A rendering of a double-decker bus
The Enviro500 bus designed for Foothill Transit. Alexander Dennis

They’re not just for sightseeing anymore.

North America’s first electric double-decker transit bus is pulling up to Southern California in 2019. These two-tiered buses will cross between the San Gabriel Valley and the city of Los Angeles, with the intent of alleviating the region’s infamous traffic by doubling passenger capacity with a lighter environmental footprint.

Bus manufacturing company Alexander Dennis will pair its towering Enviro500 model with Proterra’s record-breaking E2 battery: Last September, the company set the world record for driving the longest distance, over 1,100 miles, on a single charge of an electric vehicle. For day-to-day use, the double-decker will be able to drive between 160 and 200 miles per charge. Electric single-deck buses can typically drive between 200 and 350 miles per charge.

“Electrifying city buses and school buses as well as other diesel applications is one of the best paybacks we can get from an environmental investment,” said Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra. “The operator will probably save 80 cents a mile on fuel if they're going from diesel to electric."

Foothill Transit purchased two buses, costing $1.6 million each. They’re partially funded by a $1.4 million Metro Express Lanes Toll Revenue Capital Grant received earlier this year. The agency is planning to deploy them along a 35-mile route between downtown Los Angeles and Claremont, California. Previously, 60-foot articulated buses served 50 customers along this route, but the extra length made it difficult to find longer bus stops downtown. Comparatively, the double-deckers have better maneuverability and serve 80 customers.

"The real selling point for us, frankly, was the quality of the ride,” said Felicia Friesema, director of marketing and communications at Foothill Transit. “The articulated buses, because they have that bendable section in the middle, can sometimes be a little bumpy on the freeway. Being able to serve that many people on a single trip heading to downtown Los Angeles on a bus that was clearly designed with customer safety and comfort in mind is a true transformative game changer for our agency and for our customers.”

Foothill Transit tested the buses along the prospective routes and didn’t face any clearance issues, though it will need to alter its bus washing station to accommodate the extra height. Since the agency currently owns single-deck electric buses, it already has charging stations, though it plans to add extra stations in downtown L.A.

Proterra, the largest U.S.-based manufacturer, is promising more seats, less noise, and even on-board WiFi. The back of a diesel bus can be as loud as 90 decibels, said Popple; meanwhile, electric battery buses are incredibly quiet.

“That's a major change. The riders and the drivers and the mechanics appreciate the fact that they don't have to be around these roaring diesel engines,” said Popple. “They're a much better experience for transit passengers.”

The electric battery is especially beneficial, considering the American Lung Association rated Los Angeles as one of the most polluted regions in the country. Popple estimates these models will have an 80 to 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas impact compared to diesel.

Amidst California’s struggle with “super commuters,” defined as traveling more than 90 minutes each way to work, the state is pushing for more accessible and eco-friendly public transportation. The California Air Resources Board approved a $663 million plan last December to incentivize low-carbon vehicles. The following month, 16 California mayors signed a letter to support the proliferation of zero-emission buses.

Though Foothill Transit is the first to feature double-deckers in the United States, electric buses are growing in popularity: More than 60 percent of states have battery-electric bus programs either operating or in the works. Currently, less than 10 percent of Foothill Transit’s fleet is electric, though the agency aims to transition to a fully electric fleet by 2030.

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