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All Aboard! Reno's Electric Shuttle Bus (Tomorrow's Answer Today)

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electric vehicles
RENO, NEVADA—I am in downtown Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World,” watching a 35-foot Proterra electric bus refuel. It’s quite a sight, since there’s no charging station in sight. Instead, this LEED-certified bus station is equipped with overhead wiring and an Eaton-supplied auto dock that wirelessly guides the bus into position for a 480-volt fast charge that takes 10 minutes from flat to full.

Proterra's electric bus docks for a charge at the LEED-certified Fourth Street Station in Reno. (Jim Motavalli photo)Reno’s fleet of four Sierra Spirit Proterra electric buses (operated by the Regional Transportation Commission, RTC, which also fields 18 diesel hybrids), makes a loop around the downtown area and then head up to the campus of the University of Nevada at Reno. The ride costs only a quarter, and 10 cents if you qualify for a reduced fare. Chattanooga's electric shuttle is free, but coming up with 25 cents doesn't seem like too big a burden. I rode along and found the bus incredibly quiet compared to a regular transit ride, and it won ample praise from regulars.

I hop on for a quick 4.6-mile loop, passing the 100-lane National Bowling Stadium, the National Automobile Museum and other highlights. Kenneth Taylor is retired military, and now volunteers his time for the Red Cross—when he’s not riding Reno’s buses. “They’re on time,” he said. “The seating capacity is great, and the drivers are courteous. The electric buses are quiet—they’re a good bus and a good service.” Taylor is from San Francisco, and he said RTC is an improvement.

Kenneth Taylor, a retired military man, says the electric buses are smooth and quiet. (Jim Motavalli photo)Regular rider Danna Sorbis adds, “They’re just cooler—I like them.”

Driver Russ Mansfield has spent seven years at the wheel of RTC buses, and he describes the electrics as “very quiet,” with very easy automatic docking. “They’re much nicer than the regular buses, and ride smooth so you don’t feel every bump.” The plug-in buses have now covered 400,000 miles, and RTC says that so far they’re the most reliable the agency has ever experienced. "We're thrilled with the performance," said RTC maintenance head Mitch Bailey. "For the most part they've been maintenance free, with the only glitches stuff like cameras and radio systems we added on ourselves."

Reno: The only place in the world where you can take an electric bus to the National Bowling Stadium. (Jim Motavalli photo)After the ride, I connect with Proterra’s young CEO, Ryan Popple, at a downtown Mexican place. Popple is not the up-from-the-motor-pool type you’d expect to find running a 165-employee bus company. He’s got a Harvard MBA, for one thing, and a resume that includes stints at clean energy funder Kleiner Perkins and Tesla Motors, where he helped launch the Roadster.

In fact, Popple brings a kind of Tesla-inspired urgency to the staid, low-margin bus world, where U.S. orders total only 4,000 to 6,000 annually. With bodies made for the company in Rhode Island, Proterra is the only company making purpose-built (non-conversion) electric buses at the moment. But other companies such as Smith Electric could get into that market.

The company is working on its next-generation bus, which Popple said will be lighter and a full 40-footer. “It’s our Tesla Model S,” he said, with composites and carbon fiber construction and wind tunnel-shaped aerodynamics. At 85 kilowatt-hours, the battery pack is also about the same size as Tesla’s Model S. Proterra claims transit agencies can save $400,000 over the lifetime of the bus compared to a diesel. It boasts fuel economy equivalent of 20.8 MPGe (compared to three to six mpg for an average diesel bus).

Proterra has sold only 33 electric buses so far (to such cities as Worcester, Massachusetts, Stockton and West Covina in California, Louisville and San Antonio). The company is sold out for 2014 and it's growing. Popple points out that some part of municipal fleets need to be replaced every 10 years, and he wants to get into the replacement business. In five years, he promises that his buses will be at price parity with diesels (they’re easily twice as expensive now).

One Reno's rapid transit buses quietly lies in wait for unsuspecting passengers. (Jim Motavalli photo)“Diesel is a dead man walking,” Popple said. “Natural gas doesn’t give you the quietness and clean operation. Pretty soon, climate change will go scientific, and it won’t be a political issue anymore—the need to clean up our tailpipes will be clear. We also are urbanizing rapidly, and trying to make our downtowns more attractive.” He's convinced by the end of the decade there will be electric buses all over the country.

RTC is definitely convinced, especially since it got its Proterra buses free through a $4.6 million Federal Transit Administration grant. According to Executive Director Lee Gibson, the agency also operates RTC Rapid, an express service that for at least part of its route operates like a light-rail system with dedicated stations and no other traffic. The city may eventually build a rail system, but bus rapid transit (as seen in cities like Pittsburgh and Curitiba, Brazil) is a lower-cost alternative.

Ryan Popple of Proterra with photobombing waitress who wisely chose not to have her name appear in print on our lousy little site. (Jim Motavalli photo)Gibson unveils a vision for Reno that’s quite different from its dependent-on-gambling present. The city went through a deep recession following the 2008 downturn (and the building of Indian casinos in Northern California). “Who would want to buy a casino in Reno-Sparks?” USA Today opined in 2010. So now Reno wants to diversify. “We are quietly growing our education, retirement, freight and tech sectors,” Gibson said.

The bright side of a recession, Gibson pointed out, is that it really increases transit ridership. Reno has seen that since the recession, mirroring a national trend. All the buses I rode on in Reno were more than half full. That’s good, because buses with only a few people in them don’t help the environment any. Unless they’re electric buses, of course.

Here's what electric bus docking looks like up close and personal:
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