The ACT government has just announced that, if re-elected next month, it will replace 90 diesel and gas buses with electric vehicles over the next four years.
This is not just an essential step towards the government’s planned transition to a zero-emission fleet by 2040, it is good public policy.
The government has trialed electric buses in Canberra for more than three years. The first trial had mixed results, but the second trial, which concludes in December, has demonstrated that electric buses are clearly the best option as the government upgrades the city’s 500-plus fleet over the next several decades.
They’ve done the due diligence and now know that electric buses offer a much lower whole-of-life cost than fossil fuel alternatives while being more reliable, more enjoyable to drive, more pleasant to travel on and, of course, significantly better for the environment.
But this is more than a sensible decision – it’s a momentous one, as well. The ACT, with its light rail and strong recent progress in electric cars (and car infrastructure), is already a leader when it comes to zero-emission transport. This move cements that position and the Territory will reap the rewards in multiple ways.
For years, I’ve heard that zero-emission technology is too risky for governments and operators; that it’s desirable, but only something to consider after “someone else goes first”.
Such an argument not only ignores the radical improvements in technology over the last decade, and the significant reductions in price for vehicles, batteries and infrastructure, but also the leader’s advantage.
The New South Wales government and Brisbane City Council have made extremely promising moves in the field, but this announcement pushes the ACT well ahead once again, giving them the chance to become a zero-emission bus hub for Australia.
To put it another way, this is a flag-in-the-ground moment, and that flag will attract assembly and manufacturing jobs. Once the territory gains a reputation in the zero-emission vehicle arena, more investment will follow, and much of it will be the kind of investment that Australia won’t get a second chance at.
That’s looking a little way ahead, though. What the announcement means in the much nearer term is significantly better public transport for the people of Canberra.
Looking at an electric bus, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s exactly the same as a diesel or gas bus, but with a battery replacing the fuel tank.
That’s not quite the case. Zero-emission buses are entirely different to travel on, offering an exceptionally smooth ride. They are also far less noisy and, as the name implies, don’t produce any smell at all. Drivers love the buses, as well. They’ve passed that feedback on during the second trial, along with ease of charging and maintenance.
Labor’s announcement also includes a new zero-emission bus depot in Canberra’s north and plans to upgrade the existing Woden Depot so that it’s compatible with these next-generation vehicles. This is a good combination of the innovation and resourcefulness.
A new facility will lead to quicker decarbonisation while allowing for a further investment in electric buses in the future. Modernising what we already have in Canberra is an excellent way of keeping costs relatively low.
Perhaps most pleasing of all, the decision sends a very definite signal to the Australian market that fossil fuel buses’ time has passed. It demonstrates that well-worn arguments about the dependability and cost of electric buses can now be consigned to the category of myths.
This technology is the future of public transport, and that’s good news for anyone who cares about the environment, public health and the economy.
Toby Roxburgh is the Managing Director of Electromotiv, a Canberra-based company with expertise in zero-emission vehicles, recharging and refuelling infrastructure. Electromotiv is involved with Transport Canberra’s current zero-emission bus trial.