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Why is this bus idling? The answer will surprise you.

You’ve probably seen it many times: empty buses lined up at the GO station with the engines running. I’ve seen it too, so I asked some of the bus drivers why they leave the motor running when the bus is stopped for such a long period of time.

The answer I received was surprising. The reason the drivers keep the engine running is because “it powers the Presto computer”. That’s right, if the driver turns off the bus engine, the computer turns off too. And since it takes about a minute to re-boot the computer after the bus starts, the drivers just leave the engines running instead.

So, we have an unfortunate situation where a 500 HP diesel engine is used to power a 10 Watt computer. At the GO station, the buses typically wait 8 minutes on each visit. Multiply this by dozens of buses in the fleet, several times per day, 365 days per year and we have a massive waste of fuel. This practice amounts to thousands of liters of diesel fuel that is needlessly burned each year just because the Presto computer is lacking a battery.

Update Sep 16, 2018:

I was at the Terry Fox run today and noticed a police vehicle idling at one of the intersections while an officer was directing traffic. On the return loop (30 minutes later) the SUV was still idling. So I asked the officer if it was department policy to keep the engines running all day long. He replied that “it’s not policy, but is necessary because the on-board electronics take a long time to re-boot, and the engine is kept running to keep the battery charged”. So, we appear to have the same situation with the police vehicles that we have with the buses: huge engines are kept idling to power a small amount of electronics.

The following graph is taken from the Town website. Over a 16-year period, Town of Oakville is targeting to reduce the CO2 emissions per vehicle from 17 tonnes/year to 15 tonnes/year. This is 0.7% per year reduction (which seems way too conservative in my opinion).

One way to speed up our progress could be to add some batteries and charge management electronics to our vehicles. This would allow our drivers to turn off the engines and stop idling. It could cost a few hundred dollars per vehicle, but the investment would be repaid in a matter of weeks or months. More importantly, it would stop the needless polluting of our town’s air.

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Obsolete Technology

Obsolete technology, like this pay phone, often become “stranded assets”. That is, they stop providing value long before they are physically deteriorated. To remain efficient, organizations need to avoid getting stuck with stranded assets which represent a waste of resources.

What does this have to do with Oakville-Halton? Well, our municipality could potentially get stuck with a LOT of stranded assets – I’m referring to vehicles with internal combustion engines. These vehicles serve in a wide variety of functions including police cars, fire trucks, buses, paramedics, service trucks, etc. And just like the pay phone, these vehicles will soon be displaced by newer, better technology – electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles are quiet, non-polluting, and very inexpensive to operate. But most importantly, they are here now! They are no longer science fiction; they are available today and many more models are coming in the next 2-3 years. Up until very recently, electric vehicles were prohibitively expensive. But that is changing fast. Batteries prices have been falling by 10-14% per year, and soon electric vehicles will cost less to purchase than gasoline vehicles.

So, what should we do, knowing that this disruptive technology is real and approaching fast? That’s easy. Stop buying more internal combustion engine vehicles. Oakville-Halton should immediately place a moratorium on the purchase of new gasoline vehicles in order to avoid getting stuck with fleets full of stranded assets. Instead, we need to plan for this new technology, develop procurement strategies, install charging facilities and get ready to make the switch to electric vehicles as soon as practical.

Here’s a brand new Halton Police cruiser ready to be placed into service. Will it be obsolete before it’s worn out?

Electric vehicle facts:

  • over 1 million electric buses were manufactured worldwide in 2017
  • electric passenger vehicles now make up 6.8% of all new cars sold in Canada
  • the biggest hurdle to electric vehicle adoption right now is inventory – car dealers just don’t have enough stock on hand to meet the demand
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Empty Buses

This is what the inside of an Oakville Transit bus looks like. I thought I’d post it because many people in town have not actually ridden on one. Whenever I see an OT bus go by, I try to count the number of passengers on board. The most I've ever counted is 12; but typically, I see only 2 or 3 passengers.

According to the 2017 report to council, OT delivered 2.9 million rides last year at a cost of $37 million dollars. That’s $13/ride on average. Of that, $3.75 is paid by the rider and $9.25 is paid from general Town revenue. By comparison, a typical Uber ride from Bronte Station to Trafalgar Hospital costs about $13.50. So, we are delivering rides for less money than a ride-hailing app, but just barely.

Is this the kind of value we expect from our transit system? Can we do better?

Here's a suggestion for OT: sell the noisy, over-sized buses we currently operate. Replace them with a fleet of smaller, quieter, more efficient buses like this one:

But please don't stop there. Please make sure the new buses are electric - they will be whisper-quiet. This will be greatly appreciated by all of our residents who live along a bus route.

In summary, a switch to smaller electric buses will:

  1. Reduce operating costs
  2. Reduce air pollution
  3. Reduce noise pollution