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The green comeback of public transport

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FORESIGHT Climate & Energy publishes weekly feature articles and expert opinions on the solutions and remaining barriers to a clean energy economy. We focus on expert analysis and in-depth...

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  • Mar 11, 2021

The public transport sector has been hit hard by the covid-19 crisis. Since climate change is not taking a break, electrification must be at the centre of a green recovery. Smart depots will play a crucial role in transforming the face of urban transport, says Monique Mertins at Siemens Smart Infrastructure

The second covid-19 wave is a stark reminder that we are still far away from getting back to business as usual. People who work in jobs that allow remote working are continuing to avoid the commute. This change in behaviour has triggered a crisis for public transportation. Local restrictions of movement caused a 70-90% drop in the worldwide use of public transportation. We are witnessing a renaissance of individual mobility and a large-scale shift to private vehicles.

But how long will it take for public transport to recover and will it be a green recovery? The shift to personal vehicles is neither reasonable nor sustainable. Public transport is an essential public service and critical for reducing air and noise pollution. Passengers are likely to return when lockdowns are lifted. Research from Asian cities hit by the SARS epidemic in 2003, shows that the number of journeys taken on public transport bounced back quickly after travel restrictions were lifted.

Electrification of public transport, especially in urban areas, is a lever to reduce emissions and pollution. More than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed World Health Organisation pollution limits. A full bus can take 60 single-occupancy cars off the road. And just having one e-bus travelling approximately 200 kilometres a day can save about 60 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Governments, cities, and communities remain committed to reducing air pollution even during the pandemic. As part of its economic stimulus package, Germany launched a programme to modernise the country’s bus fleets and heavy goods vehicles. Private and municipal operators will receive a total of €1.2 billion through the initiative.

The timing of this political push for transport electrification could not be more favourable. Many diesel bus fleets will have to be replaced in the upcoming years since they will exceed their average lifetime of 10-12 years. Due to low operating costs, buses can break-even provided they reach a certain mileage per year. For electric buses, this point is 50,000 kilometres a year, less than the distance most diesel buses run in larger cities. Electric buses also have an increased lifetime due to less wear and vibrations resulting in reduced downtime compared to diesel buses.


Sustainability does not end with the switch to electric vehicles, it continues with the question of infrastructure and renewables integration. Holistic planning and incorporation into existing infrastructure are essential. In Madrid, Spain, where the streets are always busy and often clogged with traffic, an e-bus depot of the future is currently being built. The new La Elipa depot is aiming to become a reference point for electromobility. The futuristic building with an area of 40,000 square meters will have a capacity of 330 electric buses. Solar panels on the roof will generate photovoltaic energy for its own consumption.

The case of La Elipa illustrates how an e-bus depot is more than just charging points. Energy will be used in the most efficient way and electric vehicles can be powered with renewable energy from on-site production. Depots can even be designed as an intelligent microgrid and become a unit of smart infrastructure itself. Smart depots will be the beating heart of sustainable urban traffic.

Depots for electric buses or commercial vehicles will become a standard in our cities. In Germany, transport operators in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Berlin recently announced their plans to build depots with charging infrastructure. The same goes for Christchurch and Auckland in New Zealand. In the Italian city of Genoa, the historic city depot is being modernised with charging infrastructure for a new e-bus fleet. Even the iconic red buses in London are being electrified.

The green recovery is already underway: The short-term effects of the crisis will not stop the long-term trend towards more sustainable public transport. Many bus operators already made electrification part of their long-term fleet strategy, political support and funding will accelerate this development. Further investment must be dedicated to building suitable and reliable infrastructure for e-bus operation to make it the preferred option. Now is the right time to act and ensure a smooth transition towards clean and affordable transport choices.


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