As some parts of the world begin a cautious, gradual re-opening after COVID-19, the future of public transportation is a concern. Millions of people are returning to their daily routines, which include getting to and from work. But what will it take to get the public back to public transit? In many areas around the world, private vehicle usage increased during the pandemic, with negative effects on GHG emissions and local air quality.
In this article, we review and summarize recent public surveys that point to key areas of concern around ways to improve public transport and continue to attract ridership.
People should be encouraged to return to public transport
A recent survey in the UK shows that the proportion of people who plan to use public transport once restrictions are lifted is very similar to the proportion that used it before the pandemic. This is certainly encouraging. The result comes with the caveat that, in order to reduce emissions from private cars, more must be done to promote safe public transport and encourage its use.
1. Improve bus frequency
First and foremost, riders want buses to arrive more frequently. A full 80% of respondents to a 2020 Hamburg survey state that bus frequency is a top priority. The time spent waiting for the bus (sometimes in the rain) is a major part of their total transit time. Riders want the assurance that their bus will arrive soon, preferably in less than 15 minutes.
2. Improve bus ticketing systems
Streamlined ticketing systems are essential for transportation efficiency. People don’t want to wait in slow, crowded ticket lines, and touchless ticketing is critical for a virus-sensitive public.
Mobile phone-based ticketing, which allows passengers to use their phone as both ticket machine and ticket, received critical interest in Masabi’s report Public Transit Research Report 2020: Key Factors Influencing Ridership in North America.
This increased demand means transit operators must move faster to incorporate touchless, fully digitized payment systems.
3. Increase passenger comfort and safety
Safety and comfort have always been a concern for transit riders, and a post-pandemic public will have to be convinced that it is safe to return. Comfort levels are highly variable, largely depending on crowd density in peak hours.
According to an Istanbul survey, passengers feel uncomfortable when they perceive there’s less than a 40% probability of getting a seat—and today’s public is feeling increased anxiety and stress, and is very sensitive to invasions of privacy. Additionally, a recent Traveller Sentiment Survey found that, due to Covid-19, 52% of participants predict they will continue to feel uncomfortable taking public transit, even when the worst of the pandemic is over.
To bring passengers back, transit agencies must continuously monitor vehicle loads and consider changes to mitigate crowding. Taking other steps such as visible hygiene measures and mask-wearing can also help reassure passengers.
Transit agencies should also focus on improving the quality of the ride itself: a smoother, quieter bus ride can reduce stress and attract riders.
Zero-emission buses earn high marks from riders with their quiet and smooth operation. A 2020 survey in Hamburg, showed 95% of riders were “very satisfied” with their experience on a zero-emission bus, compared to 52% for conventional buses. They especially valued the quietness and steadiness of the e-buses, compared to the louder ride of conventional buses.
One of RVKs 37 fuel cell buses from Van Hool in Cologne, Germany © RVK
4. Reduce bus emissions and GHGs
The public is very aware of sustainability in public transport, and while any transit option is better for the environment than a private car, the public has a strong perception of the negative impacts of diesel buses on local air quality and climate change overall.
A 2020 Serbian survey, Students’ Views on Public Transport: Satisfaction and Emission found that young people are convinced that any—even minimal—improvement through the introduction of lower-emission transit is useful and necessary.
A Korean study showed that metropolitan bus passengers are willing to pay more to use zero-emission buses, knowing they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
How fuel cell electric buses can help bring the public back to public transit
Ballard powered fuel cell electric bus on the streets of Orange County (CA), Photo by Michael Goulding
Zero-emission buses can have a direct impact on improving transit ridership in a post-pandemic world. They improve sustainability and air quality. Their ride is quieter and smoother.
But these features do not address the public’s top concern—bus frequency. To maintain or improve bus frequency requires a zero-emission option that can directly replace diesel buses on a route-for-route basis.
Battery electric buses are often not appropriate, with their shorter route capability, long recharging times and reduced performance on hills, under loads and in cold weather.
For route-for-route replacement, the choice is the fuel cell electric bus —“the other electric bus”, powered by a hybrid of batteries and fuel cells. In fuel cell buses, onboard hydrogen fuel cells generate electric power that keeps the batteries charged. Fuel cell buses can directly replace diesel and CNG buses with no compromise in service.
With fuel cell electric buses, transit agencies and municipalities can address riders’ top concern—bus frequency—with a quiet, smooth-riding bus that emits no harmful exhaust.
Ballard powered Van Hool Fuel Cell Electric Bus operating in Pau, France
Key attributes of fuel cell electric buses
- Zero emissions at the tailpipe
- Consistent power in hot and cold weather
- Up to 300 mile/450 kilometer range between refueling
- 10 minute refueling time at a centralized depot
- Proven durability: fuel cell lifetime of 30,000+ hours
- Proven in the field: thousands of fuel cell transit buses are in use today, all around the world
Ballard is focused on zero-emission public transit solutions
Many communities are taking bold measures to improve transit with innovative public transport solutions. Today there are over 3,500 fuel cell electric buses servicing cities around the world. The desire to build better transit systems is also being driven by the need to prepare for a post-pandemic increase in ridership.
For forward-thinking transit operators, the first step is to learn about all the available options, including the fuel cell bus—the “other electric bus”. We at Ballard, with OEM partnerships across the globe, are always ready to discuss transit solutions and strategies.
Click below to learn more about fuel cell electric buses, and why they are a flexible option for zero-emission public transit.
This is an update of an article originally published in 2017.