How fast can we move to electric vehicles?  If we could electrify most vehicles (and also supply the electrical grid with renewable energy), we could make the transportation sector carbon neutral and much cleaner.

The Governor’s Transportation Commission noted that adoption of electric vehicles has been “stubbornly slow”. Even the most optimistic forecasts put electric vehicles at 1/3 of the global fleet in 2040 (530 million out of 1.6 billion vehicles).

Currently electric vehicles are more expensive than gas vehicles, but the cost differential appears to be closing. The other barrier to expansion of electric vehicles is the problem of charging them. We need to build out a network of charging stations, and no one has developed a battery that can be refilled as quickly as a tank of gas.

Charging sessions can be built into the route cycles of regional and local buses and trains without inconveniencing customers. So, at this point, the pathway to full electrification of public transit seems clearer than the pathway to full electrification of cars and trucks.

The MBTA’s Focus 40 planning document (which was approved by the MBTA board at its March 18 meeting) puts a “phased conversion to zero-emissions fleet” in the “We’re Planning” category — intended to be accomplished by approximately 2040.

The MBTA has ordered five electric buses for testing and the Focus 40 document states that: “Once successful electric bus pilot programs are complete and a capital plan for the facilities has been developed, the MBTA will commit to a target date for transitioning the fleet”. Representative Rogers has sponsored a bill that sets a deadline of 2035 for the transition.

Belmont and Watertown readers will be interested to know that the MBTA is thinking seriously of making the 71 and 73 trolley buses among the first to be replaced with battery electric buses. The trolley buses are beyond the end of their useful life and the prospect of converting them to battery and eliminating the trolley wires was raised publicly in a board discussion of maintenance facilities planning on March 25: the Bennett Street garage in North Cambridge that currently services the 71 and 73 could be converted to a battery bus maintenance facility within the next five years. The MassDOT Capital Plan includes $53 million for acquisition of electric buses, mostly in the 2020-2023 time frame.

As to the commuter rail fleet, the Focus 40 document is less committal, putting electrification in the “We’re Imagining” category. The Rail Vision Study, intended for completion later this year, will lend more definition to the issue of rail electrification.

Diesel exhaust contains highly toxic substances, so electrification of all buses and trains is a public health priority as well as a climate change mitigation priority, especially in the urban core.

Uber and Lyft are changing the way people get around: Some see synergy between electrification, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles and project that electric vehicles will take a higher market share among vehicles used for ride-sharing and autonomous driving.

We have to view the popularity of Uber and Lyft with both hope and concern. True shared rides — where more than one passenger rides in the vehicle — can reduce congestion, but single rider Uber and Lyft trips add to congestion. We are seeing the congestion caused by the popularity of Uber and Lyft at Logan and all across the inner core.

A well designed and completely reliable network of buses and trains is the necessary foundation of urban transportation and that network needs to be electrified to be sustainable. The vision is becoming increasingly clear in the community of people who talk about transportation in the Boston region. But we need to put the funding in place to achieve the vision.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

47 replies on “Electrifying public transportation”

  1. Very glad to see you pursue this topic, Will, and to know that some planning is underway to electrify the MBTA. I’m sure the problems with charging electric cars are real, but I also understand that rapid gains in charging and battery storage are being made. That said, it would be useful to develop other aspects of a comprehensive plan: who will install, own and pay for charging stations? Can they be required by code for new residential structures? What sorts of incentives might facilitate conversion from gas to electric? And are we really on track to electrify the grid and add more capacity for transportation, home heating, and more? These many logistical problems are daunting, but we really have to solve them, and fast. Thanks for moving this discussion forward.

    1. Building out charging stations is going to be an interesting mix of public and private. Ultimately, most of the investment is likely to be private, but we need to figure out how to encourage it.

  2. Brookline has just started a shard-scooter pilot program which I have been following closely. As an experiment, I bought an electric Razor Ecosmart scooter and have been riding it around town on errands. It has 16″ wheels, has a seat, and handles potholes well. It’s almost a bicycle without pedals. Because it has a basket, I can carry groceries where I would normally use a car. For more, see this 2-minute YouTube video at
    The current shared-scooter program is a 6-month pilot to allow kinks to be worked out. This mode of alternative transportation, with attention to implementation, and possible improvements (such as larger wheels, a basket, and a seat), seems to have a lot of potential for short-range, economic, pollution-free urban transit. As Will points out, larger capacity batteries that are economical (or exchangeable batteries) also need to be developed.
    These kick-scooters seem to be often considered as toys. They often are ridden on sidewalks; one reason that may be riding on the sidewalk is because of the potholes and grates in the streets.
    If we want to encourage proper use on streets, we may have to improve street paving. And just as we are adding electricity for plug-in electric cars, we may need to start providing plug-in facilities for electric scooters.

  3. Hi Will,
    Electrification is one way to reduce emissions in MA. It is not the only way, though near term it looks like the most promising. If the hydrogen storage problem is solved, then hydrogen engines or fuel cells would be other ways to reduce polluting emissions.

    1. That’s what I’ve been hearing also; there is a limit to how fast a battery can be charged (and it’s unclear whether there’s enough lithium for half a billion vehicle batteries), but pumping hydrogen could be almost as fast as pumping gas. The problem is establishing the network; electrical wires are already in place. ISTM that the T should be thinking about hydrogen in the longer term, since most buses never get far from their home bases and so could refuel at a small number of sites, but it’s not clear when hydrogen will be available in bulk.

      1. These are appealing options. Right or wrong, my impression is that T planners don’t see hydrogen fuel cells or combustion as an adequately reliable option yet. The MBTA makes huge investments in propulsion systems and so it has to be conservative and go with seasoned technologies — diesel or electric.

  4. Thank you for this Will. There are many reasons why having a diesel train layup yard in Allston is a bad idea, and this statement you make is one of them.

    “Diesel exhaust contains highly toxic substances, so electrification of all buses and trains is a public health priority as well as a climate change mitigation priority, especially in the urban core.”

  5. Will,
    Also important, electric train can accelerate much more quickly then diesel and make more frequent transit type service more feasible. They also dramatically reduce the exhaust requirements in enclosed space such as those that have so bedeviled Back Bay Station. A north-south connector with diesel is a terrible idea.

  6. As always, we learn from your careful research. Thanks once again.

    ISTM that we are at a socio-cultural decision-point akin to the Edison-Tesla period in the late 19th century: hydrogen or electrification of public transport. Both will need massive infrastructure investments. I know too little about either option’s planning-funding-implementation obstacles, but investigating each would surely cast more light on both these seemingly promising alternatives.

  7. Will,
    Yes, we need to do this, and large vehicle fleets (be it MBTA buses or UPS delivery trucks) can do it more easily than private autos. However, it will be difficult, will be -more- expensive than expected, and will provide -fewer- environmental and other benefits than expected.

    If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Similarly, if you think these taxes are expensive, try the costs of climate change, including rising tides (these -won’t- lift all boats) and regional flooding. (Keep those new pumps at Amelia Earhart Dam in good shape!)

    Electrifying vehicles is -not- carbon-neutral. Yes, it relocates the combustion of fossil fuels from city streets to power plant (where fossil fuels provide 2/3 of the energy), makes more efficient use of it (more vehicle miles per unit of fossil fuel), and reduces emissions per unit of fossil fuel (power plant scrubbers are cleaner than automotive catalytic converters), but it is -not- carbon neutral.

    It’s -a- solution, not -the- solution.

    An important advantage of battery vehicles that get their electricity from fossil fuel or windpower is that they can be charged at night, when demand and cost are both lower. However, that is a disadvantage if the electricity comes from solar power, not available at night.

    The cost issue is big, especially in a state like Massachusetts, where the last attempt to raise our ridiculously low gas tax was repeated by popular vote.

    Although higher taxes are always a lead balloon, we need a carbon tax. We need a higher gas tax. And, we also need a mileage tax (along with good laws on odometer tampering!).

  8. As for the buses – this might be a possibility using a similar set up to some of the silver line which uses the same technology as the buses to Belmont and Watertown Square along with Huron and North Cambridge. As for the commuter rail – That is a cost per mile issue – after all putting up catenary system is quite expensive but looking toward engines that are a combination diesel electric and electric should be investigated so that even with power down – the trains can still run – or run on non-electrified tracks. Now the one technology missing from the T is a cable car – Can we get a cable car to run up and down Beacon Hill ?

  9. Electrifying public transport is an idea which is very timely. We should look into Solar Powered Charging stations due to the fact that we are already being impacted by Climate Change as is evidenced by the extreme hurricanes we’ve been witnessing, the extreme fires in California and the extreme flooding in the Mid West. We’re looking at Climate Chaos and we’re behind in our actions.

  10. !Thank you very much Will for the updates and all your Effort**
    Public Transit is paramount for me.
    Gracias ? Jeffrey S.


  11. I have no problem with electric charging stations for automobiles but the users should pay for their charges I do not wish to pay for their free ride.
    The second concern is that we need a way for electric vehicles to start paying for road repairs in lieu on a gas tax. Fair is fair!

  12. Hi Will,
    As an engineer, I am aware that electric power generation wastes 35% or so of the input energy (as heat), then about 15% of the generated electricity is lost due to power transmission. Solar systems and batteries have other issues that depend on the particular design. So there is an inefficiency in power transmission and storage, which contributes to our carbon footprint.

    Part of the system-wide footprint will be in the equipment manufacturing and maintenance costs. If we take the entire system as a whole, is the ecological cost lower to build out electric busses with batteries, or hybrid buses, or “trackless trolleys?” I would wonder whether a relatively low-tech system like the trolley lines might have a lesser footprint as it doesn’t require costly batteries, chargers and electronics.
    It’s funny that the old trolleys from the Green line are being renovated for use in San Francisco…

    And these days we have to be sure, are we displacing ecological impacts to a low-income neighborhood by the power plant? Or displacing impacts out of the country by sourcing Lithium from an unsafe mine in a third world nation?

    Thanks for looking into this!

  13. We need to proceed with electrified public transportation. At the same time people will still drive cars. It would be better if the cars were electric. My family has an all electric car, but charging is very difficult in Back Bay Boston, where most do not have a personal garage or a place to charge. This is true in most city environments.
    Please do a pilot of installing charging stations at selected street parking spaces. There is already electricity along the streets for the street lights. People could pay with credit cards and the city/state could make a profit for the coffers. Not having a good charging option is delaying the move to electric cars. Need this now.

    1. This would indeed be a good investment to encourage folks to switch to electric vehicles.

  14. Thank you Will. Underpinning these ideas is the issue of how to make the electrical grid itself , or the sources of elctric power “cleaner” or less carbon-intensive, which raises the question among others of what mix of baseload, i.e. continuous, and inherently variable (solar, wind) sources of power makes the most sense to achieve a reliable power grid. Some argue that nuclear power is an essential component of the mix, others disagree strongly, referring to events at Chernobyl, Five Mile Island, and Fukushima as well as concerns about nuclear waste as justification. I have my own opinion on this controversial matter, but more fundamentally I am not aware of any serious evaluation or debate of this question in the US in recent years.

    1. I’ve heard it said that the absence of nuclear in current planning is more of a cost issue than a policy decision. The costs, including liability, put it out of range. Can others can confirm or deny this?

  15. Thanks for the update, Will, this is very interesting. Electric MBTA buses are a very reasonable way to reduce air pollution (and noise pollution) in the cities. Electric buses are great for start-and-stop urban traffic, and they recapture some power usually lost in braking increasing efficiency. In the long run might have reduced costs compared to diesel buses. MBTA may want to wait a little before making a big investment in electric buses, since battery prices are expected to drop rapidly for the next 5 years, and early-adopters such as Shenzhen are now working out the kinks in how to transition to and operate an all-electric bus system. (Shenzhen is the first big city in the world to go to an-electric bus system. Shenzhen has 16x as many buses as Boston and retired its last diesel bus in December.)
    Charging these buses takes a lot of electric power, >100 kW to charge just one bus, so specialized charging facilities with large wires to the electric grid will be needed. (For comparison, the wire providing electricity to a house only carries about 10 kW). This surely can be done, but it will add complexity and cost during the transition period since some of the places where the MBTA currently keeps large numbers of diesel buses overnight do not have the high power electric cables that e.g. North Cambridge does. Solar charging is not attractive, in part because a lot of the charging will have to be done at night before the morning rush hour. Today most of the power needed to charge the buses in Boston would come from natural gas, but maybe in the future most of it might come from hydro or wind depending on future acts of the legislature.

  16. I am all for battery electric buses, but shouldn’t we be converting the diesel buses to battery electric before we even consider replacing the electric trolleybuses? The electric trolleybuses are already clean and reliable and don’t require recharging. They’re also more efficient than battery electric buses since the electricity doesn’t have to flow through batteries. Lastly, the electric trolleybuses perform better in cold weather and on hills than current battery electric buses do. Why replace something that’s already clean and working very well?

        1. I would say that we should buy new trolleybuses and just keep that system going. It’s clean and reliable. We can start replacing diesel buses with battery electric in the meantime and work out all the kinks that will inevitably come with that before replacing the trolleybuses.

        2. Was the 72 trolley line considered too? It runs through residential neighborhoods in Cambridge (Huron and Concord Ave).

        3. The twenty-eight 71 and 73 trolley buses in serveice are pretty new. They and the electric Silver Line trolleys were put in service in 2004 (numbers 4101-4128).
          The older GE Flyers of 1976 (numbers 4000-4029) were retired by 2008 and sold to the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, or scrapped,

    1. Traditional trolley buses are better than electric battery buses here in New England, according to Commonwealth Magazine, May 25, 2019 :
      “In our view, the right solution is not (at this time) to move toward large scale adoption of battery buses, but to re-invest in and expand the MBTA’s fleet of electric trolley buses – a technology with a 100-plus year proven record of performance.
      “… for now, the electric trolley buses are far superior to the battery buses, which simply do not have the available power to adequately heat the bus when the temperature is below freezing. [Winter] is when batteries drain most rapidly.
      “… on a day in New York when the temperature was 19 degrees, about 20 percent of battery power went to propulsion, 40 percent to heating, and 40 percent to other features such as the kneeling system (used when the bus “kneels down” to the curb to meet passengers who have difficulty stepping up).”

      1. This is a valid thought: Batteries don’t do well in the cold. On the other hand, Trolleys really limit operational flexibility for buses and trolley wires are unsightly and not negligible in cost — it was roughly $2m to replace just the wires, not the poles on Belmont Street.

        I think we have to live into the electric era, experimenting carefully as we go. The T is doing that.

  17. Thanks for sharing this news about electric buses. I am pleased to learn that bus lines 71 and 73 will be among the first to deploy the new vehicles.

  18. Very encouraging to hear about that facilites planning meeting. That being said, we’d been hearing that Watertown’s Bus Barn is already an important electric maintenance facility and frankly, the place is underutilized, serving mostly as a warehouse for old parts. We’ve talked with the T about a vision for the site becoming a maintenance base for electric busses but the conversation seems to keep getting brushed aside. Why?
    Can you please bring the future of the Yard and Carhouse into those facilities meetings sometime soon?
    It’s an ugly stain on a neighborhood that’s increasingly beautifying. It’s valuable real estate, also. Store those parts somewhere outside 128.

    Lastly, the state is about to invest in a large road project all along the 71 line in Watertown. If planners knew that the wires were coming down sooner, it would save us all a lot of time and money if we didn’t have to put those poles back up after construction finishes. I know you’re aware of this but wanted to throw it back out there as something to stress when you’re meeting with MassDOT leadership and advocating on our behalf. —Thanks, Will.

  19. I am really worried by the MBTA’s eagerness to destroy its existing zero emissions transportation infrastructure. Battery buses are improving but they still have issues in cold climates. Indeed, the battery buses running in Minnesota have diesel fueled heaters just so their batteries can last a reasonable time in the cold, so they’re not even zero emissions! The other alternative is a bus system that just stops working for the coldest days of the year, or provides much-reduced service.

  20. I am for anything that moves towards electrified public transportation. You make a good point that the cost differential appears to be closing.

  21. Where is the electricity for the Cambridge trackless trolley produced? I think the line has been running for over seventy years. Not the original buses, but the line. It’s safe, clean and quiet. Our forefathers knew how to think for the future. I hope we can do the same.

  22. Interesting discussion about bringing battery powered buses in to replace the electric fleet. Given that the electric buses go through Harvard station, will new battery buses be equipped with a left side door to access the platforms for the buses heading from Massachusetts Avenue and heading toward Belmont and Watertown?
    Also, will the new battery buses also run on the 77 route into Arlington?

  23. I do feel like we are moving towards solutions at an incredibly slow rate and a pilot program for 5 busses falls in line with that. From what I read those buses were ordered back in 2015 which again shows the slow steps that are being taken. We are not the first city to be running electric bus so what is the timeline for the pilot program? ( Electrification of public transportation is very important and I believe it needs to be pushed to happen as quickly as possible and I would like to see an effort put into to working with the colleges and universities in the area to push them to convert their vehicles as well. Thanks Will for keeping us updated.

    1. unfortunately, it will take at least 10 years for MBTA to do anything…
      They need 48 people to traffic management the red line at 10 trains per hour service.
      And they need at least 10 years to switch out the deteriorating cars in redline and orange line.
      10 years, as if MBTA engineers is soldering every car together themselves.

  24. Surprisingly Atlanta and surrounding metro area has lots of electric vehicles and charging networks. I moved to the area five years ago from Boston. Might be able to learn from Georgia what worked well and what didn’t. I have an electric car here now that I have a garage to charge it in. In Boston MBTA was great and I didn’t need a car.

  25. Electrification is definitely necessary; however, I would caution against removing the overhead trolley wires and moving everything to lithium batteries. Batteries have their own environmental and national security concerns, with China controlling almost all of the supply chain.

  26. Side question, are the electric buses the MBTA has ordered using modular or non-modular batteries?

  27. Dear Will,
    As a life long resident/homeowner on North Harvard St, Allston I have lived with the air, noise, diesel fumes and traffic congestion of MBTA buses (often stacked up 2,3,4, buses at a time–the first bus loaded with passengers packed in like sardines and the rest empty), Harvard events such as Commencement, Reunions, Athletic events, Boston Calling concerts, Boston Public Schools buses, UPS vehicles, hazardous materials tankers, oversized construction vehicles, Dept. of Trans. dump trucks picking up-unloading salt from the Everett Street City Yard to spread salt on icy/snowy roads all hours of the night, for years with no end in sight. The air pollution leaves a fine black dust on my windowsills every day similar to toxins that the coal miners who inhale resulting in black lung disease. The noise pollution from this constant parade of trucks and buses is off the chart, requiring me to run air-conditioning in the summer so I can sleep and breathe as these engines idle waiting for the light to change. Many of my neighbors suffer from asthma and other breathing problems. Something needs to be done to alleviate this hazardous traffic. Every day there is a news story about trucks overturning, cars running into/through houses. I fear there will be a horrible accident some day on North Harvard St. due to the congestion with skateboarders, bicycle riders, roller skaters, joggers, etc. navigating the shared single lane street in both directions. A true solution needs be developed to fix these problems, please.

  28. Hi Will,
    thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
    My only concern is that how would the extreme weather in new England affect battery life for the proposed plan? Would that affect the cost effectively of any electrified buses?

    Most of the pollution comes from traffic congestion. What you might be surprised to discover is that slower moving vehicles cause more pollution than cars moving at freeway speeds.

    The road system we are traveling on is so outdated and overwhelmed. And MBTA is a daily frustration to ride with. That forced more people to drive and get stuck in traffic.

    Creating a better road network in Boston suburbs( and expanding public transportation networks) is a better solution than electrifying current systems.

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