Consumers ready to fully embrace the transition to electric buses

By Håkan Agnevall, President Volvo Buses

In 2017, approximately 50,000 deaths in the UK were attributed to toxic air and man-made chemicals1. This unacceptable death toll once again places the discussion regarding urban mobility firmly front and centre as the transport industry continues its drive towards delivering cleaner, quieter and more efficient vehicles.

Meeting emission targets has become an on-going challenge as the desire to transition towards fossil fuel alternatives gathers pace. This at a time when mass urban transport needs continue to grow exponentially across our cities. I believe that a key component of energy efficient and sustainable public transport systems comes in the form of electromobility and in particularly, electric buses. Not only does this help to reduce the overall number of vehicles on our roads but it also helps to meet ever stringent targets rightly set by legislators. The move towards a better public transport system is a journey in itself. That said, the need is now beyond question and whilst improved efficiencies in diesel should not be ignored, e.g. biodiesel such as HVO, e-mobility is quite simply the next step in public transport. An environmentally friendly, energy efficient and attractive system that enables more of us to travel together is no longer ‘a nice to have’, but an absolute ‘must have’.

2018 has seen an increase in electric bus trials and investments by city authorities as they attempt to meet these ambitious targets. This is helping to make the transition to electric buses mainstream, with a recent report predicting that half the world’s buses will be electric by 20252.

A new survey of road users commissioned by Volvo Buses looked at the future of urban transportation. It shows that nearly 60% of Britons are now willing to embrace a fully electric bus network, whilst 82% not surprisingly stated that air quality was important to them. However, achieving this by creating cities with a greener transport infrastructure can sometimes mean embracing change that not everyone is ready to adopt or support in the short term.

Some perceive there to be difficulties implementing the infrastructure needed, the cost of delivery or even a change in transport habits. However, the survey suggests that the tipping point amongst the public has arrived, with some of the perceived challenges outweighed by the longer-term benefits they will bring.

When considering greener transport choices now and in the future, the survey shows that the British love affair with the car continues, with 47% declaring it as their preferred mode of transportation. This was followed by bus travel, with 20%. When it comes to generational differences, 60% of Britons aged 55 and above use the car most often, whilst 18% use the bus, compared to 28% and 27% respectively of 16 to 24 year olds.

When asked about their likely choice of transport in 15 years’ time, 61% of respondents aged 16 to 24 see themselves using their own car most often, compared with 40% of those aged 55 and over. Although millennials may now have access to a greater choice of transport services, the car looks set to dominate for some time to come. This in my view is not a sustainable proposition if we are serious about tackling air quality, congestion and noise pollution moving forward.

The more people we have travelling individually in vehicles the more congested our streets will become, even if these vehicles are electric. This will continue to slow down journey times. London for example, removed 30 per cent of the road capacity for private vehicles in central London between 1996 and 20103. Therefore, increased congestion is set to worsen before it improves, if the love affair with our cars continues as predicted by our findings.

When it comes to the recent proliferation of on-demand services such as Uber, 44% would still rather choose a bus even though only 9% would chose it for speed reasons. This highlights the need for authorities to support the prioritisation of mass public transport. Indeed, more than half of those surveyed (55%) also felt more needs to be done with city planning to prioritise bus networks within an integrated transport system.

I feel we all need to move towards options that can carry increased numbers of people around our busy streets. Adding more vehicles simply isn’t the answer.

According to respondents, the top five reasons apart from fares which would make them take buses more often are:

• More frequent services (28%)

• Routes to places they need to go (25%)

• Bus stops nearer to home (22%)

• Buses that can get them to their destination quicker (14%)

• Cleaner bus on the inside (12%)

The exciting reality is a cleaner and quieter electric bus network also allows for the placement of bus stops in unexpected places such as libraries, hospitals or shopping centres. With no emissions and reduced noise pollution, there are few restrictions on where these stops could be in the future.

There are misconceptions about the public bus system that we as an industry and society need to overcome, because what is clear is that the future of mass public transport is electric, with some elements of biofuel. However, this is something that we as an industry can’t do alone. By working closely with city officials, city planners, utilities and the transport users, fully integrated electromobility, including electric bus systems will arrive far sooner than many had expected.

A truly sustainable and energy efficient public transport future is in our grasp and I believe the expectations and desire of the public to make this the only future, is now closer than ever.

1 Report by Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, Oct 2017

2 Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Feb 2018

3 Channel News Asia, 11th September 2018