Transit agencies in California have largely been considered frontrunners in the race to adopt zero-emission vehicles and technologies. In Santa Cruz, Calif., the Metropolitan Transit District (Santa Cruz Metro) has shown over the years its longtime commitment to sustainability — beginning in the early 2000s when the agency committed to a fully compressed natural gas (CNG) fleet, and more recently with the agency’s adoption of its first 100% zero-emission fleet transition plan and their first purchase of zero-emission electric buses (ZEBs) from Proterra.
With the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) regulation requiring all public transit agencies in the state to gradually transition to a full ZEB fleet by 2040, and the Biden Administration’s drive towards clean energy, Santa Cruz Metro is looking to its adoption of four 40-foot Proterra ZX5 zero-emission electric buses as a starting point in collecting valuable data and feedback on the feasibility of electric buses for its operations.
“To be clear, we’re not jumping in with both feet yet with battery-electric buses,” says Alex Clifford, CEO of Santa Cruz Metro. “We are following the CARB mandate, and we’re going to be zero-emission compliant with the state in 2040. But how we get there, for this agency, will be a slower, more methodical, and more thoughtful path to ensure that we don’t spend millions of dollars on a product that won’t serve our needs. Electric buses are a big investment that we have to be prepared to keep for 12 to 14 years.”
“Public transit is at the forefront of the switch to zero-emission, electric transportation. It was a little more than 10 years ago that Proterra delivered its first battery-electric bus to Foothill Transit in Southern California. Now, building on the innovative spirit of public transit agencies, California is on a path to transition to 100% zero-emission fleets by 2040,” adds John Walsh, Proterra’s Sr. VP. “As more cities and states make the commitment to 100% zero-emission fleets, Proterra is introducing new vehicle and battery technology to meet the needs of our customers, including the new Proterra ZX5 electric bus, which is designed to tackle the toughest routes and terrains across North America. We are excited to partner with Metro, which shares our common vision of clean, quiet transportation for all, as we support them in the deployment of their first electric buses.”
Proceeding with caution
Under CARB’s ICT regulation, Santa Cruz Metro is considered a small transit agency, meaning it operates less than 100 buses in an urbanized area with a population of less than 200,000 people. The ZEB purchasing requirements listed in the ICT regulation for small transit agencies requires them to make 25% of its vehicle purchases ZEBs starting in 2026, and then 100% of its purchases ZEBs starting in 2029 and thereafter.
“This is an interesting juggling act for us because we invested several million dollars — since 2000 — in a CNG fueling facility that has not yet reached its expiration,” Clifford explains. “We have our fleet almost fully transitioned to CNG, so we need to get a full life expectancy out of the facility, which included federal investment, before we advance to a full zero-emission fleet.”
In addition to its CNG vehicles, Santa Cruz Metro operates 10 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which it added to its fleet almost two years ago.
Clifford says the agency wants to see more improvements in electric vehicle (EV) technology — increased vehicle ranges, greater battery-energy capacity, and increased battery lifespan — before moving toward widespread EV adoption.
“We want to operate on a model that will charge all night and run all day,” he says. “We don’t want to conduct en-route charging or mid-day charging; we want a bus that can run on any route, all day on a single charge overnight. While I understand that technology is not fully there today, I’m confident we will learn a lot from our Proterra electric buses.”
Using its four Proterra ZX5 electric buses, Santa Cruz Metro is focused on creating a new circulator service in downtown Watsonville, with hopes of improving ridership in South County.
Two of the electric buses will specifically go through an exhaustive pre-revenue process of working around different routes, to see how the different features of each route affect the range of the bus.
Part of the challenge, Clifford says, is the different characteristics of how each bus operator drives the bus. For example, he says, if a bus operator leaves the bus stop and just smashes their foot on the accelerator every time, they will tend to drain that batteries faster than another bus operator who might be more sensitive to driving an electric bus.
“The other thing we have to learn is what are the effects of the geography of our routes — some routes are in rural, hilly areas, and some routes are on pretty much flat areas,” Clifford points out. “So, we need to collect data on the effects of the different terrain that we operate in.”
Santa Cruz Metro currently operates with a space-constrained bus yard, approximately 91,234 square feet. The size of the yard has raised concerns about EV charging space as the agency potentially transitions to a fully battery-electric fleet.
Prior to the delivery of the Proterra buses, the agency completed construction of a small charging facility at its Judy K. Souza Operations Facility. The charging facility is equipped with four chargers, with a capacity of 10 chargers.
“We have to think through that as we design what our future looks like because you start losing vehicle spaces when you have to install a large amount of EV chargers,” Clifford explains. “Vehicle range limitations can become more and more complicated and result in ‘dedicated fleets,’ when you can only use certain vehicles on certain routes, and such limitations can cause delays in the morning rollout.”
Additionally, with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a strain on operations, Clifford says one of the biggest challenges that lies ahead for the agency is ensuring its survival. Like many other transit agencies, Santa Cruz Metro experienced unprecedented ridership losses within the last year. The agency’s pre-COVID ridership typically falls around five million trips per year. However, in the last fiscal year — with four months of COVID impact in FY20 — Santa Cruz’s ridership was down 30%, with the agency delivering close to 3.5 million trips.
In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2020, Santa Cruz’s year-over-year average trips delivered through January were down 84%. The biggest portion of that (about 60%) Clifford says, is the agency’s student ridership from the University of California Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, and public schools, which have been operating under remote learning since COVID hit last March.
“We’re optimistic that students are returning in fall of this year, and we’re hopeful that the full 60 percent associated with student ridership, or most of it, will return to our service,” he says.
As the agency looks to ramp up to its normal revenue service hours and attract its customers back, Santa Cruz Metro is confident in its efforts to continue improving the rider experience and being a leader in sustainability.
“We need to work hard to make sure that as we come out of this COVID crisis we do everything possible to improve the rider experience and to get people to return to the bus,” Clifford says. “Some of that is in helping the customer understand that riding a bus is a safe place to be, and that some of the safety and sustainability measures that we’ve put in place today will probably remain in the future, maybe forever.”
In a rider survey about the agency’s COVID response, Clifford says some riders expressed the need to improve frequency of service, specifically on some of the agency’s trunk lines.
“Another tool in the tool bag is microtransit,” he says. “METRO’s board of directors approved our microtransit pilot in February that we are hoping to launch soon.”
Additionally, Santa Cruz is evaluating contactless, touchless technology through its recent partnership with Masabi. The METRO Splash Pass, powered by Masabi’s Justride platform, gives riders the option of purchasing local and Highway 17 Express tickets including full or discounted options. Once purchased, riders can activate their tickets on their phones and present them to the driver when boarding for visual validation.