The Buses Of The Future: Another COVID-19 Casualty

Electric buses are the future of public transport as many European countries decarbonise their economies. But the coronavirus crisis has dramatically impacted passenger numbers and given al this uncertainty, uptake is slowing.

An electric bus on the streets of Barcelona

Investments are at stake

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on European public bus transport. Passenger volumes dropped significantly and recovery to previous levels will take several years. As the crisis slashed ticket income and promises to change traveling behaviour, investments are at stake. This slows the transition to electric buses rather than speed it up.

Electrification of public buses was leading within heavy-duty vehicles in recent years. The EU's fleet of battery-electric buses started accelerating from 2018 and it more than doubled to 3,500 in 2019, but growth remained limited to an extra 500 units to 4,000 in 2020 so far (of an estimated 190,000 in total). This shows COVID-19 is already impacting the transition and it's with little doubt that this trend will continue in 2021.    

Al this comes at a time when al things electric are becoming increasingly attractive. Several countries have already adopted minimum targets for 2025 and the transition becomes even more important with the focus on clean air and plans to raise the CO2-reduction target to 55% in 2030.

Both public transport authorities and operators have been challenged to find a route to fulfil that ambition and keep the transition going. However, with the current uncertainties about future ridership and income, a green recovery might need more government support, especially when private operators are responsible for investments in the fleet.  


1 The characteristics of the public bus transport market

Public transport is a mature market, but growing within urban areas
The public bus market is concentrated mainly on shorter-distance public transport. More than 75% of this traffic happens in urban areas. The market is developed and has shown moderate growth in most Western European countries in recent years. COVID-19 now impacts the market dynamics significantly even while the ambition to reduce the footprint quickly grows. As the Netherlands are a front runner in the electrification of the public bus fleet we specificaly taking a look at the Dutch situation in more detail. 

Public and private interests meet in public transport, government influence differs

Public transport is vital as public service assuring connectivity for travelers and visitors. Consequently, it is a blended field where public and private interests meet. Under the European PSO-regulation the market for public transport has been opened via a system of concessions although inhouse procurement is still possible.

Local governments still have a critical stake as a major funder. This means the supply of public transport is highly dependent on the fiscal budget and that gives authorities an influence in the energy transition.  

Bus transportation volume is determined by multiple drivers

  • Main short-term drivers

Employment growth leads to more travelers
Commuters represent a significant part of travelers in public buses, mostly for distances between 2 and 30 km. More people commuting results in larger travel flows. Consequently, there’s a positive relationship between travel volumes and economic growth. 

  • Main structural drivers

Population growth: developing urban areas stimulate traffic
In the long run, passenger transport is directly linked to population growth and urbanisation. Demand for public bus transport increased with the ongoing growth of urban (city) areas and the need to manage the daily travel flows smoothly and efficiently. Due to COVID-19, this completely changed, at least in the short term. 

Economic development: more wealth, more car ownership
Another influential factor is economic development. In countries with a lower per capita income, public bus transport tends to play a larger role. When it’s affordable people more often will choose to drive their own car.

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