Image by DDOT.

The District’s newest 14 Circulator buses will begin service on May 1, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at the recent State of Downtown breakfast. The 100% electric buses are from Proterra, a US company hailed as the “Tesla of buses,” and they are truly impressive vehicles.

These long-run battery buses don’t require an on-route charger to add power throughout the day. Rather, they charge overnight once their 12- to 18-hour service day is done. The Circulator buses now comprise the largest electric bus fleet on the east coast, and present some exciting possibilities for a completely sustainable fleet in the future.

DC is currently working on a storage and maintenance plan for Circulator, but residents are resistant to having bus garages in their neighborhood because of the accompanying pollution, traffic, and noise. These electric buses could help alleviate many of these issues, paving the way for new and rehabilitated garages that neighbors don't mind.

The Circulator fleet is scattered

One of the bigger challenges with the Circulator today is that the growing fleet is spread across multiple overnight locations. The largest of those is controlled by First Transit, a private operator. The next largest at 17 buses is the Haines Point facility formerly used for Tour-Mobile, and used through a partnership with the National Park Service.

The 14 electric Circulators currently live at the South Capitol Streetcar commissioning facility that has been upgraded to host them and their charging infrastructure — a great use for this facility since it was already electrified but not regularly commissioning streetcars.

Image by DDOT.

DDOT has been considering these issues and has a long-term goal of developing a bus garage for the District’s current and future bus needs. I toured Manhattan’s newest bus garage in Harlem, the Mother Clara Hale bus depot, as part of a group of DDOT, WMATA, and BID planners in 2016. It helped us get a sense of what a modern bus garage looks like — many of DC’s bus garages are 50 to 60 years old.

While the MTA's garage is a commendable, LEED Gold facility that has done a lot to address issues that were a nuisance to the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but feel we could do better. The primary way to improve a bus garage would be to eliminate all the emissions, including toxic chemicals that diesel and diesel-hybrid vehicles use and emit.

Electric buses make for better neighbors

This is where the possibilities on electric buses get very cool. These vehicles don’t have emissions or the urea-based chemicals used on diesel buses to catalyze the exhaust. They don’t need cancerous diesel fuel, and they have a fraction of the moving parts of a diesel bus and require few lubricants compared to diesels. Electric buses are also very quiet, reducing the noise that neighbors may experience.

While bus traffic will remain an immutable feature of having bus service for an area, most of the other nuisance issues people bring up about bus facilities are addressed with these vehicles. Will this be enough to tamp down the resistance to locating new bus garages in DC, or rehabilitating existing ones? I hope so.

With this first round of buses about to be in service, it’s a good time to start thinking about what we could do in the future with electric buses, and even an all-electric fleet. Perhaps DDOT could maintain the diesel buses it has at the Haines Point and other leased facilities while they build a 100% electric facility over coming years. They could gradually discontinue the use of diesel entirely over the 10- to 12-year lifespan of the buses we currently own.

These first 14 electric buses will be a learning experience. Within a year, the District could be in a position to choose a future for 100% electric transit, bus, streetcar, Metro, and maybe even gondola.

Will Handsfield is the transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and has worked on transportation projects in Los Angeles, Denver, and the metropolitan Washington region. Will bike commutes and lives with his wife and three children in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill.