Double-decker transit buses are an icon in London and a mainstay in other European cities, but stateside? Not so much.
But this week a transit agency serving commuters in the San Gabriel Valley just outside Los Angeles announced that it would add a pair of double-decker buses to its fleet. The fact that they’re electric makes them a double novelty.
“We believe that electric vehicles are there,” said Doran Barnes, executive director of Foothill Transit — the first transit agency in North America to use all-electric double-decker buses. Already, about a third of its 370-bus fleet is electric, and it plans to go entirely electric by 2030. “There’s still things to be learned,” Barnes said, “but we’re leaning in and leading the industry in advancing the technology.”
The double-deck buses can carry 80 passengers in the same footprint as a 38-passenger single-deck bus, Barnes said. In an increasingly congested part of the country where every inch of road space counts, stacking passengers holds the potential to reduce traffic.
And doing so on an electric platform also helps one of the region’s other entrenched issues: air pollution. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that electric buses were eight times more energy efficient than those that ran on natural gas.
“We wanted to help Foothill, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for us to develop a double-decker bus,” said Ryan Popple, chief executive of Proterra, one of two major electric bus companies based in California.
Proterra has built several of the 40-foot, single-level electric buses Foothill Transit already has in service. But for the electric double decker, Proterra is only providing the battery system, which is capable of up to 225 miles per charge, Popple said. The British bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis is making the double deckers at its plant in Indiana using a Proterra battery system made in Burlingame, Calif. Foothill Transit will add the buses to its fleet next year.
“This is an outside-the-box strategic move,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a bus transportation expert at DePaul University in Chicago. “We haven’t seen double deckers in transit service in this country, and you throw electric on and it’s really quite a novelty.”
Foothill is one of dozens of transit agencies throughout the country that has committed to electric buses. California transit agencies are the largest consumer of electric transit buses, followed by Indiana and Washington, according to the electric bus consulting firm EB START Consulting.
The number of battery-electric buses delivered to U.S. public transit agencies grew 83 percent in 2017, according to EB START. Although market penetration is just 0.5 percent of the total U.S. public transit bus market, 9 percent of the country’s transit agencies already have electric buses in service or have ordered them.
Foothill Transit started looking into double deckers a few years ago as a way to replace its 60-foot articulated buses. The long buses accommodate a large number of passengers, but the ride quality is poor. Double-decker buses offer a more comfortable, quieter ride with seating that’s high above traffic.
Community Transit, in the Seattle area, also uses double-decker transit buses, but they are diesel.
This week, Germany’s Daimler Buses unveiled a new double-decker bus called the Setra S 531 DT, which is conventionally fueled but could be electrified in the future. Daimler Buses will begin producing an all-electric version of its bestselling single-deck Mercedes-Benz Citaro city bus later this year and has committed to investing more than $233 million in electric, connected and automated driving through 2020.