Service and Sustainability: Many Roads to Zero

By Doran Barnes | 4/28/2024

Chief Executive Officer
Foothill Transit
West Covina, CA

There is a crucial balance between environmental sustainability and providing safe, reliable public transit service within the confines of available resources and funding. In recent years, the adoption of zero-emission fleets to combat climate change and meet core regulatory requirements has been commendable and necessary. It’s also essential to keep service as the top priority when making decisions about the direction of our fleets.

Foothill Transit has been part of the vanguard of zero-emissions fleet adoption since 2010, when we launched the nation’s first fast charge, heavy duty electric buses into service. The evolution of zero-emission technology has expanded and progressed swiftly since then. Many lessons have been learned and industry leaders and bus manufacturers are intensely collaborating to build a sustainable road to zero.

The goal of this work has always been reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality. However, these benefits can only be fully realized if we maintain the safety, reliability, and efficiency of our service. This has always been our primary responsibility and is our greatest contributor to sustainability and safety. More customers on board has always meant safer streets and fewer emissions.

One of the key challenges in transitioning to a zero-emission fleet is finding the right infrastructure fit for your community. While electric buses offer a promising solution, their effectiveness depends on adequate charging infrastructure and rigorous planning to ensure minimal downtime to meet service needs. Collaborating closely with city planners, engineers, utilities, and stakeholders to develop and support this infrastructure plan requires vital connections, both metaphorical and literal.

The financial implications of transitioning to zero-emission fleets are not small. Our recent hydrogen fuel-cell (HFC) bus purchase put each vehicle at double the cost of a CNG vehicle. Foothill Transit’s leadership took this particular road to zero because the fueling logistics were comparable with CNG and didn’t negatively impact service. While this decision to maintain our commitment to zero-emission technology could be accommodated in our capital program, in the future, such costly decisions could impact the amount of service that can be delivered to the community. That is a difficult tradeoff.

We also continue to believe that grid-powered battery-electric buses can and must play a role in our sustainability efforts. Foothill Transit has placed an order for 24 battery-electric double-deck buses. These also came at added cost due to their propulsion technology and require enhanced charging infrastructure, which also comes at a cost.

Whether you have a CNG, BEB, or HFC fleet, the quality of service rests ultimately on how you fuel and how that fueling fits in with service and the pursuit of sustainability. Any decisions regarding fleet direction must include a careful consideration of service reliability and efficiency. Conducting thorough assessments of new technologies, sharing experiences with your industry partners, exploring infrastructure upgrades and any operational changes all ensure that whatever path you take will enhance, rather than hinder, your ability to serve the community.

Eventually, the question of whether or not all of this is worth the effort arises. The bottom line is that fossil fuels are not sustainable and contribute to the myriad negative effects of climate change, for both public and economic health. And for public transit’s role, the answer to that question still rests on prioritizing service.

Low-income communities and marginalized populations all too often bear the brunt of the impacts of pollution. Targeted investments in underserved areas, partnerships with community organizations, and staying in constant touch with the myriad changes always evolving in this space will ensure that everyone has access to safe, sustainable, and reliable transit options that have a measurable positive impact on local air quality. And balancing service with sustainability is possible when making decisions about the direction of a zero-emission fleet. But finding the right fit doesn’t happen in a vacuum.