An electric bus awaiting passengers in Washington D.C.'s Union Station bus deck.
An electric bus awaiting passengers in Washington D.C.'s Union Station bus deck. Benjamin Schneider

Can new technology radically improve the rider experience?

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.

Electrification

(Proterra)

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 American 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.

“It checks all of the boxes that you would desire in terms of a future state of mass transit,” said Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra. The current generation models achieve an 80 percent reduction in MPG equivalent over diesel buses, according to Popple. Both energy efficiency and battery technologies continue to improve: Proterra recently drove one of its new 40-foot buses more than 1,000 miles on a single charge, breaking the world record for the longest distance travelled by any electric vehicle without recharging.

Then there’s the very significant fact that these vehicles do not contribute to street-level air pollution: “You can get a lot of people who are interested in helping the environment to ride the bus,” Popple said, “because it’s a much more direct argument that riding the bus is the right thing to do.

Autonomy

An Olli electric-autonomous shuttle (Olli)  

Most of the self-driving hype is focused on cars. But, as the killing of a pedestrian by an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode in Arizona indicated, autonomous vehicle (AV) technology may not be as far along as its boosters had hoped. Many challenges remain before fully autonomous personal vehicles—which must master both high-speed highway driving and complex, crowded urban environments—can safely replace human-driven vehicles in all situations.

The future may be brighter for autonomous buses, whose work is more rote. “There’s this general consensus that autonomous trucks and buses come before cars,” Schwieterman said. “Since the routing is predictable, it’s easily programmable.”

Indeed, “level 4” autonomous shuttles* (without a driver or steering wheel) are already being piloted in urban environments like Las Vegas and Stockholm. Many of these pioneering autonomous buses, including models from Navya and Olli, are also electric; Proterra is currently piloting lower level autonomous features as well.

Both Schwieterman and Popple say the most promising territory for autonomous mass transit, at least in the near future, could be in the suburbs, where there is less traffic, fewer pedestrians, and, for better or worse, fewer potential conflicts with bus driver unions.

Minibus or ‘trackless train’?

Like the eight-passenger Navya driverless shuttles cruising the streets of downtown Las Vegas, future autonomous buses are likely to be on the small side. Little buses are easier to drive, for human and robot alike, and they make more sense in low-density suburbs, where a full-sized bus is seldom justified. By eliminating the costly overhead of the driver, AV shuttles could provide more frequent suburban service at a lower expense, making transit a more viable option for communities that are now poorly served by buses. “If there’s a 12-person little vehicle coming down the street every 5 minutes versus a 40-person vehicle coming every 20 minutes, then you’ve got more capacity in that corridor and and a much better experience for people,” said Colin Murphy, director of research and consulting for the Shared Use Mobility Center. “In a lot of cities that could really make a huge difference.”

These minibuses might function more like ride-hailing vehicles, roving around a dedicated area, rather than a specific route. Especially in lower-density areas, buses “have got to become more dynamic because the competition is rising with TNCs [Transportation Network Companies] and one-way car sharing,” Schwieterman said. Smaller mass transit vehicles could eventually function much like the Via pilot in Arlington, Texas, which replaced a traditional bus route. That program, which is city-subsidized, had 5,000 riders in its first month of operation and a 97 percent approval rating from passengers. Such services could be run as public-private partnerships, as a recent request for proposals for a micro-transit partner from Los Angeles Metro indicates.

On the other side of the size spectrum are dense areas with lots of people moving in the same direction, where high-capacity light rail and subways might be ideal, but may not be economically feasible. One increasingly popular solution: super-high-capacity buses like double-deckers and extra-long, 60-foot models, according to Popple. As traffic increases in densifying downtowns choked with Ubers and Lyfts, cities are “trying to get as many butts in seats they possibly can, because the only way you can improve congestion without expanding roads… is [to] increase passenger capacity,” he said.

A rendering of a “trackless train.” (Miami-Dade County)

These high-capacity buses will be more effective if they have their own dedicated lanes, or, even better, their own separated right of way, as in the most advanced bus rapid transit systems, like Los Angeles’ Orange Line. They could also blur the definition of what exactly a “bus” is: Proterra has received a request for a 90-foot monster bus, which Popple described as “basically a land train,” while a Chinese company is currently developing a “trackless train,” a rubber-tired streetcar-esque vehicle designed to autonomously follow tracks painted on the road. As my colleague Laura Bliss has pointed out, there’s no good reason these “jackalopes of public transportation” shouldn’t be called what they really are: a bus.

Seamless payment

It might not be as sexy as vehicle design, but ease of fare payment can play a huge role in whether someone chooses to ride the bus and whether that bus is able to complete its journey efficiently. In the U.S. we’re still in the wild west with transit payment,” Schwieterman said. Between fumbling for cash in odd increments, transit cards, and paper transfers, coming up with bus fare in most American cities can be an inscrutable process. A lack of ready information about fares—to say nothing of routes, frequency, and arrival time—is one of the biggest reasons tourists tend to avoid city buses.

One solution to this problem is to install payment kiosks at stops, like the ones on New York City’s Select Bus Service, its BRT-lite program. This way riders can hop on from all doors, speeding boarding, and don’t have to hold up the whole bus when their dollar bill gets spat out of the farebox five times in a row. Several companies are trying to improve onboard payment systems as well. Visa is working with transit agencies to allow riders to pay their transit fares with the tap of a debit or credit card. Transit apps, like Masabi, which recently entered a partnership with Uber, enable multi-agency transit payments via smartphone.

On this front, buses could learn a lot from ride-hailing companies, according to Murphy. “The thing that Uber and Lyft have done that is really revolutionary was just removing some of the transportation anxiety that exists from not knowing whether you’re going to be able to get a ride, not knowing how long it’s going to take for that ride to get there, not knowing exactly how much it’s going to cost,he said. If bus operators could make all of this information as transparent as Uber and Lyft do, they’d win more riders.

Accessibility

One of the key roles played by buses is as the default mobility mode for the elderly and people with disabilities. Q’Straint, a company that specializes in wheelchair solutions for mass-transit riders, has recently debuted a technology called Quantum that’s designed to ease boarding for wheelchair users by allowing them to automatically secure themselves via robotic arms. It is the only wheelchair securement technology in the world that does not involve driver assistance, according to the company’s website. It also allows for a much quicker on and off-boarding experience, according to Mike Laidlaw, a senior regional manager for the company.

Perhaps the biggest accessibility breakthough that the future may bring: free rides. Popple imagines a future where more cities decide to fully subsidize bus service. Many cities already boast free circulator routes, and tourist meccas like Park City, Utah, and Vail, Colorado, offer free buses system-wide. In these cities, businesses and residents pay a little more in taxes in exchange for reduced traffic, reduced drunk driving, and increased commercial activity. If buses become ridiculously cheap to operate on a per mile basis, as electric-autonomous buses could very well be, more cities might make the same calculus.

“The cost structure for a transit bus looks more like static infrastructure, in that we pay for a highway or a sidewalk or a port or an airport, but we don’t necessarily charge people by the mile,” Popple said. Free buses—supported via taxes, sponsorships, or perhaps fees on private vehicles—would represent the ultimate commitment to this long beleaguered mode. Implementing the latest technologies would also send a powerful message about a city’s priorities, in addition to improving service. If cities start acting like they care about the bus, maybe city-dwellers will follow suit.

“The bus suffers from its image as being yesterday’s technology,” Schwieterman said. “So it’s important to signal to passengers that it’s not a last resort.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that these vehicles were capable of level 5 autonomy.

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