Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
In just eight years, Shenzhen became the first city to electrify 100 percent of its public buses—16,359, to be exact.
Between the gleaming towers of the Chinese city of Shenzhen, some 16,000 buses shuttle commuters to and from their destinations. But they’re not like the diesel-guzzling behemoths that run the streets of most cities. They’re quieter, and they run entirely on electricity.
Back in 1980, Shenzhen was just a modest fishing village of 30,000. Now a megalopolis of some 12 million, the city has undergone a remarkably rapid transformation—and so has its transit fleet. In an effort to control air pollution in this vast industrial region, the city began introducing electric buses in 2009. It has now become the first city to electrify 100 percent of its public buses. That’s a staggering 16,359 battery-powered vehicles, the world’s largest eco-friendly bus fleet.
Globally, there are an estimated 385,000 fully electric buses, and according to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, 99 percent of them are in China. As Shenzhen moves on to making all its taxis go electric as well, other Chinese cities are beginning to follow suit, replacing their gas-powered bus fleets by the hundreds.
As I reported in 2016, electrification leads the list of ambitious ideas out there to upgrade the humble bus. The Bloomberg report calculates that China adds about 9,500 EV buses every five weeks—the size of London’s entire fleet—and collectively, they’re making a dent in the oil industry. For every 1,000 EV buses, according to the report, the global demand for fuel drops by about 500 barrels a day. (Global oil consumption is still going up, though, just not as quickly.)
China is leading a green transit revolution mostly because it has to: The country’s colossal cities and industrial zones are some of the most polluted places in the world. It’s worth noting that despite the massive numbers of electric and hybrid buses, they still account for only 17 percent of the country’s total fleet.
Shenzhen is one of only a few cities in China to dramatically reduce its air pollution, and the government attributes much of this progress to bus electrification. It’s a strategy cities elsewhere are hoping to emulate, albeit at a much slower pace: London plans to go all-electric by 2030, while New York City is currently piloting five electric buses, with the aim to transition by 2040. Washington, D.C., just added 14 electric buses from the California-based company Proterra to the city’s circulator fleet.
Of course, unlike these cities, Shenzhen isn’t electrifying on its own—it has the assistance of a one-party national government that’s vowed to go all-in on mass transit. Along with the electrification of its transport system, China is pouring billions of yuans into a national high-speed railway network, subways, and bus rapid transit. The upfront cost of electric buses can be more than double that of traditional ones, and just as the country subsidized subways, China also helped fund Shenzhen’s pursuit of better buses. According to the World Resource Institute, the city received $150,000 in subsidy per bus prior to 2016—more than half the cost of each one.
“It’s those sorts of grants that make [the cost of] those buses on par with diesel buses,” said Caroline Watson, the network manager for low-emission vehicles at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which brings governments together to tackle climate change. Factoring in lower operation and maintenance costs, the tab for an electric bus is only about $33,000 more than a traditional one over an eight-year period, according to calculations by the World Bank. “That means it’s easier for the regional government to invest in this technology because it won’t cost them more, but they’re going to have fuel savings, cleaner air, and reduced CO2 emissions.”
To further reduce upfront costs, some operators in Shenzhen also choose to lease buses from the manufacturers, said Watson. She was speaking from Quito, Ecuador, where finance and transit officials from the likes of Vancouver, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Chennai in India were gathered for C40’s Clean Bus Finance Academy—part of the group’s Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative—to work out the fiscal and logistical challenges involved in transitioning to electric buses.
This process of global de-dieselfication involves more than just buying a bunch of new buses: Going electric requires operators to make routing and infrastructure changes, too. Battery-powered buses often have a more limited range than their diesel siblings, and they have to be charged without disrupting service. Shenzhen devoted part of its $490 million investment into building out a robust charging infrastructure—more than 500 charging stations, Clean Technica reports, with some 8,000 outlets. That’s enough to charge half the fleet at a time.
Sheer volume, though, won’t cut it. Consider China’s proposal to sell only electric cars “sometime in the near future.” As I’ve reported, the nation has some 150,000 public charging points—the most in the world (the U.S. only has about 16,000). But there’s a lack of standards—the stations themselves are often built by private firms—and the stations are distributed somewhat haphazardly, much to the frustration of drivers.
This is where the collaboration between Shenzhen’s bus operators and its utility companies comes into play. “The electrification of transport really brings together the energy sector and the transport operators in a way that that historically has never really had to happen,” Watson said. “What we’re hearing [at the academy in Quito] is that it’s really important to have an engaged utility provider, because without electricity provided to the charge point, you haven’t got fuel.”
In Shenzhen, the partnership has resulted in charging stations built along bus routes, according to WRI, and coordinated charging times during which buses fully charge overnight, when electricity demand (and prices) are lower. Watson cautioned, though, that what works for Shenzhen may not necessarily work for other cities. “Every city needs to do their own analysis making sure they choose the right charging infrastructure,” she said.
So when will the rest of the world catch up to China in the electric bus race? The equipment itself is available: The Chinese firm Build Your Dreams (BYD), which manufactures Shenzhen’s fleet, has entered the U.S. market; its buses are in service in cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and Orlando. Domestic rival Proterra, meanwhile, has been improving both its vehicles (one recently set a distance record by going 1,100 miles on a single charge) and its charging technology. But the kind of sweeping change that Shenzhen pulled off in the last decade won’t come to U.S. cities without aggressive national support and full buy-in from local transit agencies. Neither will be easily acquired.
Bus ridership is falling in most U.S. cities, and local transit agencies are limited in their abilities to make big investments. Many don’t think the technology is there yet, with cities worried about how battery buses will fare in extreme terrain (like San Francisco’s steep hills) or weather (think Phoenix in the summer and Boston in the winter). “People worry about being an early adopter,” Chris Stoddart, senior vice president of engineering and customer service for Canadian bus maker New Flyer, told Reuters. “People just don’t want a science project.”
But Watson is optimistic. “What Shenzhen has done is on an incredible scale, and I think it’s an inspiration for the rest of the world,” she said. “It’s definitely achievable. But it would take more time for other cities to do it.”