The use of alternative fuels in passenger cars is still being questioned, but one unexpected place where alternative-fuel use is gaining traction is in the transit bus sector.

Gone are the days of diesel buses belching black smoke. These days, municipal transit buses are known as important early adopters of low-emission drivetrains. Several different fuels are typically used in today’s buses, such as hybrid-electric, natural gas in either liquid or compressed form, or hydrogen fuel cells. According to a recent report from Pike Research, the trend toward cleaner transit buses will continue over the next several years. By 2015, the clean-tech market intelligence firm forecasts that alternative-fuel vehicles will represent more than 50 percent of the 64,000 total transit buses that will be delivered worldwide, up from 28 percent of total bus deliveries in 2010.

“Transit bus fleets are an important area of focus within the broader effort to reduce emissions from mass transit in urban areas,” says Dave Hurst, a senior analyst for Pike Research. “Of the various options available for making mass transit cleaner, buses are the easiest to implement because changes can be completed without significant new or upgraded infrastructure. While diesel buses will certainly continue to enjoy a long life, alternative-fuel vehicles will soon represent the majority of new bus deliveries.”

Hurst says that hybrid-electric transit buses have the smallest impact on infrastructure since they typically utilize diesel fuel, but are more expensive than natural-gas buses. Natural-gas buses are less expensive than hybrids, but require dedicated refueling stations. Although gas companies will install a single refueling station in some parts of the United States essentially for free, the one refueling point per area may mean limited range of use for the vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell buses have a similar limitation because they require a hydrogen refueling point, which are much rarer than natural-gas refueling stations. The number of fuel cell buses in the world, though growing, remains very small in comparison to other alternative fuels.

Pike Research’s analysis indicates that the highest penetration regions for alternative-fuel buses will be North America and Asia Pacific, each of which will boast adoption rates of more than 60 percent of new buses delivered within the next five years. This is especially significant since the two regions together will represent nearly 70 percent of all new bus deliveries during that timeframe. Adoption of alternative-fuel buses in Europe will be a bit lower, representing less than one-third of total deliveries.


Tom Ripley is a Driving Today contributing editor who writes about the auto industry, performance cars, and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.



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