At a press conference this morning, King County Metro is announcing plans to purchase 120 battery buses by 2020, providing unprecedented opportunities for zero-emission electric bus service throughout Metro’s service network. After 3 years of federally-funded demonstration projects – with 3 battery buses on an interlined loop serving Routes 226 and 241 – Metro is making a bold bet that the technology will mature enough to be reliable on a much broader variety of bus routes.
This bet is bold precisely because the technology is not yet mature, and indeed Metro seems to be attempting to induce its maturation, Kickstarter style. By committing capital and hopefully setting off a competitive blitz among manufacturers, Metro is taking real risks; products could underwhelm or fail to materialize, battery technology could fail to sufficiently mature, manufacturers could go bankrupt, charging stations could become unreliable boondoggles or the next front in the NIMBY wars, etc.
But alongside the risks, the concomitant rewards could be nothing less than transformative. As ST2 and ST3 get built out and Metro implements its Metro Connects Long Range Plan (assuming passage at the King County Council next month), bus routes will become shorter and straighter, lengthy express service will be deemphasized, buses will be ever less dependent on reliability-killing freeways, and routes will increasingly feed Link stations that have substantial footprints amenable to charging stations. Metro’s current fleet is 1,423. Together with 174 trolleys, all-electric vehicles will constitute about 20% of the fleet, and King County has a long-term goal of a 100% zero emissions fleet.
And let’s face it, diesel buses are only a relative social good. They emit noxious high-particulate exhaust, are very noisy, and generally detract from a pleasant urban environment. Diesel buses are only good to the extent that they prevent an even larger amount of emissions from personal vehicles, but as electric technology matures the relative environmental benefits of diesel buses will inevitably decline. With this purchase, Metro apparently thinks it can get ahead of that curve.
73 of the 120 buses will be from Proterra, the manufacturer of the current 3-bus pilot. The battery buses will not replace any current trolley routes, as much as Proterra may wish it were so. 8 battery buses will enter service this year, 12 more in 2019, with the remaining 100 entering service in or around 2020. The 40-foot buses on order will have a 25-mile range and a charging time of just 10 minutes, opening them up to dozens of routes that could never hope for traditional trolleybuses. As part of the funding commitment, Metro will also test a variety of longer-distance battery buses capable of 140 miles per charge, and will also ask manufactures to build 60-foot articulated battery buses, which currently do not exist.
In the near term, given a 25-mile range, a reasonable battery reserve, a 40-foot capacity limitation, and a conservative estimate that only 1 charger per route would be installed, routes chosen for battery buses will likely be a maximum of 7-8 miles long and not be interlined. Some routes seem like instant candidates. Route 27 is short and very steep, greatly benefiting from the torque of electric motors. The project to install trolleywire on the Yesler Bridge perpetually fails to get funding, but a charger in Colman Park could obviate the need for it. Link-related restructures will likely fundamentally change the network in 2021 and 2023, but off the top of my head, battery bus candidates in the current network could be Routes 11, 22, 24, 33, 50, 71, 73, 78, 105, 107, 156, 182, 187, 200, 204, 331, 345, 346, 347, 348, and Rapid Ride F.
It’s amazing that just 5 years ago we were talking about savage cuts to transit service as tax revenue lagged behind the recovery. But in booming Seattle, our aggregate prosperity (though shared unequally) is bringing a lot of public goods with it. It’s good to see Metro carrying the confidence to step out like this. Let’s hope it pays off.