The future of transit is electric: City officials unveil new fleet of electric buses in Detroit

If you appreciate our in-depth reporting and you can help us pay for it, please become a recurring donor to Planet Detroit.

Detroit transit officials say they are confident new electric buses will be a boon to the city

A new fleet of electric buses will pave the way for the city’s carbon-free future by eliminating diesel emissions and lowering maintenance costs while also giving Detroiters a smoother riding experience, according to city transit officials. 

Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) officials unveiled four new electric buses during a press conference at the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Monday. These are the first electric buses in DDOT’s fleet, adding to the 288 active buses across the system. 

The new buses will reap health and economic benefits for the city, said Mikel Oglesby, DDOT’s executive director of transit. 

“Bringing electric buses to the city of Detroit is good for all residents, whether they ride the bus or not,” he said. “They’re quieter than a standard bus. They produce fewer emissions than a standard bus, which means cleaner air. They’re cheaper to maintain than a standard bus.”

Transit officials also do not anticipate a fare increase in the near future. 

“Transitioning to clean transportation is not just the right thing to do for our health and environment. It’s also the smart thing to do for our communities,” said Ken Becker, a regional sales director with Proterra, a California-based electric vehicle manufacturer. The city acquired the four buses from the manufacturer using federal grants. 

The electric bus fleet’s debut comes as city officials work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from municipal sources under the greenhouse gas ordinance it adopted in 2019, which aims to eliminate all emissions from city sources by 2050 and to cut emissions 30% below 2012 levels by 2025. 

About 30% of city-wide greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation sources, a greenhouse gas inventory found. Officials hope the electrification of city buses will help Detroit reach emissions reduction targets. Other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Portland, have electrified some of their buses. At this point, it’s hard to say what the exact impact the buses will have on achieving emissions targets, Oglesby said. 

Expanding electrified mobility options is also a top state priority. In February, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Michigan will receive $100 million in federal money over the next five years to help build electric vehicle charging infrastructure across Michigan. 

The buses carry a heavy price tag. An electric bus costs about $800,000, compared to a typical diesel bus, which costs about $550,000, Oglesby said. Additional features added to Detroit’s fleet puts the cost of each bus at closer to $1,000,000. But the investment should yield greater savings over time. 

“But I will tell you that the maintenance is less, and it’s been documented. And we’ll find out that you save $2,000 a month on maintenance. So over the long run, it pays off the difference,” Oglesby said. 

The switch to electric could also benefit drivers. The buses are powered by an internal battery, and the renewable energy source has been found to lower operating, maintenance and fuel costs, compared to diesel alternatives, Baker said. 

A major goal of electrifying the fleet is to improve the reliability of the bus system. The current fleet is part of a pilot program, and transit officials will monitor each vehicle’s performance, including whether or not the electric buses are on time during services, engine performance, and whether the buses can endure the wear and tear of Detroit’s aging roads. 

View from inside a new DDOT electric bus. Photo by Eleanore Catolico.

Some municipalities have encountered issues with electric vehicle performance. In Indianapolis, transit officials are investing additional funds to improve charging infrastructure. In 2019, some buses failed to keep a charge for 275 miles each day, specifically in cold weather.

But Oglesby said the city will test out whether the buses will perform in cold weather conditions, and estimates each bus can drive up to 250 miles per day without the need to recharge. 

So far, the introduction of the electric fleet has received a positive reception. Dion Corbett, a Detroit resident, welcomes the addition.

“I think that’s a beautiful thing… to have electric buses like this,” he said. 

Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, an organization advocating for improving transit systems, supports the transit system’s move towards cleaner operations. 

“Detroiters deserve to have clean air and quiet buses just as much as anywhere else,” she said. “So we were pleased to put in letters of support to help [DDOT] get the funding to do this. It’s exciting to finally see them out on the streets.”

Owens hopes the city’s efforts will help reduce the number of polluting vehicles on roads and increase ridership. She’s also urging the city to apply for more grants to help pay for more buses. 

Decarbonizing the entire city bus fleet is still a long way off. Adding more electric vehicles will also require more charging infrastructure. In the meantime, officials plan to install some overhead charging stations across the city. Oglesby said the city is exploring the possibility of adding hydrogen-powered vehicles in addition to the electric buses. 

The new bus will begin offering service Monday along the Mack and Woodward bus routes. The city plans to switch up the routes each bus will travel in order to monitor performance. A charging station is located at the Shoemaker Terminal on the city’s east side. 

Oglesby remains optimistic about the new fleet, and hopes the move toward electrification will  help drive transit innovation forward. 

“The potential is limitless,” he said.

Correction 5/24/22: A prior version of this story mischaracterized Oglesby’s confidence about the performance of the buses in cold weather. He said the city will test their performance.


SIGN UP for Planet Detroit's free weekly email newsletter

Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get our weekly free local enviro + health newsletter in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top