As a state, California is moving toward a more sustainable future – from banning certain plastics to setting stringent emission reduction goals. Municipal transit company Long Beach Transit (LBT) takes pride in being environmentally friendly and embracing sustainability, according to Debra Johnson, deputy CEO of LBT.


“Years ago, Long Beach Transit was on the forefront of being a pioneer when we looked at alternative fuels to be the primary propulsion systems for our fleet,” Johnson said. “Long Beach Transit has a vast fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses. We also have the largest fleet in the country of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles.”

Debra Johnson, deputy CEO of Long Beach Transit (LBT), said the company takes pride in embracing sustainable operational practices. Johnson is pictured with a few of LBT’s 100%-battery-powered buses, which began operating in the city last year. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Brandon Richardson)


Of LBT’s 249-bus fleet, 125 run on CNG, 88 are hybrids, 26 are diesel and 10 are full battery electric. The agency’s battery electric buses cost about $1 million each and have been operating in Long Beach for over a year. From March 31, 2017, to July 31 of this year, the operation of LBT’s 10 electric buses produced nearly 549 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions (equivalent to 118 passenger vehicles driven for one year) than diesel buses would have. Johnson said that moving forward, only zero-emission buses will be purchased when older models need replacing.


The entire LBT fleet will not be fully electric for quite some time, Johnson noted. New buses are purchased with federal, state and local grant funding, which requires them to remain active for 12 to 15 years, she explained. LBT received some of its near-zero emission CNG buses this year, which means they will be in service until at least 2030.


The fleet should be 100% alternatively fueled by 2020, Johnson said. As buses reach the end of their useful lives, LBT plans to reassess its fleet and available technology to work toward a 100% zero-emission fleet.


“Our service area is comprised of 100 square miles, and the vast majority of that is comprised of disadvantaged communities as qualified by the California Environmental Protection Agency,” Johnson said. “So we want to do our due diligence and our part in reducing the carbon footprint. Considering that we’re in the backyard of two of the largest ports in the country, we recognize those entities are making great strides to reducing emissions. So we recently embarked upon this path where we could look at our practices and develop a program to be more sustainable and conscious of what we’re doing.”


Diesel buses represent the smallest portion of LBT’s fleet and have been retained as a contingency in case technological issues arise with the more advanced, environmentally friendly buses, Johnson said. In general, the diesel buses are reliable, whereas the company that LBT purchased the hybrid buses from went out of business two years after the fact, making them more difficult to maintain. LBT now engineers its own replacement parts to keep the hybrids operating.


Being a pioneer of unproven technologies such as hybrid buses is a catch-22, Johnson explained. LBT wants to be proactive but, if the technology turns out to be less reliable, they are still on the hook to operate them per the grant funding, she said. LBT is currently pursuing various grant opportunities to replace its hybrid buses.


Articulated buses, which have accordions in the middle and seat close to 60 passengers, currently do not have a viable electrical option, Johnson said. She explained that a bus that size requires much more energy than smaller buses due to extra weight and a larger HVAC system. When the time comes to replace LBT’s articulated buses, Johnson said she hopes the market will have caught up and that a viable zero-emission option would be available.


Outside of its bus fleet, Johnson said LBT is taking additional strides to decrease its carbon footprint. The agency acquired electric vehicles for staff to use in the field or to attend meetings. LBT also is looking to incorporate more solar energy at its transit shelters, Johnson added. The agency is a member of the American Public Transportation Association, which includes the United States and Canada, and is working with the association’s experts to better understand what further measures it can take toward sustainability.


Part of advancing service sustainability is a special charging mechanism LBT is currently testing on its downtown Passport route called Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification, or WAVE. This conductive system is placed beneath the street pavement to allow electric buses to recharge wirelessly for short amounts of time, rather than returning to the LBT yard and plugging in. Johnson explained that LBT now views electricity as a fuel source, rather than just a utility, so maximum efficiency is key. She said these WAVE systems will be installed in larger hubs, such as the First Street Transit Gallery in downtown.


To better understand the potential of electric buses and the WAVE system for its entire service area, LBT is utilizing hardware known as an Electronic Load Monitoring System, which shows how quickly the buses are charging. With this information, LBT can work with Southern California Edison to ensure its buses are not overloading the electrical grid, Johnson explained.


“We are working in tandem as part of the Zero Emission Bus Resource Alliance [through the Center for Transportation and the Environment, an international nonprofit based in Georgia], where we work with our partners from around the country so we can capitalize upon lessons learned, and we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of unknowns as we go forward. There has to be a process by which we’re educating our employees so they can embrace this.”


Driver and mechanic training is important for sustainable advancement. Johnson noted that driving any electric vehicle is not the same as driving gas or diesel vehicles. In the same vein, maintenance on electric vehicles is vastly different than fossil fuel vehicles. To keep operations running smoothly, Johnson said all employees must be trained on how to handle the new, sustainable fleet.


“Being here in California, where we’re looking at the reduction of greenhouse gases, where we’re talking about global warming – we’re looking at what LBT can do collectively, as responsible citizens, to ensure that we’re going to have a sustainable fleet of vehicles. What can we do collectively to ensure that we are contributing to the betterment of our community,” Johnson said. “All of these different things come into play and that’s why we’re working in earnest to work toward a sustainability program that would outline for us a roadmap for the coming years.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.