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

King County purchased 100 electric buses in 2017 to start its transition to an all electric bus fleet. (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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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