Sara Mitchell: Electric buses are a solution to both traffic and air quality issues

The LCC traffic problem is an opportunity to build infrastructure that will support future electrification efforts.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Park City residents, town and county officials come out to see Utah's first all-electric bus fleet at the Kimball Junction Transit Center.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) recently announced its recommendation for the construction of a gondola to solve the Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) traffic problem.

One of the touted advantages of the gondola is that it will avoid emissions that diesel buses – the other option that was under consideration – would produce. UDOT should indeed be striving for emissions reductions. The Salt Lake Valley has some of the worst air quality in the country, negatively affecting both health and the economy

Rather than expanding the diesel bus fleet or building a gondola, electric buses should be deployed in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Electric buses provide a more flexible and scalable solution than a gondola, while reducing air quality impacts relative to diesel buses. Flexibility and scalability are valuable when planning for improvements to the transportation system, especially in a fast growing region like Salt Lake City.

Flexibility allows operators to adapt transportation systems in response to future or unforeseen changes.  For example, buses can be rerouted to respond to changing demand. This is especially valuable for ski buses because demand is seasonal and may decrease as climate change progresses. According to local experts, the Wasatch Mountains are already receiving less snow and experiencing shorter ski seasons. They expect these trends to continue in the future, which is likely to result in fewer people accessing ski resorts. 

Scalability enables system expansion, and the knowledge gained from initial electric bus deployments can be applied to subsequent projects. Transportation authorities often deploy a small number of electric buses and chargers to gain experience with purchasing, deploying, and operating electric buses. Then they can use this experience to make larger investments in fleet electrification.

During an initial deployment, the many organizations and individuals involved become familiar with suppliers and gain experience with the purchasing process. They learn about electric bus technology, route analysis, and how costs differ between electric and diesel buses. They learn where money is saved, where they should expect additional expenses, and about available grant, loan, and financing programs. All of this streamlines future purchases.

Bus drivers, technicians, and mechanics must be trained for operations and maintenance. The transition to working with electric buses is not expected to be difficult, but it will take time and effort to build the required workforce. Drivers need to learn how to maximize the battery’s range using acceleration and braking techniques and how to safely use charging infrastructure. Technicians and mechanics must be trained to safely perform maintenance and repairs on high-voltage systems.

Deploying electric buses to solve the LCC traffic problem is a unique opportunity. The severity of the traffic issue has created pressure to implement a solution. The situation requires an  accelerated deployment process that leads to faster learning and could catalyze fleet electrification and emissions reductions. This is especially urgent in the Salt Lake Valley.

Poor air quality has both negative health and economic effects. Air pollution is linked to a wide range of health problems including asthma, heart attacks, and cancer. It also has detrimental effects on birth outcomes and life span. These health impacts lead to increased healthcare expenses and reduced productivity. Poor air quality also makes it more difficult to attract new business and hurts the tourism industry. 

With all of this in mind, local decision makers should focus on accelerating electrification. They should advocate for the adoption of electric buses in LCC and approach the project as a way to promote and prepare for a larger electrification effort.

Electric buses offer numerous operational, economic, health, and environmental benefits. They are the most effective way to implement a scalable, flexible, emissions free solution to the growing traffic problem.

Sara Mitchell

Sara Mitchell grew up in the Salt Lake Valley and was motivated by local air quality issues to pursue a degree in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Utah. She went on to earn a master’s in energy, civil infrastructure and climate at the University of California Berkeley and is currently a Clean Energy Leadership Institute fellow.