electric bus
The City of Detroit is adding four electric buses to its fleet as part of a pilot to reduce emissions. (BridgeDetroit photo by Bryce Huffman)

The City of Detroit is introducing green technology to its bus fleet.

The Detroit Department of Transportation on Monday put four electric buses in service and officials say they intend to monitor their performance and energy efficiency for up to a year before deciding whether to buy more. 

Mikel Oglesby, Detroit’s executive director of transportation, said the city will start testing the buses on Woodward and Mack avenues in the Midtown area as part of a pilot program.

“Then from there, every day we’ll have them at a new location,” Oglesby said during a Monday news conference at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. “We’re going to try to spread them out so everybody gets the experience and to see how they perform in different environments.”

The electric bus pilot is funded through a federal low or no emissions grant. Each electric bus costs between $800,000 and $1 million depending on which “bells and whistles” are added, according to Oglesby. In comparison, the city’s 288 clean diesel-fueled buses cost about $540,000 apiece. 

Oglseby said transit riders won’t experience any difference in fares, even if the entire fleet switches to alternative fuel sources like electricity or hydrogen. Other than the upfront costs associated with electric buses, Oglesby said they might be a better long-term investment. The city, he said, is looking to see if the maintenance costs of electric vehicles will be lower, which would make them an ideal replacement for diesel-fueled engines.

“The typical bus we have lasts for 12 years or about 500,000 miles, so we’re going to run these electric buses for 12 years, 500,000 miles, but I’m going to be watching it after about 6 months,” he said.

Proterra, the California-based company supplying the electric buses, has electric engines operating in cities like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland. Oglesby said understanding how these buses perform in all types of weather will be important before Detroit adds more.

“We want to see how these electric engines perform in the winter because as you know, something that works in California weather may not work in Detroit,” he said.

Hakim Berry, the city’s chief operating officer, noted more electric vehicles are coming to other city departments in the near future.

City officials and transit activists took part in a Monday test ride of the buses around the Midtown and downtown areas. Advocates are optimistic about the electric buses and say adding more buses of any kind would help reduce emissions. 

Renard Monczunski, a transit and mobility activist with Detroit People’s Platform’s Transit Justice Team, said the electric buses are “a good start” for the city to address climate change. 

“I would love to see many of these electric buses be placed in high impacted routes that have high rates of asthma that are dealing with environmental injustice,” Monczunski said. 

“The best thing for our future moving forward to actually be part of the climate solution is to have buses running every 15 minutes as a standard,” he added. “That will do more to reduce emissions because it would remove a lot more cars off the road.”

Megan Owens, executive director of Transit Riders United, agreed that “more reliable and more convenient bus service will get more people out of their cars, so it is a real environmental plus.”

Some bus operators have been trained to drive the electric buses. Those operators and riders can provide feedback on the electric bus pilot program to DDOT during its monthly Community Input Meetings or by filling out the DDOT Customer Service Form.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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