All-electric buses on the horizon

2020 wasn’t all bad. After months of lobbying by QCAN and others, the MBTA announced that a few dozen climate-friendly battery electric buses will be used at a new bus depot planned for southwest Quincy.

Quincy’s current bus depot, built on Hancock Street in 1904, is too small to fit buses manufactured after 2010, making Quincy’s diesel-only buses the oldest – and the dirtiest – in the state. These buses spew out pollution that harms people’s health and greenhouse gases that heat the planet. (Transportation is in fact the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.)

So when the MBTA announced plans about a year ago to build a new depot at the former Lowe’s site near Quincy Adams T Station, QCAN worked with city councilors to press for an all-electric bus fleet for the new facility.

It was a hard sell. The MBTA said it has been testing five all-electric, or battery electric, buses, and that the stated mileage range for each battery charge falls significantly in cold weather. Charging the battery also takes time, which can affect how often the buses can run their routes, and the T initially aimed to fill the new bus depot with diesel-hybrid buses. These have small battery packs that recharge when the bus decelerates, reducing the buses’ reliance on their diesel engines. 

While an improvement over Quincy’s current buses, these hybrids would still emit about 70% of the toxic pollutants as all-diesel buses. Battery electric buses, on the other hand, produce no tailpipe emissions and are cheaper than diesel hybrids over their lifetimes, thanks to lower costs from fuel and maintenance – not to mention public health benefits due to reduced levels of asthma and other respiratory conditions. Their range is also expected to improve with advancements in battery technology, and simply by keeping the buses indoors overnight in cold temperatures, since the batteries wouldn’t have to work as hard to heat up the buses.

Happily, after sustained pushback from QCAN, among others, the MBTA changed course and on December 16 announced that between 30 and 50 of its 130-odd buses will be all-electric when the new bus depot opens in 2024, with all of the buses stored inside the new depot overnight. Eventually, it aims to have an all-electric fleet.

“This represents the first facility that we are really going to modernize to support our conversion to battery electric buses. We are happy to say that based on analysis of our Quincy routes operating out of this garage, the MBTA does intend to open the facility with at least a partial fleet of battery electric buses,” the MBTA’s Scott Hamwey said, according to the Patriot Ledger. “We are really excited about it.”

Green transportation advocates will need to stay vigilant to ensure that the MBTA keeps this commitment. 

– Susan Kane and Maggie McKee