Electric airport shuttle buses: now taking off

Electric airport shuttle buses: now taking off

electric airplane shuttle sign
ShutterstockGreenBiz Collage

In the last few weeks, California passed a standard that will transition airport shuttle buses to zero-emission battery and fuel cell electric vehicles.

While California established a standard for zero-emission transit buses last year, airport shuttle operators are distinct enough from public transit agencies that a different policy is fitting.

The shuttle bus standard covers an estimated 950 vehicles operating at 13 airports. Transitioning these buses to zero-emission technologies by 2035 will reduce (PDF) global warming emissions by an estimated 35,000 metric tonnes CO2e per year, the equivalent of taking 7,400 of today’s cars off the road each year.

The operational characteristics of shuttle buses (fixed, short routes and stop-and-go operation) are well matched to today’s electric vehicle technology. Already 14 companies make over 30 models of electric buses ranging from large transit-style buses to small shuttle buses.

Airports are beginning to adopt these vehicles. One hundred electric shuttle buses are on order or operating at nine of the 13 airports in California that will be covered by the standard. Notably, San Jose recently unveiled 10 electric shuttle buses and Los Angeles is expected to receive 20 electric buses soon. Sixteen off-airport electric shuttles take customers between LAX and a nearby parking garage.

airport shuttle bus

'Why bother?'

Some might say that 950 vehicles is small compared to California’s 1.9 million heavy-duty vehicles. Or that 35,000 metric tonnes of emission reductions isn’t that much compared to the state’s annual 430 million metric tonnes of global warming emissions.

It may look like a small step in the right direction, but there are several reasons this policy — and others like it — can be big leaps.

First, if we’re to reduce carbon emissions and inequitable exposure to air pollution by electrifying as many or all of the vehicles on the road, we have to start somewhere and airport shuttles are well-suited to be an early adopter of electric technologies. In fact, the policy for airport shuttle buses is even stronger than the one in effect for transit buses, requiring every bus purchased beginning in 2023 to be zero-emission for airports. Compare that to 2029 for transit agencies.

Second, we usually don’t get big policy shifts without passing small policies first. The good news is that bigger policies — covering all categories of heavy-duty vehicles — are in the works. Even when bigger policies are in place, it often takes smaller policies to further strengthen them.

shuttle buses and trucks
Union of Concerned Scientists

Third, shuttle buses have a lot in common with trucks. Just look at the two vehicles on the top. One carries passengers and the other carries packages, but otherwise they are the same vehicle.

The same goes for the shuttle bus and box truck on the bottom. They have the same business in the front, just different parties in the back.

What this means is that electrifying shuttle buses will increase the availability and market for all electric trucks.

Finally, heavy-duty vehicles disproportionately contribute to global warming and air pollution compared to cars. Buses and trucks are large vehicles with large engines that consume more fuel per mile than cars. Electric buses offer zero tailpipe emissions and 75 percent lower global warming emissions on today’s grid in California compared to diesel and natural gas buses.

Replacing just one diesel or natural gas bus with an electric vehicle has the same effect as eliminating the emissions from several cars. As mentioned above, this policy’s transition of 950 buses to electric technologies will have the same effect (from a global warming perspective) as taking 7,400 of today’s cars off the road each year.

Policy details

The standard (PDF) applies to shuttle buses serving all 13 major airports in California: Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO), Burbank (BUR), Oakland (OAK), Ontario (ONT), Santa Ana (SNA), Sacramento (SMF), San Jose (SJC), Fresno (FAT), Long Beach (LGB), Palm Springs (PSP) and Santa Barbara (SBA).

The standard applies to both public and private airport shuttle buses, but only those with fixed routes less than 30 miles long. Types of vehicles falling under the standard include buses operating between airport terminals, rental car sites, off-site parking lots, or airport hotels. Door-to-door charter services, taxis and ridehails (Uber and Lyft) are not included in this policy.

Fleets must achieve the following percentages of zero-emission vehicles on the road by these dates:

  • 33 percent by Dec. 31, 2027
  • 66 percent by Dec. 31, 2031
  • 100 percent by Dec. 31, 2035

Any existing zero-emission shuttle bus replaced after Jan. 1, 2023, must be a replaced to a zero-emission vehicle to prevent any backsliding.

With fuel and maintenance savings expected from electric vehicles compared to diesel, natural gas and gasoline, as well as decreases in vehicle purchase costs, the standard is estimated to save $30 million (PDF) across the state from 2020 to 2040.

Significant state funding is available to incentivize early action before 2023, providing savings above and beyond the estimated $30 million. California’s HVIP voucher program, for example, provides $25,000 to $160,000 in funding for the purchase of battery electric shuttle buses (depending on the vehicle size) to offset higher purchase costs.

This is just the beginning

With policies only for transit buses and airport shuttle buses, many types of heavy-duty vehicles remain ripe for electrification. Nearly every truck operating in an urban setting with a local operating radius is suited for electrification today.

California is working to set standards for manufacturers to make electric trucks and buses and set standards for fleets beyond transit and shuttle buses to purchase these zero-emission vehicles, such as refuse trucks, delivery trucks and port drayage trucks.

UCS supports (PDF) the standard for zero-emission airport shuttle buses. It is the result of more than two years of public meetings and significant analysis of the airport shuttle bus industry.

No single policy will solve all of our air quality and climate problems, but progress is the sum of all things, airport shuttle buses included.

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