SFMTA to Test Battery-Electric Buses

In an effort to wean itself off fossil fuels, the transit agency is exploring whether a new-fangled fleet of shuttles can handle the city’s...

Keep your ears peeled for a new timbre of whirring and moaning on the streets of San Francisco. Around town, you may start to see — and barely hear — a new breed of Muni bus, completely powered by electricity.

The new bus is part of a pilot program in which the SFMTA will test the capabilities of battery-electric bus technology, as the agency looks to reduce its carbon footprint. The bus will ply some of the city’s most challenging routes, and climb the city’s steepest hills. The idea is to find out whether these new buses can handle all the hard work SFMTA’s current bus fleet endures.

“SFMTA is proud to be a leader in addressing the climate crisis,” said Julie Kirschbaum, SFMTA Director of Transit, in a statement. “We’re committed to embracing the greenest fleet possible and getting people out of private vehicles and into more sustainable modes of transportation.”

SFMTA already has a very green bus fleet. Of its more than 900 buses, about two-thirds are hybrids, using diesel fuel as well as electricity. The remaining third are electric trolley buses that get their power from overhead wires, like Muni Metro’s light rail trains. Muni accounts for 26 percent of all trips in San Francisco, but contributes just 0.3 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

However, battery-electric buses could help the agency fully electrify its fleet, totally eliminating the need for fossil fuels. The agency has committed to only purchasing electric buses starting in 2025, and having an all-electric fleet by 2035.

The battery-electric bus currently being piloted is built by Build Your Dreams, a Chinese company also known as BYD, the world’s largest producer of battery-electric buses. The 40-foot vehicle can seat 29 people and has a range of 225 miles on a single charge. It will also be very quiet — think of a Tesla, but bigger. 

While this technology is widely seen as a promising way to “decarbonize” the public transportation sector, some early adopter transit agencies have experienced reliability issues. A recent article in Vice reported that Foothill Transit in Southern California has been forced to retire some of its battery-electric buses earlier than planned due to repeated maintenance issues. The buses, from a different company, Proterra, were taken off that system’s hilliest route due to poor performance.

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