The MBTA Needs to Switch to Electric Buses


At its October 5 meeting, our City Council urged the MBTA to switch to zero-emissions electric buses on all bus routes in Quincy, a change that would happen in 2024, on completion of the planned South Quincy bus barn. In a resolution cosponsored by Councilors Brian Palmucci, Noel DiBona, Nina Liang, and Anne Mahoney, the councilors point out that electric buses have one quarter the carbon footprint of the diesel hybrid buses the T is planning to bring to Quincy, a footprint that promises to diminish and eventually disappear as the electricity supply comes more and more from renewable sources. So switching to electric buses would be another step towards protecting us from the worst effects of climate change—things like the flooding and droughts, hurricanes and wildfires we’ve been seeing here in Quincy and around the world.

Making the switch to electric buses would also bring public health benefits. Living in a place with heavy vehicle traffic, including the traffic on I-93 and other arteries, most Quincy residents are keenly aware that breathing the air can be hazardous. Take asthma rates, for instance. One in nine Massachusetts residents suffers from asthma—including more than 10 percent of adults and almost 13 percent of children. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America named the Boston metropolitan area number eight on its list of the top 20 asthma capitals for 2019, based on estimated asthma prevalence, emergency department visits due to asthma, and asthma-related fatalities. By comparison, New York and Los Angeles, typically thought of as places with unhealthy air, don’t even make the top 20 list.

Switching to electric buses would help make our air more breathable. Unlike hybrid diesel buses, which spew 70 percent as much toxic pollutants and particulate matter as the old-style diesel buses, electric buses have zero tailpipe emissions; in fact, they don’t even have a tailpipe. And—good news for the T—over their lifetime, electric buses, with their lower fuel and maintenance costs, save substantial money compared to the diesel alternative.

The T explains its decision to bring the people of Quincy yet another generation of diesel buses by asserting that electric bus technology isn’t ready for use during Massachusetts winters. It’s true that the need to heat the buses in winter reduces the distance an electric bus can travel on a single charge, but that doesn’t mean the T is right. For one thing, there are well-known workarounds, including in-route charging (the buses get charged many times per day during driver break times or while making schedule adjustments), in-motion charging (by overhead wires on part of a route), and optional diesel or propane bus heaters that burn a few gallons per day of fuel while increasing the buses’ winter range, for a huge net reduction in pollution and CO2 emissions compared to those produced by any diesel bus. An even lower-tech fix used by many transit systems in colder climates is to garage electric buses overnight rather than parking them out of doors. This keeps the bus interiors warmer, thus reducing the heating load and extending buses’ range. Solutions like these have allowed transit systems in places like Oslo and Montreal to bring their cities the benefits of cleaner, quieter electric buses.

The T’s analysis contains an additional flaw in that it’s based on their testing of 60-foot-long electric buses whose range, they have reported, has been reduced to 60 miles per charge during winter, not enough for a full day of driving on a Quincy bus route. But electric bus technology is improving dramatically year by year; the T won’t need to order new buses for Quincy until 2023; the buses it’s testing are already outdated, by the T’s own admission; and they’ve never been garaged during overnight hours. What makes the T’s testing program even more irrelevant to Quincy is that buses used on Quincy routes are 40 feet long, much shorter than the buses being tested. In Finland, the cities of Helsinki and Turku, with climates considerably colder than ours, have just ordered 100 forty-five-foot-long electric buses. Even if those buses’ winter range is half the 250 miles being claimed by the manufacturer, it would suffice for all but a few Quincy bus routes.

Considering the growing sentiment in Quincy against a new-generation of diesel buses and the T’s expressed desire to be good neighbors, we sincerely hope T management will heed the call of our city council. As the councilors suggest, T managers should reconsider their plans and open their minds to the real capabilities of today’s electric buses and the benefits they promise to bring to our city.

David Reich is board chair of the Quincy Climate Action Network
Larry Chretien is executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance