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Who will make the green revolution happen? Transit authorities

Feb. 9, 2017
Article by Nicolas Pocard

Zero Emission Starts With Leadership.png
Image Credit: US Department of Transportation

Who will make the green revolution happen? Transit authorities

There is no denying it: across the globe, the public wants greener, cleaner cities. And increasingly, politicians are listening. The recent Paris COP21 Accord is evidence, and many of the world’s larger cities have announced their intent—and in some cases, specific timelines—for limiting or eliminating diesel-powered public transport in favor of zero-emission vehicles. Some feel that internal combustion engines will eventually fade away, and we are on the precipice of the electrification of transportation. But, sentiment and pressure is one thing. Actually making the transition to zero-emissions transit is another.

Taking a higher-level view of costs and benefits

One of the large impediments to change is the narrow way that transit is funded. Diesel buses have a lower purchase price than their zero-emission replacements, but those savings do not take in the health and other costs of air pollution. The full costs of diesel pollution are enormous and society-wide, and when the total cost picture is considered, zero emission transit is far more beneficial.

However, phasing in a new public transit technology is expensive. Fuel-cell electric buses (FCEB) cost more on a bus-per-bus basis, and require new infrastructure. In many regions, grants are available to help fund the transition, and governments are exploring new funding strategies. I believe that more attention and emphasis must be paid to developing strategies for offsetting the costs of infrastructure and training. Shall we allocate future health cost saving to clean transportation infrastructure projects?

Transit agencies are key enablers

The people who run transit systems are in the best position to accelerate and facilitate the transition to FCEB. They understand their local requirements. They know their practical realities and have the best idea of how quickly they can phase out diesel and phase in zero-emission options. Transit agencies should set ambitious targets with deadlines for replacement of conventional bus fleets. They can influence policymakers to dictate the percentages of diesel vs., zero-emission vehicles. They are in the strongest position to put pressure upward—on higher levels of government—to create the required grants and subsidy structures to support the transition.

Transit managers can effect change

To be effective, change must begin at the top, and within the transit agencies, it’s the General Managers who will be drivers of the coming change. They must be leaders—with the support of their Boards—and establish the objectives, programs and timelines as highlighted by Lauren Skiver at Sunline, a progressive California transit agency. They need the authority to implement the necessary changes, and the political skills to gain agency-wide backing. They require the support of their operations and maintenance teams, who will be naturally concerned for the effects of change on routes, drivers, service and maintenance, and more. It will take true leadership to get past the inevitable critics and naysayers. The changes and programs that they initiate will have repercussions across their entire transportation systems.

We can get there if we try!

We are truly on the cusp of a major societal change. The pressure that brought us to this tipping point came from below, from the general public. But it is up to transit professionals, including the general managers, board members and agency directors, to turn public pressure into meaningful transformation. This is as it should be: they will be the faces of change, and the first to receive credit from the public as their transit systems become cleaner and greener.

Join in the conversation. What are your thoughts on this blog?

To learn more, perhaps you’d be interested in reading the key takeaways and findings from the 2016 International Zero Emission Bus Conference. Please download a white paper that summarizes government and industry positions, with reports from early adopters who have deployed FCEBs. It includes links to all conference presentations and related resources. The download link is below.

Fuel Cell Whitepaper - International Zero Emission Bus Conference

White Paper: International Bus Conference

London's Mayor Sadiq Khan paving the way towards the elimination of double-decker diesel buses in the capital's fleet.

Download Now