Environmental justice a factor in choosing electric bus routes

Photo by Henry Pan

But many obstacles remain to full electrification

Transit on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis became less polluting when Metro Transit opened the C Line one hot, sunny day in 2019. That’s because some of the buses running on the route are electric buses. 

Instead of being fueled by diesel, an electric bus is plugged in at their maintenance facility downtown, similar to how one might plug in one’s phone at the end of the night. Advocates and the transit agency say they release fewer harmful substances into the air, making it easier to breathe.

And you might see more of them in the coming years. Metro Transit wants to buy more of them and submitted a plan to the state legislature in February. 

The agency currently has eight accordion electric buses, which were built by Winnipeg-based New Flyer at their St. Cloud plant, with eight more standard-sized ones coming from South Carolina-based Proterra next year. They decided to buy electric buses for the C Line in part because the corridor is historically transit-dependent and has higher rates of asthma, according to the transition plan. 

When they are able to get more electric buses, they hope to run them in environmental justice priority communities, generally in parts of Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Center, the Phillips and Northside Minneapolis neighborhoods, and the Midway, North End, East Side, and West Side neighborhoods of St. Paul.

The Minnesota chapter of 350.org, a worldwide climate advocacy organization based in Boston, believes the agency should pursue more electric buses as part of our collective effort to stave off climate change. 

“We’re very, very far from hitting the legally prescribed goals of emission production from the Next Generation Energy Act,” said MN350 organizer Madi Johnson. “[If] we want any hope of catching up at all, we need to electrify all vehicles that are possible to electrify, and transit buses [are a] part of that.”

Indeed, transportation, from trucks to personal vehicles to buses, emit the greatest amount of pollution in the state, according to a 2018 report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

Despite the dire straits, the transit agency is a very long way from being able to fully electrify its fleet. The agency will need to work with Xcel Energy to provide the infrastructure needed to deliver up to 16 megawatts per garage, a process that could take up to seven years. 

They will also need the buses and chargers. Ongoing supply chain issues caused by the pandemic will make it hard for them to keep the buses running, and with other agencies looking to electrify, companies building new ones may have trouble keeping up with demand. 

They also have trouble running their electric buses today. Since they entered service, they have been withdrawn several times, most recently for nine months in 2021 because of charger issues that have since been resolved. 

The buses also need to be adequately charged during driver breaks at the terminal to be able to run for upwards of 20 hours a day. Metro Transit is currently not doing so because of its ongoing driver shortage. As a result, only as many as three of them are out at any given time, and each is out no more than eight hours a day. 

“We did make an adjustment to the C Line so that there’s [a] shorter layover at Brooklyn Center Transit Center, and that does help our operator situation,” said Metro Transit Director of Service Development Adam Harrington during a late November interview. 

It’s also challenging to run the buses solely on electric power in the winter. Because the buses also need to provide onboard heat, they consume a lot of energy. All types of batteries, including those on your phone, generally don’t last as long during the winter owing to the cold weather. To supplement some of that energy, the buses are equipped with diesel heaters. 

The agency did consider, but ultimately ruled out, buses that are powered by overhead wires, like the region’s light rail vehicles. They were worried about speed restrictions and wanted to use zero-emissions buses anywhere in the system without being limited to overhead wires. Only seven regions in North America employ this technology today; the eighth system in the Boston area was decommissioned on March 12. 

The report also rules out hydrogen buses because Minnesota does not have the infrastructure to support such a rollout. It also does not address converting its existing diesel buses into battery-electric, something both Portland and Indianapolis are experimenting with. 

Although the astute rider may differentiate an electric bus from its diesel counterparts and praise it for the ride quality, it is hard to tell them apart. Aside from the electric buses not having a rear window, they look similar to the diesels, have the same paint-job, accordion section, free wi-fi, and USB chargers. 

But at the end of the day, it appears many riders don’t care what type of bus picks them up. “As long as I get there,” said Raymond James, his main concern as he rode the C Line home from work. 

*Disclosure: The author was a founding member of the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, which lobbied for electric buses with a coalition of organizations that includes MN350. The author is no longer involved and the organization is defunct.