the up-front cost of electric buses and developing partnerships to allow school districts to sell back excess energy in bus batteries to the grid at peak times.  

“There’s no reason we should be running dirty, polluting buses in our communities when we have better, cleaner options,” said Garret Garner-Wells, Director of the Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center. “Our research shows that whether commuters are on the bus or boarding the bus, they’re exposed to toxic air in high concentrations, while simultaneously, diesel contributes to global warming. We have the technology to avoid this, so why wouldn’t we?”

The report, “Electric Buses: Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods and Cleaner Air,” can be found at here.