Ten buses on Long Beach Transit’s fleet are powered by batteries, 88 use a gasoline-electric hybrid fueling source and 125 run on natural gas. Only 26 of the agency’s 249 buses still run on traditional diesel engines. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

By boarding Long Beach Transit’s (LBT) Passport route, passengers are giving both their wallets and the environment a break. The free service, which runs along the waterfront’s most popular attractions including the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Queen Mary, is powered by a fleet of 10 zero-emission electric buses, produced by the Chinese company Build Your Dreams (BYD).

The two-year pilot program introducing battery electric buses to Long Beach is in its final six-month stretch. While cities across the country have reported issues with the performance of BYD’s buses, LBT President and CEO Kenneth McDonald said his agency’s experience with the company and its buses has been positive overall.

The agency is planning to kick off the procurement process for additional buses within the next six months, and McDonald said an extension of LBT’s existing contract with BYD is still on the table. The original $11.7 million contract, which was approved by the agency’s board of directors in April 2015, included an option for an additional 14 buses for LBT and 36 buses for the Anaheim Transportation Network and Gardena Municipal Bus Lines systems.

McDonald admitted that there have been issues during the pilot phase, especially with regards to the buses’ batteries and the travel range they’re able to provide. But he noted that BYD has been cooperative in mitigating performance concerns. “BYD has been very good at working with us,” he said.

McDonald stated that BYD’s buses run up to 120 miles on a single charge, with a charging time of four to six hours that is usually completed while the buses are parked overnight. With these specs, he said, the vehicles are able to cover the 90 miles per day performed by buses on the Passport route. Still, these performance stats fall short of the up to 255-mile range and 2.5-hour charging time BYD advertises for the 2016 model of its 40-foot K9 Electric Transit Bus, the model currently used by Long Beach Transit. In 2018, the agency installed wireless charging stations at the Passport route’s stop near the convention center, at a price tag of $1.6 million.

BYD’s buses have been subject to public scrutiny in other cities, including Los Angeles, Albuquerque and Indianapolis. In May 2018, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that the city’s main transit agency, Los Angeles Metro, continued to order BYD buses over several years despite a record of performance and mechanical issues. “The other cities, I don’t know how they did it, but I know we have been working closely with them [BYD] to evaluate the issues and then find solutions to them,” McDonald said.

Long Beach Transit had initially planned to run the electric buses on all routes to increase awareness of the new technology among passengers. “We were planning to run them in other areas, and we’re still planning to do that so people can experience them,” McDonald said. But, he noted, the range of the battery-powered buses needed to be improved for this to happen.

“A lot of this technology is changing, so there were a lot of upgrades we had to do to the vehicles,” McDonald said. “While we were doing some of those upgrades, we did not extend them to other lines outside of the Passport.” Upgrades, he noted, were mainly focused on replacing the batteries of all 10 buses on the fleet, adding that the cost of the exchange was covered by BYD’s warranty. McDonald did not provide an estimate for a possible expansion of LBT’s electric fleet to other routes.

In December 2018, the California Air Resource Board approved new regulations that set a statewide goal for public transit agencies to transition to fully emission-free fleets by 2040. “We were ahead of the curve,” McDonald said. “As expected [with] any new technology, there were some challenges; the batteries were one of them.”

The agency’s efforts to reduce emissions are not limited to electric buses. Currently, 89% of LBT’s 250 buses use alternative fuels, such as gasoline-electric hybrid technology and natural gas. “It is critical that we . . . as a corporate citizen, do things that help clean the air and have a cleaner environment for the folks that travel in our system and the area [where] we run our buses,” McDonald said.