Electric buses could be Scottsdale’s trolley of the future

(photo by city of Scottsdale)

(Special to the Independent/city of Scottsdale)

Perhaps the sleek silver bus zipping around the Scottsdale trolley routes over the past several days has caught your eye. That futuristic looking vehicle is one of the new zero-emission electric buses that Scottsdale is evaluating for future use.

Through a partnership between BYD Motors, Inc., maker of electric vehicles, and Dunn Transit, who has provided trolley service to Scottsdale for over 25 years, trolley riders are getting the chance to try out the new bus through the end of April.

“The region has an air pollution problem that’s been documented, and electric buses could be part of the solution,” Scottsdale Transportation Planning and Transit Operations Manager Madeline Clemann said. “Anything we can do to help with the air pollution problem is a good thing for Scottsdale to contribute to.”

The city’s trolley fleet currently consists of eight trolley vehicles and 13 diesel hybrid buses. Because the trolleys carry fewer passengers, are a little narrower and don’t have curb level boarding, requiring passengers to step up into the vehicle, the city has been transitioning to low-floor diesel hybrid buses designed to look like an old trolley but with modern features.

Electric Bus With Trolley Sign

(Special to the Independent/city of Scottsdale)

Federal guidelines suggest that medium-weight vehicles, such as the trolleys, be replaced after 10 years, and that the newer heavier duty hybrid buses be replaced after 12 years. The eight trolleys are due for replacement now, and the buses are due for replacement in 2025.

“As these diesel hybrids reach their 12-year point for replacement, we would hope to have enough evidence and information to know whether to replace them with electric vehicles,” Clemann said.

While the upfront cost of the electric buses is roughly 25 percent more than the diesel hybrid buses, the federal government pays 80 percent of that cost, and the electric buses cost less to run and maintain.

“We use an awful lot of fuel,” Clemann said. “When gas prices were high, our fuel was over $500,000 a year. That cost has dropped with the fuel prices, but we know they’ll go up again.”

The electric bus is charged from the grid at night when electricity is the lowest price per kilowatt. The energy is stored in an internal battery on the bus, which permits it to run distances comparable to diesel buses before needing to be recharged.

(Special to the Independent/city of Scottsdale)

(Special to the Independent/city of Scottsdale)

Margaret Dunn, owner of Dunn Transit, said that the buses are much cheaper to maintain, too.

“Bus drivers are able to plug in an electric vehicle at night. Currently, we have to pay someone to come in and fuel the buses,” Dunn said.

Electric buses also have much fewer moving parts.

“The trolley vehicle has 2,500 moving parts, and the diesel hybrid has 3,500. The electric vehicle is much less complicated with only 150,” Dunn said. “It’s a logical conclusion that if you have less moving parts, you’re going to have less likelihood of breakdowns.”

The electric buses also eliminate the need for fluids that not only leak but must be purchased and recycled.

Cheaper fuel and fewer parts and fluids all add up to quite a bit of savings over time.

“From a diesel bus to an electric bus, the savings are up to 70 percent,” Dunn said.

The electric bus currently being demoed on the trolley routes is a cheaper, smaller model, but because it’s narrower, most of the seats face sideways instead of forward to accommodate wheel chairs. While the side-facing seats are easier to get in and out of, passengers end up swaying from side to side as the bus speeds up and slows down, rather than forward and backward like in a car.

Electric bus seats (Special to the Independent/city of Scottsdale)

Electric bus seats (Special to the Independent/city of Scottsdale)

The seats are individual and upholstered, however, which eliminates the sliding that can happen on the trolley benches. The city is concerned that the seat arrangement  in the smaller electric bus might not be as comfortable as the seats in hybrid buses and is soliciting feedback through an online survey.

Data are still being gathered to make sure electric buses, which first debuted less than five years ago in China, can perform up to the standards of the diesel hybrid buses. One concern is their ability to function effectively in temperature extremes, such as those experienced during Scottsdale summers.

“BYD did a demo down in Yuma in the middle of summer, and the vehicle did great,” Dunn said.

If the city switches to electric buses in the future, they would be wrapped and outfitted to look like trolleys, just like the diesel hybrid buses currently in use.

Dunn Transit will be demoing the electric bus through the end of the April. If you’d like to give it a try, you can call Dunn Transit at 480-970-8130 to find out which route the bus is being demoed on.

Whether or not you get a chance to ride it, we’d like to know what you think of electric buses, including the option for side-facing seats. You can give us feedback through our online survey, which takes about four minutes to complete, or you can contact Madeline Clemann at 480-312-2732 with your thoughts or comments.

Editor's Note: Ms. Banks is a public information officer for the city of Scottsdale.

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