Despite a global pandemic grinding the world to a halt, India has kept a deadline to reduce air pollution from road emissions, becoming the first country to leapfrog from Bharat Stage IV (Euro IV equivalent) to Bharat Stage VI standards on 1 April 2020.
Since 1 April 2020, all fuel in India, a country of 1.4 billion people, contains no more than 10 parts per million (ppm) sulfur, which is compatible with the diesel particulate filters, petrol particulate filters and selective catalytic reduction systems needed for vehicles to meet the new standard.
The dramatic move helps cities like Bengaluru fulfil plans for a much-needed expansion of its 6,500-strong bus fleet, which forms the backbone of its public transport system, transitioning to cleaner soot-free buses while, in parallel, phasing in electric buses towards the aspiration of an all-electric fleet by 2030.
This aspiration, in the spirit of a bigger drive by the state of Karnataka — of which Bengaluru is the capital — to develop electric mobility, has also received a boost through generous national incentives; Bengaluru was awarded 300 electric buses under the national government’s FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric & Hybrid Vehicles) scheme to encourage this transition.
A team under the International Climate Initiative’s Soot-Free Low-Carbon City Fleets project, supported by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) of Germany, is working with the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) to identify and tackle challenges and develop tools and a long-term strategy (up to 2030) to support the transitions.
Road bumps on the way to electrification
As electric buses rise in popularity, many of Bengaluru’s challenges inherent in overhauling an entire bus system are also being tackled by an increasing number of cities across India and around the world— indeed, the project is working with several cities in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Mexico on their transitions to cleaner bus fleets. These challenges reflect the importance of long-term planning.
“Cities view this just as a technology shift, but it is also a shift in service planning and delivery practices— the lack of understanding of this will lead to significant inefficiencies in the system,” said UITP India transit policy expert, Ravi Gadepalli, one of the team members.
In Bengaluru’s case, one challenge involves the current funding model.
“Even though electric buses have lower energy consumption, they’ll still require similar manpower — which contributes to 50 per cent of cost even for diesel buses,” said Managing Director, BMTC, C. Shikha.
Another is the issue of maintenance.
“Strategies to deploy the maintenance staff who’re already on-rolls of BMTC for diesel bus maintenance need to be devised. This will certainly require reskilling staff to handle electric buses. The availability of this staff may lead to a preference for in-house maintenance of buses in the long run, even if the fleet ownership and operation is outsourced,” said Gadepalli.
A third challenge requires changes in the procurement and contract management of the business model to overcome.
“In addition to financing, cities face the twin transition of shifting bus technology from diesel to electric and procurement methods from outright purchase to leasing. Technical capabilities of bus agencies need support to reskill and induct new staff with the required ability to handle electric buses,” said BMTC’s Shikha.
“It really demonstrates a need for long-term planning; you want to have as part of a transition plan not only an understanding of the technologies that you want to use for the system, but also plans for how you would retrain your staff and develop skills that will be needed to maintain and operate this new technology,” said ICCT senior researcher Tim Dallmann.
“The more information operators have going into the transition, the better they can manage the transition,” Dallmann emphasized.
Calculating costs when the rubber hits the road
One crucial piece of information the researchers are working on putting into the hands of the operators is an analysis of the cost of electrification at route level, something, they say, is often under-appreciated.
“So, understanding the technologies that are available, what technologies are best suited for certain routes speak to some of the work we’re doing to do the route-level modelling to try to look at what aspects of routes make them conducive to certain zero-emission technologies,” said Dallmann, who presented the findings in a BreatheLife webinar organized by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which works with the ICCT and UN Environment Programme to help cities make the soot-free transition.
The researchers modelled 29 bus routes (out of the city’s 2,263 routes in total) identified as possible candidates for those first 300 buses to determine which were suitable for one-to-one replacement and maintaining the same level of service, taking into account the total cost of electrification of each of these routes.
The detail they considered when matching the battery electric buses to specific routes included how long the battery would last under different circumstances, for example, with a full load of passengers, air conditioning, battery management strategies, and battery degradation over time.
The modelling, said the researchers, helps with planning and making these transitions as cost-effective and as operationally smooth as possible.
The team found that electric buses consumed a whopping 75 to 80 per cent less energy than diesel buses, though air conditioning the e-buses increased energy consumption by about 10 to 13 per cent.
“Modelling tools can help in the planning of electric bus fleets and initial deployments, particularly in cities where there isn’t a lot of existing information on how electric buses are performing on a given route network,” said Dallmann.
What about benefits to air quality and health?
As in many cities, transportation is the main source of air pollutant emissions in Bengaluru; vehicle exhaust and resuspension of road dust together account for 56 per cent and 70 per cent of the city’s PM2.5 and PM10 (varying sizes of particulate pollution) emissions respectively.
Globally, buses make up just a small part of the whole vehicle fleet, but they make an outsized contribution to air pollution: they’re powered predominantly by diesel engines, accounting for about a quarter of black carbon emitted by the transportation sector, and, in cities, the majority of nitrogen dioxide emissions; they travel precisely where people are concentrated, and they ply urban streets up to 10 times as much as the average passenger vehicle.
India’s capital region Delhi recognized this outsized contribution of both buses and the transport sector itself to its infamous levels air pollution in in the early 1990s, making the bold move of switching to compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, starting with its public bus system.
Thus, another thing the team modelled as part of its work with the BMTC to develop a fleet-wide strategy for the technology transition was the effect on air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions of different procurement scenarios.
“We’re able to model how emissions of air pollutants like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides would change as you transition to soot-free and zero emission buses. As part of this analysis, we’re also looking at how the transition will impact greenhouse gas emissions and how long-term decarbonisation of the electricity grid would further the benefits of the transition to e-buses when it comes to greenhouse gases,” said Dallmann.
But impacts of the transition on health are harder to model.
“It’s complicated to do ambient air quality monitoring to pick up the signal from changes in the technology used in the bus fleet,” explain Dallmann.
“We’re able to provide estimates through our modelling of the emissions changes, but the next step would be then to associate those with ambient air quality changes and improvements, and, ultimately, the health impacts and benefits from transition to cleaner technologies. Again, that can be approached through modelling; it’s a bit trickier to do it at (the city) scale, but could be useful,” he continued.
For best results, strengthen the whole bus system
But maximising the benefits of upgrading and electrifying cities’ public buses system involves a much bigger battle.
“Indian cities need to take up two key measures to reduce their transport related emissions: Attract more users to buses through high quality services and adopt cleaner vehicle technologies for these buses. Both these measures require additional policy and financial support beyond what is available. Indian bus agencies are currently struggling with even Bharat Stage III and Bharat Stage IV vehicles, which are cheaper to operate, and are unable to find finances even for replacement of older buses in some cases,” said BMTC’s Shikha.
“International climate financing institutions for low and zero emission buses thus need to fast-track the deployment of Bharat Stage VI and zero emission buses,” she continued.
In Bengaluru, the city’s public bus fleet, large as it is, is dwarfed by teeming numbers of private cars, three-wheelers, motorcycles and other vehicles, and, while the sheer number of users relying on buses remains high in the growing city — BMTC buses carry 2.5 to 4 million passengers daily — its popularity is dropping.
Here, getting more people into buses would be a real “game changer”, said Gadepalli.
“The majority of people in buses so far are those who can’t afford other modes, because buses are the cheapest available option they can afford,” explained Gadepalli.
“The moment people are able to afford their own personal cars/2 wheelers, they’re shifting away from buses,” he said.
This is happening for a variety of reasons that have implications for urban policy and planning.
“Firstly, availability of public transport is low compared to demand, so you get really crowded buses, and it’s not a comfortable journey. Then, even if you make it onto the bus, you’re still stuck in traffic like everyone else— so, for many people, it’s a matter of, ‘I’d rather be stuck in my own vehicle than in a bus because it’s so crowded and they keep stopping at every bus stop, and then getting stuck again every time they pull out of the bus stop due to the traffic’,” he explained.
“Bus users actually have a disproportionately higher delay. So, towards this problem, increasing public transport supply is well understood, which is why the government of Karnataka announced a new 2,400 increase in buses in the recent budget,” Gadepalli said.
Another solution is bus lanes, which the government is exploring.
“Bus priority lanes are very important. One such corridor was piloted last year and there was overwhelming public support for that, because despite the higher volume of traffic, the majority of commuters in Bangalore are still bus users— and Bangalore has a really strong bus culture, so there was strong positive feedback for the lanes,” he said.
As a result of the enthusiastic response, the Government of Karnataka announced more corridors to be designed with bus priority lanes in the future, a win for the attractiveness of a fleet that will soon be soot-free and electric.
A third crucial measure, said Gadepalli, was the need to make private vehicle travel less desirable— something the state and city still struggle with.
Just as the national government has kept its date with the switch to the cleanest fuel and vehicle standards currently available, Bengaluru and Karnataka state is ploughing ahead to develop their plans for the parallel transitions to soot-free and electric buses, though the city faces understandable delays as the world battles a different unseen and deadly enemy.
And while switching to electric and soot-free buses won’t necessarily solve the air quality problem in India, the nationwide switch to Bharat Stage VI and the efforts of individual states’ and cities’ to improve commuters’ journeys will hopefully bring lasting benefits to their residents’ urban air quality and health, and offer inspiration and lessons to those on the same journey.
Bengaluru’s journey to soot-free buses was presented during a BreatheLife webinar organized by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which has been working with the ICCT and UN Environment Programme since 2015 to support cities on their transitions from diesel buses to soot-free engine technologies. Initially targeting 20 megacities, this work has expanded to more cities and has received additional support from various partners. In 2017, the CCAC and its partners launched the Global Industry Partnership on Soot-Free Clean Bus Fleets with commitments from Volvo, Scania, BYD and Cummins to make soot-free engine technology available in the 20 originally targeted cities.
Banner photo by Satvik Shahapur from Pexels