Electric Buses Rare in Transit — But They're Growing Fast


This is part one of a (FOUR/FIVE)-part series Government Technology is running on the state of electric buses in U.S. transit, examining data as well as the stories of local agencies. We will add more stories at the bottom of this article as we publish them.

There are many reasons an electric bus would seem to be every city’s dream: It’s quieter, it’s less complex, and theoretically it runs on cheaper fuel.

And perhaps the electric bus is the bus of the future — more on that later. But right now, the latest federal data show that they are still very rare in the U.S.

How rare are electric buses? In 2018, the most recent year of data available from the Federal Transit Administration, they made up one-fifth of 1% of all miles driven by municipal buses.

(A note: "municipal buses" in the National Transit Database include some non-city entities such as independent transportation authorities and universities.)

To put it another way, in 2018 only 33 transit agencies reported driving any miles with an electric bus out of the roughly 475 bus operators that provide full reports to the FTA.

Rather, the big shift in recent years has been from diesel to compressed natural gas. From 2015 to 2018, the percentage of public bus miles driven with diesel dropped from 77% to 73% while CNG’s share rose from 19% to 24%.

None of this is to say that electric buses aren’t important, or worth attention. Their use has been growing rapidly in recent years, aided by federal grants and increased attention from manufacturers.

Between 2015 and 2018, the number of miles driven by electric buses more than tripled, from 1.3 to 4.2 million.

Part of the reason for this is that buses are, well, big. Relative to privately-owned cars, they take a long time to make and they are very expensive — Roland Cordero, director of maintenance and technology for Foothill Transit in West Covina, Calif., puts the average price of a CNG bus at about $650,000.

He pegged the cost of electric buses, still a comparatively new technology, at about $850,000.

Over time the cost of big batteries — key to the price of any electric vehicle — has come down dramatically. Many expect that trend to continue as more battery manufacturing capacity and competition increases worldwide.

On top of electric buses being clustered among relatively few transit agencies, they are also highly concentrated among a handful of manufacturers. As of 2018, roughly three-quarters of active electric buses in U.S. transit agencies were made by one of two companies: California-based Proterra or the Chinese company BYD.


Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.