October 8, 2018   3 mins

Train spotters. Is there a less fashionable group of people anywhere on the planet?

Actually, yes. You can go one rung lower on the ladder of cool – to the abode of the bus enthusiast.

While a wisp of steam age romance still clings to the train, the poor old bus has nothing at all in the way of glamour. To be compared to the back end of one is to be cruelly insulted.

Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. In fact, there’s no evidence that she uttered any such thing. But filtering the sentiment through a caricature of Thatcher is a safe way of expressing prejudices about people who use buses – clearly, it is thought, they have no other choice. Even the humble cyclist cuts a more dynamic figure these days.

And yet if there’s one form of transport set to transform our cities it’s the bus. I’ve previously made the case for why automated buses might go mainstream long before driverless cars, but that’s not the only transformative tech at stake.

Electric vehicles have many advantages over gas guzzlers – not least in drastically cutting back on carbon emissions and local air pollution.

With battery electric cars already on our roads, it might be assumed that lighter vehicles will go electric long before heavier ones. But, according to Michael Liebreich, in a must-read for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, that’s not necessarily the case:

“Buses, which were under the radar in 2016, have started going electric faster than light-duty vehicles. There are nearly 400,000 electric buses on the road already, 99 percent of them in China; BNEF expects electric buses to have a lower total cost of ownership in almost all charging configurations by 2019. By 2030, it expects 84 percent of all municipal bus sales globally to be electric, and by 2040, some 80 percent of the global municipal bus fleet will be electric.”

Buses, because they travel predictable routes aren’t subject to the same ‘range anxiety‘ as privately-owned battery-powered vehicles. Furthermore, bus fleets share depots, where charging infrastructure and the specialist servicing of electrical drive systems can be more easily deployed. Then there’s the economics:

“…if an electric car can compete with internal combustion on a total cost-of-ownership (TCoE) basis for a given route pattern, an electric bus or truck will too. And since bus and truck purchasers are driven almost entirely by TCoE, not sticker price or branding, once break-even is achieved, the switch to electric will be as fast as the supply chain and charging infrastructure will allow.”

The availability of affordable non-polluting vehicles will embolden policy-makers to slap heavier penalties on dirty vehicles – thus accentuating the the economic advantages of the new tech.

For a whole range of reasons, electric vehicles will be easier to automate than fossil fuelled ones – not least because EVs have fewer moving parts. The automation of electric buses would take out another big chunk of the operating costs: the bus driver. The drivers’ loss would be the passengers’ gain, making bus travel even more attractive – even to the extent of ending the need (if not the desire) for urban motoring.

As Liebreich points out, the special advantages of electrifying buses also applies to other heavy vehicles – especially those owned and operated in fleets within urban areas. In short, the potential will soon exist for an urban transport revolution.

So here’s a prediction: At some point in the next decade, a mainstream mayoral candidate for a major city will stand on a platform of phasing out all non-electric vehicles – and, moreover, almost all cars of any type.

This will be controversial to say the least. But the candidate will be able to promise a radically transformed city: cheaper mobility, no congestion, quieter and safer streets, and massively reduced air pollution.

On the other hand, city dwellers will lose the right to drive.

It will be a hugely consequential and deeply divisive choice – but, sometimes, that’s what democracy is for.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.