China dominates the electric bus market, but the US is getting on board

Taking the bus to work can feel like the right thing to do — fewer cars mean fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Most buses in the US run on dirty diesel fuel

Emissions from diesel contribute to air pollution, lung diseases, and climate change.

The number of diesel buses in the US has steadily decreased over the past decade, replaced with compressed natural gas, biodiesel and diesel hybrid models. But electric battery buses — powered by renewable energy — run much cleaner.

In China, electric buses are everywhere. In the US, though… not so much. But the bus movement in the US is gaining momentum.

Not only are electric buses better for the environment, but they’re also much quieter than a traditional bus.

“You don’t hear the motor running, but you do hear the air conditioner,” says Doran Barnes, executive director at Foothill Transit, the agency that moves people around the east side of Los Angeles County.


Foothill Transit operates 33 electric buses, about a tenth of its overall fleet

“To the best of my knowledge, we have the largest electric bus fleet in operation in North America today,” Barnes says.

By comparison, the Chinese city of Shenzhen has some 16,000 electric buses. China has more than 400,000 electric buses, about 99% of the world’s total. That’s because a decade ago, China began prioritizing electrification of its public transit with subsidies and national regulations.

And in the US, the number of electric transit buses is in the hundreds. But those numbers are projected to grow rapidly as technology continues to improve and buses can go farther, as they’re proving at Foothill Transit.

“Buses operate 12 hours a day, not one hour a day like a passenger vehicle, so you’re really getting a lot more done by converting a transit bus than you would be converting anybody’s individual car.” – Dan Raudebaugh, Center for Transportation and the Environment.


190 miles can cover a lot of daily routes. But when the extended-range electric bus runs out of juice, that’s it for the day — it has to recharge overnight. With diesel, you just go to the pump and fill it back up.

“Diesel buses are tough to compete with,” said Dan Raudebaugh, executive director of the Center for Transportation and the Environment in Atlanta, Georgia. “If I buy a diesel bus, and its got a 100-gallon tank on it, the average diesel bus gets about 3.8 miles a gallon, I’ve got 380-mile range sitting there.”

Yes, diesel buses can go about twice as far as most electric ones. But Raudebaugh doesn’t think we should be burning so much diesel!

On the flip side, electricity rates to charge lithium battery buses are unpredictable and can fluctuate by the minute. All-electric buses can also cost about 50% more than most diesel buses, but that premium can be made up in fuel savings and lower maintenance costs.

And so, with no clear-cut best bus for tomorrow, transit agencies across the country are left to experiment. Many are working with the Silicon Valley start-up Proterra, the first, and largest, American-based electric bus manufacturer.

At a factory in Burlingame, California, robots group batteries into packs that look like ladders that will fit on the underside of a bus. Proterra doesn’t just build the vehicles — they also help transit agencies set up the charging infrastructure to improve the range for their buses.

Barnes says Foothill’s entire fleet will transition to zero-emission. It’s actually not that bold of a prediction — it’s the law. California is the first state to mandate such a changeover.

The state estimates that retiring diesel and gas buses over a 30-year span will be equal to taking 4 million cars off the road.

And here’s one more perk: A survey showed that passengers think drivers of all-electric buses are friendlier, too.

It’s time for clean, quiet transportation for all