The future belongs to electric transit buses

Gleb Mytko, Global Industry Analyst with the Freedonia Group, speaks to Intelligent Transport about the popularity of electric transit buses and why new, innovative technology will help to continue this upward trend…

The transit bus of the future is green

The use of electric transit buses has increased dramatically around the world over the last decade. Early models had significant performance shortcomings, but manufacturers have developed a new generation of electric transit buses that are much more capable. As a result, public operators have begun to replace existing conventional transit buses with battery-powered models, and this trend is expected to accelerate in the future. 

Chart 1 (below) shows the global share of total bus sales of electric and hybrid models in 2006, 2011, 2016, and 2021 (projected). While a few suppliers offer electric motor coaches, minibuses, or shuttles, the majority of electric models sold around the world are transit buses. As a result, electric and hybrid buses account for a much larger share of transit bus sales than of the overall total. 

Electric transit buses offer many advantages

Electric transit buses emit no pollutants and have lower operating and maintenance costs. Because they have no emissions, the use of electric transit buses can greatly reduce air pollution in urban environments; a major concern in most major cities.

Electric models also offer a smoother and quieter riding experience, which makes them popular with riders. High purchase prices are the main reason electric transit buses are not more widely used. An electric model can be more than twice as expensive as a comparable diesel transit bus. 

Technological innovation has made electric buses more competitive

A wave of technological innovation has powered the rise of electric transit buses. The development of better-performing models and faster and simplified recharging systems have been of particular importance.

Early electric transit buses had a limited range and poor acceleration, and were unable to operate at higher speeds. However, this is no longer true for newer models. In September 2016, for instance, US-based Proterra unveiled the Catalyst E2 transit bus, which has a range of up to 350 miles – more than double that of older battery-powered buses. With this extended range, the Catalyst E2 is able to serve the full daily mileage requirements of nearly all transit bus applications and is much more convenient to use than electric models that have to be recharged more frequently. 

Bus manufacturers have also been able to increase the top speed of electric buses and improve their ability to accelerate. For example, the 2016 model of BYD’s K9 electric transit bus has a top speed of 62mph (100km/h), enabling it to operate on highways, something earlier electric buses could not do. Additionally, the K9 is powered by two 100kW brushless AC synchronous motors that ensure smooth and rapid acceleration. 

In the past, inconvenient charging processes and long charging times (up to six hours) have also been a major concern for public bus operators. However, Bombardier, BYD, Scania and Toshiba have all commercialised or announced plans to commercialise wireless charging systems for electric buses. 

In December 2016, for example, Scania began to test its wireless inductive charging system in Södertälje, Sweden and Volvo’s 7900 Electric and 7900 Hybrid buses utilise its Opportunity Charging System. The system is designed to be part of ordinary bus stops and can automatically connect to a bus and recharge its battery in less than six minutes.

Proterra offers two rapid charging systems: an overhead on-route charger and plug-in depot chargers. The company’s overhead on-route system offers charge times of 5-13 minutes. 

Government programs will drive electric transit bus use globally

In recent years, governments around the world have worked to address air pollution issues and reduce the environmental impact of public transportation, leading to the introduction of a number of programmes designed to help transit system operators replace conventional transit buses with electric models. For example, in 2015 the Chinese government began subsidizing electric bus purchases, encouraging transit systems to replace their diesel, CNG/LNG, and gasoline transit buses. Because of this program, sales of battery-powered models in the country increased dramatically between 2015 and 2016, when they accounted for more than three-fourths of all transit bus sales. 

In the US, the Department of Transportation has awarded multi-million dollar grants to cities in Oregon and elsewhere to subsidise electric bus purchases.  In July 2016, for instance, the US Department of Transportation awarded Eugene, Oregon’s Lane Transit District (LTD) a $3.5 million grant to purchase five fully-electric buses, and Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency received a $3.4 million grant to replace four older diesel buses with New Flyer XE40 Xcelsior electric models and to build a charging system. 

Government financial support is often needed because of the high upfront cost of electric buses. However, manufacturers have had some success in reducing the price difference between conventional and electric buses as new lithium-ion battery plants have come online and battery costs have fallen. This is helping make electric buses more financially attractive to transit system operators.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that when operating and maintenance costs are taken into consideration, along with the healthcare saving that battery-powered buses can provide residents, the payback period for buying an electric bus over a diesel model is only about two years. 

The future is bright

Through technological innovation, manufacturers have been able to dramatically improve the performance capabilities of electric buses, allowing them to capture market share from conventional models.

Global electric bus sales more than doubled between 2006 and 2016, and demand for these products will continue to grow rapidly over the next five years because of their strong environmental credentials and low operating and maintenance costs. 


Gleb Mytko is a global industry analyst with the Freedonia Group. He has written nearly 30 studies covering a variety of automotive and equipment industries. For more information on the global bus industry, see Freedonia Group’s #3509 Global Bus Market by Product & Fuel Type, 6th Edition.

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7 responses to “The future belongs to electric transit buses”

  1. Herbert Wancura says:

    Unfortunately, it would seem that we have not learned some lessons well. Electric mobility was to assist in peak shaving and to reduce the “Night Valley” effects for electricity generation. Now, the (perceived) need for rapidly implementable solutions is creating systems that will increase the peaks by adding opportunity charging power and energy needs to the grid at peak times. This will add to the requirements of grid balancing power – most likely not from renewable sources. Thus the drive to get urban Zero Emission Mobility could very well result (probably will) in added emissions elsewhere; therfore turning it into Remote Emission Mobility.

  2. Gady Shlasky says:

    Beside the positive side, there are also challenges:
    A. As of today, the electric bus is significantly more expensive than a diesel bus, but the cost is expected to go down.
    B. Adjustments must be made to the energy system according to the area in which the bus operates.
    C. The conventional charging system limits the driving distance. Charging systems that enable long driving distance are stile very expensive.
    D. Building a working plan (schedule) for an electric bus should consider a variety of parameters about the energy system.
    E. Real-time energy system monitoring is required to prevent malfunctions and delays.

    Optibus, that develops solutions to optimizing the use of vehicles and drivers in real-time, added special modules for electric buses both for building optimal working plans and for real-time monitoring and rescheduling.

    There is no doubt that the advantages of the electric bus, and especially its contribution to the quality of life of all of us, justify the efforts and costs required in the initial stages of implementation.

  3. Alkè says:

    Electric buses can help our cities and towns becoming less polluted. Sustainable mobility is very important for the environment and for our health. Air pollution is growing rather than decreasing, so Governments around the world need to intruduce sustainable means of transport in their Countries.

  4. Thanks for the article. Apart from all the technical advantages of running electrical buses, our environment will be less polluted. This would be a great initiative to improve the air quality.

  5. Sara Wilson says:

    I think electric buses are a great idea.. It will be excellent for the environment…. The sooner all modes of transport are electric the better.

  6. Chris W. says:

    It’s interesting to see how transport is slowly moving towards electric. I think it’s going to be a long process though and a lot of obstacles in the way yet.

  7. The electric transportation will be the future not matter what!

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