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It Will Take More Than Electric Buses to Attract Riders

Electric buses may be a dream vehicle for sustainability watchers, but they are not adding new ridership or saving public transit from the formidable financial headwinds agencies are facing.

An electric bus stopped along a sidewalk.
For all of the enthusiasm they generate among transit advocates, electric buses do not actually increase ridership and won’t be enough to reroute public transit agencies set on a course toward financial struggle.

“On a busload of 40 people there’s exactly one of them riding because it’s an electric bus, and the other 39 are riding because the schedule and their lifestyle fit together,” said Tim McCormick, a transit planning consultant and former manager of transit planning and performance at Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, Calif.

“An electric bus doesn’t put people on buses. It just doesn’t,” he added during a webinar organized by Optibus, an Israel-based mass transit technology provider.

Public transit is still trying to recover from the deep cuts to ridership and service brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. National ridership has recovered to about 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the Ridership Dashboard by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Ridership had climbed to 76 percent as of mid-February.

Headwinds like declining ridership, changes to commuter habits and staffing challenges are all placing financial strains on public transit agencies, forcing them to consider cuts in service and spawning a “doom loop” where ridership continues to fall away. Complicating the situation even further are concerns around safety on public transit, said McCormick.

Riders who are now returning are “finding a much different situation than when they left. So there’re some major social problems occurring on the bus that have nothing to do with routes and schedules,” he added.

“And when you’re trying to attract people back to a system, in the U.S., that’s something that a lot of people are just not willing to tolerate,” said McCormick.

On a seemingly parallel track is the push to modernize public transit and transition it away from greenhouse gas-emitting internal combustion vehicles. This effort is aided, in part, by the funding coming from the federal government’s infrastructure package. A number of transit agencies have also taken the position to electrify fleets in order to fulfill sustainability goals, and meet state mandates in places like California.

However, as well-meaning as these measures are — and no one disputes the environmental benefits of an electric bus compared to a diesel version — electric buses alone will not significantly move people away from taking car trips, say transit watchers.

“Until we disincentivize drivers from choosing cars over buses, I struggle squaring the circle of spending twice the price on an electric bus,” said Carla Stockton-Jones, managing director of the Stagecoach Group, the largest bus operator in the United Kingdom. “Until we make single-use car journeys as unacceptable as single-use plastic in the U.K., we’re not going to move the dial on this.”

At the most basic level, the challenges for public transit are the same as they’ve always been: how to make the service better than a car trip? That means it needs to be frequent, convenient, and perhaps most especially — faster. It’s why bus rapid transit lanes, transit signal priority and other approaches to move buses past cars stuck in traffic are seen as a part of the solution.

“I think we need to stop and take a big deep breath, and make sure that at the same time we’re going after decarbonizing our fleet, we’re aggressively going after the national and local governments to really, really lean into making sure that we are disincentivizing the car users, and incentivizing them to travel by bus instead,” said Stockton-Jones.
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.