E-buses can replace light rail for 20 percent of the construction time and cost

Oct 24, 2019, 2:05 PM | Updated: 4:03 pm
metro, electric...
King County purchased 100 electric buses in 2017 to start its transition to an all electric bus fleet. (King County)
(King County)

The Seattle area is doing some of the best work in the country promoting transit ridership, if you ask transit expert Ethan Elkind. Not mention the promotion of development around transit. But considering the future that technology is about to bring, there may be one problem with transit plans in the Puget Sound region.

“Generally, as a rule of thumb, (bus systems) are about a fifth of the cost of building rail,” Elkind told the Candy, Mike, and Todd Show. “And a fifth of the amount of time it takes to build it.”

Elkind is director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law. He’s also author of the book Railtown.

“Trains definitely play an important role in moving a lot of people, that is what they are designed for … and I think Seattle does have a lot of the density that makes trains a sensible investment for transit,” he said.

More and more people using foot ferries for Seattle commute

On the other hand, Elkind argues that light rail proponents often jump too quickly to building this very expensive transit option, when there are other options that are far cheaper, just as efficient, and much quicker to build.

“I’m mainly talking about putting buses on dedicated lanes, getting buses out of traffic, out of waiting at red lights, stuck behind single occupant vehicles,” Elkind said. “If you can start building those, get the political will to build those, and I know Seattle is doing very well on that, then you can provide a lot of the benefits of rail transit at a fraction of the cost and time.”

Future buses: electric and self-driving

Just as modern light rail vehicles are now generations ahead of trains used long ago, modern bus technology is evolving. Battery technology in particular is getting cheaper and more advanced.

“Electric buses, I think, really are the future of bus travel,” Elkind said. “You want to get off of diesel as a fuel. The experience when you are on an electric-powered bus is far superior to being on a diesel-powered bus.”

The benefits: Acceleration is smooth, like light rail; no engine rumbling; and transit operators save big on fuel costs. There are also savings on maintenance costs, because battery-powered vehicles are cheaper to operate and don’t break down as much; they don’t have all the moving parts that an internal combustion engine does.

Still plenty of questions as state mulls replacement for gas tax

“You can layer on top of that, autonomous buses,” Elkind said. “We have the technology now for self-driving vehicles in some context. It’s getting better and that can apply to buses as well. Particularly if they are in these dedicated lanes. I would look to that as the future, innovative version of buses, rather than the traditional buses that people are familiar with.”

King County has already made a move toward electric buses, starting in 2017. The county recently tested new battery-powered buses that can go up to 140 miles on a charge.

The future with autonomous electric buses will not be as simple as putting them on the road, however. Commuters should expect a shift in traffic practices. The new system would require a separate right of way for buses and priority at intersections (they always get green lights, cars have to wait). Elkind says that tunneling wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

“If you do all that, you get all those benefits of rail,” Elkind said.

“The other thing you can do with buses to mimic the key features of rail, which is that rail can have maybe 10 cars to carry a lot of people with one driver at the front,” he said. “You can do the same thing with autonomous technology. You can even have a driver on a bus up front, and then have other buses without drivers do what’s called ‘platooning’ behind them. They can basically act like they are linked up like a traditional train car system, but just with sensors and computers; those autonomous electric buses can keep pace with the lead car. You could theoretically get the equivalent of a train car … carrying as many people as a high-capacity train line.”

Cost of transit

The futuristic advancement of self-driving electric buses isn’t the only reason that Elkind favors them. While light rail is viewed as a superior form of transportation in the United States, he notes that it is terribly expensive to build. U.S. cities have not been able to keep costs down, while other advanced countries do much better.

He points to Los Angeles as one example. LA has built its orange line rapid bus transit system with buses running similar to rail (it was constructed on an old freight train line). Building the bus system was 80 percent cheaper than building light rail.

Sound Transit expands parking permit program … for a price

“It’s tragic when you see some of the numbers,” he said. “San Francisco has been mired for over a decade just trying to build a mile-long rail extension … it’s going to cost over a billion dollars, close to a billion and a half dollars. You wonder where the dollars are going. It’s way out of wack compared to other advanced nations. You look at Western European countries, some of the East Asian advanced economies and they can build for a fraction of the cost and for a fraction of the time of what it would cost us.”

Side note: Of the 80,000 electric buses built and delivered in 2018, 99 percent of them went to China. Some of that country’s cities, such as Shenzhen, have converted to entirely electric bus fleets, saving about 200,000 barrels of oil a day.

“Even people who love transit, they don’t want to wait a decade for something to get built,” Elkind added. “They don’t want to see the money essentially evaporate with contractors and labor unions and everyone else making a lot of money off it but the public not getting the benefit that they really deserve.”

Candy Mike and Todd

guns, assault weapons, gun, 1639, 1639 gun initiative, gun tax...
Mike Lewis

Mike: We should not restrict guns but their owners are different story

If you are a commercial pilot or general contractor likely you understand the value of licensing; So why not license gun owners?
3 years ago
snow day...
MyNorthwest Staff

What’s better for kids: a school snow day or a two-hour delay?

The recent snow fall stirred up a debate: What's better for kids, a snow day or two-hour delay?
3 years ago
shoveling snow...
MyNorthwest Staff

Candy: Everyone should shovel snow as a chore

Shoveling snow is a unique experience here in the Pacific Northwest. Here are five reasons everyone should shovel snow as a chore.
3 years ago
Todd Herman

The theft of parental rights in Washington state is unconscionable and immoral

Quoting a law passed in Democrat-controlled Washington state originally designed to make sure girls could get secret abortions, insurance companies have been writing to parents informing them they no longer have any rights to be involved in crucial, life-altering decisions their kids want to make.
3 years ago
MyNorthwest Staff

Guilt tipping has got to stop

We are seeing tipping pop up in unusual places. I've seen new tip lines at a craft store, clothing store, and a 7-11 in the last few months.
3 years ago
Space Needle fireworks, New Year's Eve, seattle baby...
MyNorthwest Staff

Tell me I’m wrong: Everyone should have a New Year’s resolution

What is preventing us from reaching our fitness goals the rest of the year? KIRO Radio's Candy Harper weighs in.
3 years ago

Sponsored Articles

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.
Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.
SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
E-buses can replace light rail for 20 percent of the construction time and cost