Iowa City launches electric buses. Here’s what it’s like to ride them
Olivia O’Keeffe didn’t expect her ride to class on Monday to be much different than any other day she would ride the bus from her sorority house in downtown Iowa City.
Until the big orange and white bus arrives at its stop.
O’Keefe, an international studies student at the University of Iowa, became one of the first passengers to board Iowa City’s new electric buses on Monday. His first observations:
“I thought it looked fancy and I saw it was electric. It looks really nice,” she said. “Normally I’m used to the creaky old bus which is much louder. But it was so smooth.”
Iowa City announced last week that it would roll out its four new electric buses, hoping to reduce carbon emissions in the city. Each bus proudly proclaims “I am electric” on bright orange panels up front and on the side windows.
‘A monumental leap forward’: Electric buses could help Iowa City meet its sustainability goals
While driving the new bus on the free downtown shuttle route, all you could hear was an electric hum, heat blowing from the air vents, the sound of tires rolling down the street and the usual weekday bustle of downtown Iowa City.
But reduced noise pollution is just one added benefit of the new buses, which Iowa city leaders hope can help the city eventually achieve net-zero emissions.
Darian Nagle-Gamm, the manager of Iowa City Transit, told the Press-Citizen that the city hopes to transition its entire fleet to electric buses or other vehicles with zero- or low-emission technologies. This could include hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles.
“Whenever a vehicle is replaced right now as it ages out of production, virtually any type of vehicle that we use, we consider an electric or other low- or zero-emissions vehicle option,” she said.
Nagle-Gamm said the rollout of the new buses was going well, with drivers getting used to the new equipment on Monday.
“They stand out and they definitely turn heads,” she said.
Iowa City purchased the four buses using $3.3 million in Federal Transit Administration and Iowa DOT grants.
Nagle-Gamm said the city will pursue additional subsidies for future electric bus purchases, but the city’s money will also have to be used. The city paid $1.2 million out of its own pocket, or $306,514 per bus and associated charging equipment, to match the grant funds for these four buses, bringing the total cost to more than 4.6 millions of dollars.
The city purchased the buses from Proterra, a designer and manufacturer of zero-emission electric transit vehicles and electric vehicle technology solutions for commercial applications.
According to Proterra websiteits ZX5 bus offers faster acceleration, industry-leading gradeability and the most battery storage on any 40-foot electric bus, delivering over 300 miles of range per charge.
Nagle-Gamm said that ultimately each electric bus will ideally be plugged in to charge, but the city expects to be able to drive them for as long as possible during the day.
While the lithium battery powers the acceleration of the buses, the bus has a nine-gallon diesel tank which is widely used to heat the passenger cabin in the winter.
Iowa City has enough capacity to charge its four buses with its current electric vehicle infrastructure, but may need to invest in additional capacity as it purchases more buses in the future.
Since Iowa City uses MidAmerican Energy as its utility company, much of the energy used to charge the four buses each day will come from wind. According to his website, MidAmerican seeks to lead the country in its quest to provide 100% renewable energy to its customers. In 2020, it provided 83.6% renewable energy annually to Iowans with over 3,300 turbines spread across the state.
“It’s a monumental leap forward in terms of sustainable transport to use electric buses in a public transport system that is 84% based on renewable energy,” Nagle-Gamm said.
Iowa City isn’t alone among Iowa cities in switching to electric buses. Ames has announced that it will roll out its first electric buses in June.
Nagle-Gamm said jumping on an electric bus is a major leap in terms of sustainability rather than driving a personal automobile that relies on fossil fuels. She said the next step for Iowa City to reduce carbon emissions from transportation is to encourage more people to take public transit or ride bicycles.
“We need to make our transit system work better for those who depend on it every day, and we need to make it a better option for the rest of the community,” she said.
O’Keeffe said she’s happy to see Iowa City switch to electric buses, especially as she tries to do her part to reduce carbon emissions.
“Not only was (the bus) more enjoyable, but I know it’s better in the long run than gas and fossil fuels,” she said.
How to use the new electric buses
The four buses will run with each other on just two routes in Iowa City: the free downtown shuttle and the Oakcrest route which also passes through the University of Iowa Medical Campus on Melrose Avenue.
Nagle-Gamm said the four buses will be used on all but one route in Iowa City later in the winter or spring. The West Iowa City route cannot use the new buses due to a low clearance railroad bridge on Iowa Avenue.
Only two electric buses will be on the road at a time while the other two will sit on the sidelines as a backup in case a bus needs to be replaced.
Although the downtown shuttle is free, all other routes cost $1 each way or require a transit pass which can be purchased at several locations in Iowa City, including:
- Iowa City Hall.
- Iowa City parking lot at 335 Iowa Ave.
- 1st Avenue Hy-Vee.
- The Hy-Vee waterfront.
- The Hy-Vee Pharmacy in Rochester and First Avenue.
- And the North Dodge Hy-Vee.
Children under 5, disabled passholders, seniors over 65, senior passholders, Medicare cardholders, and Johnson County SEATS cardholders travel for free. Nagle-Gamm said Iowa City is set to launch a pilot program for Sunday Service later this year.
Passengers can view a map of bus routes and stops using the Transit appwhich also has tools for planning trips to Iowa City.
More information on bus passes, prices, routes and upcoming changes is available on the Iowa City website.