Is electric the transit of the future?

April 5, 2017 Vawn Himmelsbach

Winnipeg Transit looks at new technologies to save fuel and reduce emissions.

Winnipeg Transit electric bus

Transportation is evolving, from hybrid cars to self-driving vehicles. But when it comes to public transit systems — which are desperately trying to keep up with urban densification and population growth — it’s a challenge to modernize while staying on budget and helping the environment.

This is one challenge that transit authorities like Winnipeg Transit are tackling with innovative approaches.

Bjorn Radstrom Winnipeg Transit

Newly released data from the 2016 national census shows that population growth in Winnipeg’s greater metropolitan area is outpacing the national growth rate. The city’s population increased by 6.6 per cent since the last census in 2011, and Statistics Canada ranks Winnipeg as the ninth fastest growing city in Canada.

For Bjorn Radstrom, Manager of Transit Service Development with Winnipeg Transit, that means exploring new options to make transit not only more efficient, but future-ready.

The need for alternative fuels

The transit system — which has a fleet of more than 600 buses, most of which run on diesel — has seen a lot of growth on its main routes. “There’s a push in a lot of cities to build up the ‘city within the city,’ ” he said. “The general goal of any city now is to lure people out of single-occupant cars onto transit.”

Winnipeg Transit electric bus on streetWhile new buses are typically more efficient than older models, to meet environmental standards they require a complicated emission control system that adds weight to the bus, increases fuel consumption and is costly to maintain. That’s one reason why transit authorities are experimenting with alternative fuels.

Winnipeg Transit, for example, is running a pilot project with four New Flyer Xcelsior battery-electric buses, in partnership with the City of Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro, New Flyer Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Red River College and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Hop onboard the electric bus

The zero-emission buses, which run an 80-kilometre round-trip route over two hours (starting from the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport through downtown and on to East Kildonan), help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Manitoba, nearly 100 per cent of the electric grid is generated without burning fuel, so the use of electric buses translates to an estimated reduction of 160 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per bus, per year.

Winnipeg Transit of the future electric bus

Each electric bus will do a single round trip, with a rapid charge at the airport (for 10-12 minutes), which gets the battery back up to about 90 per cent — even when the air-conditioning is on. The batteries, however, are no match for Winnipeg winters, which would drain them in no time flat, so heat is powered by a small diesel generator.

“We can operate all day long with the four electric buses on that route. Back at our garage we put in trickle chargers or slow chargers, so they slowly recharge overnight,” said Radstrom. “At the airport, there was enough capacity in the grid that we could put a rapid charger there.”

Charging forward with a big shift in business

There are challenges, however, with scaling a project like this; charging four electric buses is one thing, but charging 600 is another. Instead of a five-minute layover at the end of each route, buses would require 10 minutes of charging time, which would mean more buses and more drivers to maintain service levels.Winnipeg Transit electric bus

“It changes a lot of the backend system that the public never sees,” said Radstrom. “A fundamental shift in fuel requires a fundamental shift in your business.”

That’s why Winnipeg Transit is continuing to explore other options, such as buses that run on compressed natural gas. For that, however, they’d need a bus garage that’s designed or retrofitted with a host of safety features, including blast-proof walls.

Battle of the alternative fuels

Winnipeg Transit has already built its first rapid transit bus corridor and is building a second, set to open in April 2020. Part of the long-term infrastructure plan includes a bus garage designed to accommodate different types of fuels, from electric to compressed natural gas.

It’s hard to say at this point which alternative will win out — or if we’ll see more of a hybrid approach.

Some cities are testing hybrid diesel-electric buses with great success, but this won’t be the right solution for every city. “We did a test of one about 10 years ago and it worked fine,” said Radstrom. “The problem was, because of Winnipeg’s cold climate it didn’t offer fuel savings over a regular bus. For cities like L.A., it’s a completely different story — in warmer climates, it’s working very well.”

While transit of the future will be more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly, it could also improve the overall customer experience. Feedback from riders on Winnipeg’s electric buses has been positive, said Radstrom.

The buses are quiet and the ride feels smoother, thanks to a regenerative braking system (which recharges the battery every time the bus brakes). The future of transit, though, is still a work in progress.

“We don’t want to be technology-focused, we want to be performance-focused,” said Radstrom, “whichever technology allows us to save on fuel and reduce emissions.”

Up Next: You might see more electric buses in the near future, but how are electric cars doing on our streets? Check out Are we entering the era of electric cars in Canada?

Are we entering the era of electric cars in Canada?

About the Author

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as CBCNews.ca, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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