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.