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The state of sustainable public transportation in North America

Adoption rates for electric public transportation are increasing—but is it enough?
A row of green buses make their way through a city street amidst a backdrop of tall buildings and trees.

In the quest to reduce carbon emissions, the United States and Canadian governments have introduced new programs to transition single occupancy and public transit vehicles from traditional fuel sources to more sustainable options. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for 28% of all United States-produced greenhouse gas emissions, making transitioning to sustainable public transportation a fundamental goal for achieving a zero-emission future.

But what does sustainable transit in North America look like in 2024? And will it meet the United Nations’ stated goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Sustainable public transportation is growing, but government funding is limited

The good news: Adoption of electric city buses continues to increase year over year. 

CALSTART’s annual report, Zeroing In on Zero-Emission Buses (ZEBs), measures the total number of electric transit buses in use throughout the United States and Canada. Its February 2024 report found that the number of ZEBs has increased by about 12% since 2022, totaling over 6,000 electric buses in the US and nearly 1,000 in Canada. 

California continues to account for most of this growth. However, other states like New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon have all expanded their use of electric public buses by over 50%. In Canada, Ontario accounts for nearly 61% of ZEB use throughout the country. This should change over the coming years, as Quebec plans to add nearly 1,300 electric buses to its transit fleet.

While any increase in electric public buses is excellent news, the number in use is a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly one million buses currently serving the U.S. population. Demand for replacing current inventory with sustainable public transportation is strong, but a lack of federal funding is a severe bottleneck to significantly improving adoption rates. According to CALSTART’s report, U.S. state and local governments submitted funding requests totaling over $8 billion, but The Federal Transit Administration was only awarded around $1.7 billion, highlighting a significant funding gap.

Much like personal electric vehicles, sustainable public transit has to reach a tipping point where the combined adoption rates, infrastructural capabilities, and quality charging software feed into each other until they reach critical mass. This can only happen with significant funding to support this transition. 

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Fuel cell electric buses are taking off 

Another interesting tidbit from CALSTART’s report: While battery-electric buses (BEBs) remain the most widely-used electric city bus, local governments are ramping up purchases of fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs), which saw over 75% year-over-year growth in 2023.

Unlike BEBs, which rely on lithium-ion battery technology like personal EVs, FCEBs rely on a hydrogen fuel cell to power the vehicle. Hydrogen fuel cells offer greater range than lithium-ion batteries and charge much more quickly—around ten minutes for FCEBs compared to an overnight charge for most BEBs. Plus, the only emission they produce is water, making them far cleaner than traditional fuel-based transit vehicles. 

Additionally, the Biden administration has approved the creation of several Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs (also known as H2Hubs), making the fuel required to expand and maintain a fleet of FCEBs much more accessible. As the infrastructure develops and hydrogen fuel cell technology matures, expect more local governments to embrace FCEBs to meet their transit needs.

Rail offers a considerable opportunity to improve sustainability

Like buses, rail transportation significantly reduces carbon emissions compared to personal vehicle or airplane travel. These emissions reductions increase even further with electric trains, which are currently primarily used to transport passengers. One study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that travel by electric train saw the lowest CO2 emissions compared to all other forms of transportation evaluated in the study. Even cargo trains, which continue to use diesel fuel in many cases, are still a more efficient way to transport goods across the country compared to trucks and other delivery vehicles. Converting these trains to renewable energy would offer significant gains in carbon reduction efforts.

As efficient as rail transportation already is, there’s still room for improvement—and recent projects show just how significant these gains can be. For example, the Delaware River Port Authority recently deployed the country’s first solar-powered high-speed heavy rail system. Utilizing over 50,000 high-efficiency solar panels throughout transit parking lots, this rail system can offset the carbon emissions of over 50 million passenger miles over the term of its 20-year contract. 

Meanwhile, the Seattle Link light rail system connects the metropolitan area’s various neighborhoods for millions of monthly riders. Since 2020, the system has been running on 100% renewable energy—the first in the country—through a partnership with Puget Sound Energy, which provides wind energy, and Seattle City Light, the nation’s first carbon-neutral energy provider. 

Building out or upgrading heavy and light rail projects throughout North America and encouraging their use alongside electric city buses has the potential to revolutionize how the public engages with transportation.

Jumpstarting public transit with zero-fare initiatives

Buying and implementing sustainable public transportation options will only go so far if people are unwilling or unable to use them. 

U.S. public transit use has declined since 2015 and saw an even more significant drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. This decline encourages local governments to decrease funding for transit services, which in turn pushes more people away from using them. This leads to a public transit landscape where 45% of Americans currently have little or no access to public transportation, and low-income families spend 30% of their after-tax income on transportation costs. 

Several cities throughout the U.S. have begun zero-fare pilot programs to staunch the bleeding while reducing carbon emissions, offering free rides to anyone who uses public transit, regardless of income. Denver’s recent Zero Fare for Better Air Program is one such program that specifically targeted environmental impact, encouraging the population to ride public transit for free instead of single occupancy vehicles. Over the program’s two-month duration, the city saw a reduction of 9 million vehicle miles traveled, eliminating over 6 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately, the success of these and other zero-fare programs comes down to this simple statement from the Denver Regional Air Quality Council’s executive director, Mike Silverstein: “When public transit is easy to use, people use it more.” Implementing zero-fare initiatives will go a long way to making public transportation easier and more accessible for everyone, contributing to greater sustainable public transportation adoption rates across the board.

Challenges lie ahead, but the future looks bright

Even with obstacles to overcome, the future of sustainable public transportation looks better than ever. Federal and local governments are pushing to replace aging transit vehicles with more efficient electric ones, and the public—with the right incentives—is more than ready to make the transition.

For more insight into the current state of the EV landscape, download a free copy of our EV Market Opportunity Summary report today.

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