Are Electric Buses The Future Of Mass Transit?

EV cars might be appearing slowly, but the lowly electric bus is having a big impact across the country.

A short battery range has been a big factor in the disappointing sales of many electric vehicles. But there’s one form of transport where that isn’t really an issue: buses. Most municipal routes in the U.S. are less than 20 miles, making EVs a viable–perhaps even preferable–alternative.


A dozen operators around the country now use electric buses from Proterra, a South Carolina company. Its new 40-foot, 77-seat, vehicle can go 30 to 40 miles on a single charge. And, crucially, that charge doesn’t take very long. A ten minute stop renews the supply, meaning the buses can operate more or less round the clock, according to CEO Ryan Popple.

Before joining the company, Popple spent four years at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he led an investment in Proterra. Before that, he was a financial executive at Tesla. He was attracted to Proterra by the promise of working in EVs again and by what he sees as a big opportunity to electrify transit.

That actually doesn’t sound as crazy as it might first appear, largely because the cost of the Proterra buses is falling fast. When it sold its first bus in 2010, the price tag was $1.2 million. Now it’s $800,000 (and the new bus is bigger than the old one).

That’s still up to double what a standard diesel bus would cost and perhaps $200,000 more than a natural gas bus. But then the cost of operation is far lower for electric than it is for those other fuels. Popple estimates operating costs of $100,000 over a bus’s 12 year lifetime, compared to $500,000 to $600,000 for a diesel bus. The EV pays for itself in the long-haul, he says.

Operators in Europe have experimented with “flash charging” to get around the range problem–quick bursts of power at stops to keep buses moving. But Popple says end-of-route charging makes more sense in U.S. cities, as operators tend not to have control over bus-stop infrastructure. Proterra uses a auto-aligning charging arm that locks in overhead (though its buses also come equipped conventional charging equipment, if necessary).

The buses are now operating in Florida, Tennessee, Nevada, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Proterra’s biggest customer is Foothill Transit, east of Los Angeles. Twelve Proterra buses ply the 291 route, with chargers at either end. About 650,000 customers traveled last year.


For air quality reasons, many operators have moved away from diesel in favor of either diesel hybrid or natural gas. But Popple argues that electric makes more sense in the long-term because its costs are only likely to fall, while the price of fossil fuels is uncertain.

“[With natural gas], you’re using a temporarily cheap commodity and wasting it as inefficiently as the old cheap commodity,” he says. “You’re going to see a future where electric buses [have] lower costs to operate, lower emissions, and higher performance. They’re going to obsolete [fossil fuel] combustion in transit.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.