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Going Electric: Bus Fleets Must Consider More Than Just Funding

Transit agencies making the change to electric vehicle fleets are faced with a flurry of challenges and considerations ranging from finding the money to pay for them to fully understanding the operational differences.

AVTA Electric Bus Charging.JPG
One of several dozen electric buses operated by the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA) in Southern California.
Submitted Photo: Antelope Valley Transit Authority
The bus system serving Mojave Desert communities in Southern California has wireless charging technology at four transit centers that allow the fleet of electric buses to pick up a quick charge during stopovers. It allows the buses to run a full complete service day.

“Anytime a bus goes in, at a layover point, while it’s waiting to start the next route, it gets about 10 or 15 minutes of charge,” explained Judy Vaccaro-Fry, chief financial officer for the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA) in Southern California.

Vaccaro-Fry was speaking on a panel to discuss AVTA’s transition to an all EV fleet, one of the only in the country. The panel was hosted by Optibus, a transportation management software platform. Planning both the overnight charging and the wireless charging was just one of the many considerations the transit agency had to strategize and plan in the last decade since it began the transition.

In many respects, getting the electric bus is only one part of a larger set of dilemmas and considerations, transit officials warn.

Even bus operators needed additional training to better understand the operational differences between an internal combustion engine bus and a zero-emission.

“The first few buses that rolled off the line, they were able to go X number of miles. And then somebody else would get in and drive that same route and perhaps use less than half the energy,” said Vaccaro-Fry, noting that drivers needed to be taught about certain features of EVs like regenerative braking, which can greatly extend the range of the vehicle.

Abellio, the bus operator serving central, south and west London, operates a mixed fleet with both electric vehicles and conventional diesel buses. The charging needs of the EVs have required a new set of processes and planning at the depot level, said Alastair Willis, head of commercial development at the Abellio Bus Division in London.

“We’ve got examples, where you’ve got to get the electric vehicles in, but they’re actually scheduled to come in after the diesels,” said Willis. “So how do you manage that allocation within the space constraints of the depot.

“The biggest challenges has certainly just been around the parking, and working at how do you manage your depot structure,” he added.

When it comes to charging, and finding the grant funding to pay for it, look to partnerships, said Vaccaro-Fry. Antelope Valley Transit partnered with a school bus depot across the street, which is also transitioning to electric buses.

“And so, we have partnered, specifically on the last grant that we have submitted to the state of California,” she added. "I would say, on a lot of the grants that we have proposed, partnering has been one of the keys to our success. When you’ve got infrastructure right across the street, it’s easy to perhaps collaborate and say, 'lets do it once. Lets share expenses. Lets share land.'”

It’s not just grant writing, charging expertise and a better understanding of how to drive an electric bus that has challenged the Antelope Valley Transit organization, but maintenance also has to be completely rethought.

“The maintenance staff of yesterday is not what we need for today,” said Vaccaro-Fry. “We don’t have a bus rolling down the street. We have a computer rolling down the street."

“We had to realize that we need more IT technicians to work on these buses,” she added.

Daunting as some of these challenges may seem, more and more transit agencies are quickly transitioning fleets to electric versions, in part, because of mandates set forward by states and regions, but also a desire to operate cleaner and cheaper.

“There’s no way that you cannot go down this line. This is the future of public transportation in and around cities,” said Niklas Emlind Vahul, electromobility director for Volvo Buses in Sweden.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.