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When I was young there still were some electric buses on the streets of NYC. They got their power from overhead wires and a shoe system on the roof of the bus. There was enough reach that they could swing over to the curb to make stops and still maintain contact.

There were two drawbacks. First, if the shoe came off the driver would have to get out of the bus and do some fancy pushing and pulling with a long rod to get things hooked up again. If things really got snagged the bus could be disabled for an extended period of time.

Second, at busy interchanges there were wires running in all directions with fancy (and unsightly) switching devices to allow the bus to change routes.

They did have two positive aspects. They didn't pollute and they didn't make much noise. With the revived interest in inner city mass transit (especially light rail) it seems to me that electric buses should be reconsidered.

First, the improvement in battery technology (and small auxiliary fossil fuel motors) could allow them to operate over a few miles without overhead power. This means that the interchange switches could be eliminated. The bus would just disconnect at the route change and reconnect after entering the new route. It could also allow them to continue on if they got disengaged and stop at a suitable point to reconnect, or perhaps a better shoe system would reconnect automatically after the bus had moved on some distance.

Second, it would be much easier and cheaper to start such a service compared to light rail. There is no need for laying track nor for a special right of way, although a dedicated bus lane could be established if desired. All that is required is to string some power cables along the new route and perhaps some special traffic signals.

I can't be the first to think of this, so if it is being done why haven't we heard more about it, and if it isn't then why not?

Originally posted to robertdfeinman on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 01:22 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Overhead wires (0+ / 0-)

    are expensive to erect & maintain, and can be dangerous if they come down in an accident or storm. They're also problematic when transporting large objects and can get in the way of parades, etc. They're fine on private rights-of-way (e.g. light rail or dedicated busways), but I don't see them coming back to public streets.

    •  San Francisco's Trolleybus System (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      was built to replace existing streetcar lines when MUNI bought the private MSR in 1944.  So, the poles and lines already existed.  All that was required was converting single-wires to double-wires.

      I agree mostly.  I don't really see trolleybuses sweeping the world.  Hybrid buses would be a better energy-efficient solution for most places.

    •  Funny... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bara, MyBrainWorks

      In all of those European streets of all of those European cities, I have almost never heard of accidents involving downed "live" wires.  I believe they have a very effective tripping system for such a problem, which is much better than our overhead power lines do here in the states.

      And are power lines on rubber-tired buses really more expensive than dedicated light rail lines to erect.  This I have no data on, but find very hard to believe.

      And parades...?  Should a parade route really be a significant factor in energy choices involving transportation?

      Really, WWFSMD?

      by sp0t on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:45:54 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Seattle had, took them down, put them back up (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      N in Seattle, MyBrainWorks

      although on fewer routes than they once were.  And some of the buses are dual mode, electric in the city core, diesel in the outlying regions.

      They have avoided getting into situations where much crossovers or switching is needed, as that does make things more complicated.

      Traffic lights and directional signs tend to be at the same level as the bus power lines, so the issue with getting in the way already exists for reasons other than buses.

      •  With new battery technology, plus new ... (0+ / 0-)

        ... microcontroller technology, compared to the first big wave of trolleybus popularity, it should be straightforward for the trolley poles to be withdrawn automatically to deviate from the electrified line of travel, traverse intersections, or go beyond the limit of the electrified route on battery power alone. and Energize America

        by BruceMcF on Fri Jun 29, 2007 at 07:21:50 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Trollybuses (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Delirium, bara

    We have lots of trollybuses in San Francisco.  They can drive on battery power for a short while if they have to detour off the wires.  However, they run at about 3 mph on battery power.  The real downside of trollybuses is that they have poor route flexibility.

    •  With advances in battery power, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      busses built with today's technology could go for longer distances off the wires.  A bank of lithium ion or lithium polymer batteries could keep the bus going for miles, so it can switch routes, do part of a regular route in an area without power lines, etc.

      Waster of electrons, unlawful enemy combatant.

      by meldroc on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 01:51:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Almost all bus routes.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      are rather short for bus runs (what 12 miles or so, or 60 miles in a day).

      I would think that running buses on pure battery power should be feasible, what with all of that overhead space to place the packs.

      Really, WWFSMD?

      by sp0t on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:47:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  That limited route flexibility is a major ... (0+ / 0-)

      ... for transport oriented development, because it gives far more stability to the transport route than a bus does, where a location that is convenient to a good bus route can either have the bus route pulled blocks away or have a lot of time added to routes in additional deviations trying to be able to claim more area covered without expanding the bus fleet to match.

      You can place more reliance on a station for a high capacity rail line or a light rail line than a trolleybus route, and more reliance on a trolleybus than on a regular city bus route. and Energize America

      by BruceMcF on Fri Jun 29, 2007 at 07:25:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  that sounds reasonable to me (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    theark, Quinton, MyBrainWorks

    Although as a semi-frequent transit rider, what really matters to me, but doesn't seem to be a major target of transit initiatives, is simply more extensive and more frequent service.  Whether it's light rail, or trolleybuses, or natural-gas buses, or heavy rail, or something else, is a concern far in second place after there simply being service where and when I need to go somewhere in the first place. And as far as the environment goes, even old-fashioned gasoline buses are still cleaner than everyone driving their individual cars around.

    "See a world of tanks, ruled by a world of banks." —Sol Invictus

    by Delirium on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 01:35:02 PM PDT

    •  We lost the passenger lines (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      and then we lost light interurban rail and then the superhighways went to pot and now the airlines can't keep half the routes going on time.

      The roads must roll, and this country has problems.

      Gee, that 8bn$ a month to Iraq sure would be handy.

      Stupid, f'ing, tanj, cheneying kuve Bush!

      Dana Curtis Kincaid Ad Astra per Aspera! The enemy is not man, the enemy is stupidity.

      by angrytoyrobot on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:09:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  This administration doesn't seem (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      to place any sort of value on rail transportation.  I know they essentially de-funded Amtrak.  (Slightly off-topic.)  I've grown to hate flying over the past few years--and my career was in aviation--and I've been searching for an alternative method of travel.  The reason there are so many travel delays now is that airlines are flying more, smaller planes, but the airways are finite.  In the old days (ten years ago) they'd fly a bigger plane that held the same number of people, but instead of five flights a day for the same route to keep the customer happy, it only went once a day.  Is the customer really happy, delayed for two hours on the tarmac?  But I digress.  As a traveler, I would be thrilled to take the train to visit my 89-year-old grandmother 2500 miles away.  And for shorter trips, I would love it if, out here in the Northeast, they had something like what I remember of the BART train back in northern California when I was a kid.  Am I just being a fossil?  Is this kind of transportation dead?  Or are we just supposed to stay home?

      ...don't blame me, I voted for Ned!

      by theark on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:22:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't really see long-distance rail's niche (0+ / 0-)

        As far as I can tell, long-distance rail mainly serves as a sort of "land cruise", which is beautiful but not a practical mode of transportation. Unsubsidized, a New York to Los Angeles train trip costs around $2000 per passenger to operate, and even subsidized it costs something like $500 for the ticket---far more than flying.

        Within cities I can see the usefulness of rail in some cases, primarily high-speed or semi-high-speed rail, like the Acela in the northeast and the newly-upgraded Caltrain in the Bay Area.  But beyond that I don't care much. I just want to get from place to place, and whether it's by bus or train doesn't make much difference, unless the train is faster (which it usually isn't). I find that most of the useful lines I ride are bus lines, and I'd rather have those expanded and made more frequent; converting existing bus lines to rail doesn't do much for my ability to get places.

        "See a world of tanks, ruled by a world of banks." —Sol Invictus

        by Delirium on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:42:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I see your point (0+ / 0-)

          and it's a good one.  The bus works because the road is there.  We're kind of running out of the wide open spaces to lay track.  If I want to head out west, for example, according to the schedule I have to go through New York, into DC, I think, up through Chicago, then to points west.  I don't relish the thought of flying.  I wish there were a better way to go.

          ...don't blame me, I voted for Ned!

          by theark on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 04:53:14 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  The niches are one hour to three hour trips ... (0+ / 0-)

          ... in competition with air, and longer trips ... up to six hours ... in areas underserved by air.

          If you were to do a time-lapse film of a transcontintental passenger train, you would see a steady turnover of passengers, as rather than taking a large number of people from, say, Chicago to LA, it takes large numbers of people on shorter trips that lay along its line of travel.

          The interstate passenger transport task, whether by car, air, motorcoach or rail, is an entirely different transport task than what a trolleybus does.

          And one thing a trolleybus does is reduce the per-mile cost of a given bus route. That means that the pure commercial calculation would dictate a higher frequency of services along that route ... and especially in an environment of rising crude oil prices over the next five years, trolley-buses will be very well placed to capture an increasing share of patronage, which will allow them to drive up their frequency still further.

 and Energize America

          by BruceMcF on Fri Jun 29, 2007 at 07:37:12 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  See above for part of that ... (0+ / 0-)

      ... part of the reason that trolley lines and interurbans went almost anywhere anyone wanted to go in the early 20th century was that people developed based on whether or not a trolley line and/or interurban was in place or being put in place.

      To incrementally move in that direction, we need to get more "fixed guideways" that go many places that many people want to go, and then re-orient our pro-sprawl zoningf and public spending to support clustering around the stations and lines of that system. and Energize America

      by BruceMcF on Fri Jun 29, 2007 at 07:29:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  List of Trolleybus Systems (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  Didn't MIT or someone just transmit power? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I thought I saw something last week about a group doing a very basic version of Tesla's dream of transmitting electricity wirelessly.

    The Cubs WILL win the World Series in '07. I'm not saying which century, though.

    by nightsweat on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 01:53:06 PM PDT

    •  Ick - Broadcast Power (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Quinton, wondering if

      There is enough worry about RFI now, do you REALLY want enough potential current to run a modern technical civilization zapping between the interior of the planet and the ionosphere or something?

      Tesla thought he could make it work, and if anyone could have he probably could.  However, would it ahve been a GOOD THING?

      I have my doubts.

      Look, I want to try microwave PowerSats in Geostationary orbit.  Put receivers in deserts and beam the power down from big solar to microwave stations in high orbit.  Could I even get the superGreens to let me try that without a fight over disrupting bird migration paths and frying endangered spiders?  I doubt it.

      Dana Curtis Kincaid Ad Astra per Aspera! The enemy is not man, the enemy is stupidity.

      by angrytoyrobot on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:05:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Far more practical (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bara, Quinton

        Flying electric generators seem a lot more practical than solar satelites.

        Why put equipment up 22236 miles (at $3000-$5000 per pound) when 3-6 miles will do the trick?   When the very turbines that generate the power can be used to hoist it aloft in the first place?  When you can assemble the equipment on the ground instead of in space?   When you can generate power for 1.4 cents per kilowatt-hour?

        Even the Audubon Society is endorsing wind power and FEG have the potential to fly above the birds.

        -6.25, -6.36 Worst. President. Dictator. Ever.

        by whitis on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 07:04:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Yes, it was the type of power to... (0+ / 0-)

      charge a cell phone.  Small, but effective.

      I wonder about transmitting the type of power to runa  bus, however.

      Really, WWFSMD?

      by sp0t on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:49:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  short distance, high loses (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Coherent Viewpoint

      and it puts power out there for anyone to tap into. Laws of nature get in the way of wireless power, things like the inverse square law.

      And yes Tesla did spend a lot of time on broadcast power, and claimed to be able to do so. However by that time he was also deathly afraid of pearls, declared that "There is no such thing as an electron", and apparently did not believe the ionosphere exists. Claims of his regarding his later work should be evaluated carefully, noting that many of those were never demonstrated in a fashion that allowed verification.

  •  Zero polution isn't zero (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    pollution when coal power plants are supplying you electricity and the Kennedys don't want wind power in THEIR neck of the woods.

    I know, doom and gloom.

    Now, as to WHY no electric (overhead wire) buses?  Who knows.  Someone was no doubt paid off somewhere.

    Dana Curtis Kincaid Ad Astra per Aspera! The enemy is not man, the enemy is stupidity.

    by angrytoyrobot on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:01:08 PM PDT

    •  Local pollution (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ortcutt, bara, Farugia, Prof Dave, Quinton

      Local pollution is a big issue. In the Bronx in NYC childhood asthma rate have risen to 40% in some areas. Much of this seems due to the large number of trucks coming into the city which travel over the nearby highway systems. Cutting down on diesel buses would at least be a step in the right direction.

      Moving pollution away from population centers is useful and opens up the possibility of using alternative energy like hydro power or solar to make electricity.

    •  Centralizing pollution effluent... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bara, Quinton

      like, for example, using an electric lawn mower, is useful, since new technological advances to control pollution at the power plant level are economically feasible almost immediately (or forceable immediately).  Controlling pollution at the lawn mower level is harder to implement since any advance in technology usually leads to a higher price retail, and many people opt for the cheaper equipment for a while.

      Really, WWFSMD?

      by sp0t on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:53:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  true, however big powerplants are more (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      efficient than lots of individual motors, in terms of turning fuel into motive power and in the amount of CO2 produced per mile traveled.

    •  A lot of the places with trolleybuses... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Coherent Viewpoint, Quinton

      like Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, etc... have significant hydro power resources.  San Francisco owns its own hydro dam, which powers all of the MUNI lines and street lights.

    •  However, its still less CO2 emissions ... (0+ / 0-)

      ... than diesel buses, and even more savings in CO2 emissions for every person drawn out of a car ... which trolleybuses are more effective at than regular buses.

      With coal-fired electricity, its a trade off between the higher efficiency of the electric traction and the greater CO2 emissions per unit of power of the coal-fired electricity.

      And then there is the opportunity to further reduce the CO2 emissions by increasing the share of renewable power on the grid. After all, if coal did not enjoy a free ride on its contribution to global warming (let alone all the other costs it imposes on people throughout the nation) it would already be more expensive than windpower. and Energize America

      by BruceMcF on Fri Jun 29, 2007 at 07:51:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I ride one every day (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bara, Quinton, MyBrainWorks

    My bus route from home to downtown uses standard diesel buses, but to go from downtown Seattle to my workplace on First Hill I ride a trolleybus.  The latter runs a route that is very steep, straight up James St. (through the magic of Google, I find that that was the route of Seattle's very first electric streetcar in 1889).

    Seattle is replete with trolleybuses, running on a great many routes throughout the city.

    You're only young once, but you can be immature forever -- Larry Andersen
    Blogging at Peace Tree Farm

    by N in Seattle on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 02:41:59 PM PDT

  •  Chattanooga has electric buses (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bara, sp0t, Quinton, MyBrainWorks

    CARTA has been running a free battery operated downtown shuttle since the early 1990's...

  •  There are reasosn, although not all are good ones (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the overhead wires do fix the route, it's expensive to change the route. Sometimes this is needed on a temporary basis, say when construction or repair work closes the normal route.  Buses that had batteries as well, or ran dual mode diesel/wired electric, can get around this.

    The wires are considered unsightly, and tend to create a lot of public opposition. This is particularly true in neighborhoods that have increased taxes/bills to pay for undergrounding the utility wiring.

    One other thing is that trolley-buses can't pass each other,  unless bypasses are included. I remember than some bus stops one wide streets did have that, the bus stop had a short section of sidetrack wires that buses stopping there would use, while other buses would continue on by on the main wires. This was important as there were schedule synchronization stops where a bus would wait for some minutes if it were ahead a schedule.

    Batteries plus overhead wires would allow buses to charge while on the wires, and go wireless for the outlying portions of route. It might be practical to design the pickups so that if they came off the wires they'd automatically stow themselves, the driver could reconnect at the next stop rather than being stuck in the middle of the street.

    The cost of powering an electric per mile looks to be appreciably lower than for diesel or gasoline powered buses. The electric buses seem to cost about twice as much as the standard buses, but to have lower operational costs and last much longer.

  •  plug-in, hybrid ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    buses, trains ... with extension of electric wires, but with ability to operate where there is no electrical system to plug into ...

    agreed about value of thinking electric.

    Blogging regularly at Ecotality Blog for a Sustainable Future.

    by A Siegel on Thu Jun 28, 2007 at 08:42:38 PM PDT

  •  Electric buses (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Quinton, BruceMcF

    Electric buses were the descendants of electric trolleys, which were a power company loss leader in order to get a municipal government to sign an exclusive contract with the electrical utility.

    As the number of automobiles increased, electric buses were used to increase safety.  And then, utility companies switched to diesel buses and began complaining that they couldn't make money running the buses.  That is because they had swapped excess electrical capacity (essentially free) for diesel fuel (not free).

    Now transit systems are mostly in the hands of government entities that are asked to turn a profit.  Transit never turned a profit, except through something else.

    Government subsidizes highways; government subsidizes airport; government subsidizes marine and barge transportation.  But subsidizing rail transportation is verboten.  Some market.

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