Humble trolley bus reborn as climate superhero

If someone asked you about what technologies have the greatest potential to reduce the carbon pollution that is destabilizing our climate and turning our oceans acid, what would pop into your head first? Many people would mention wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, electric cars, and perhaps even bicycles lanes or light rail. But there is a potential climate superhero quietly patrolling the streets of Vancouver, Burnaby and about 300 other cities, the seldom-noticed electric trolley bus.

Part of what makes the trolley bus such a potential game changer is that it not a new and unproven invention; like the bicycle and electric streetcar the basic design has been refined gradually for over a century. The first trolley buses in regular service were very basic, like the electric streetcars that came into regular service about a decade earlier. Trolley buses have gradually been refined to be highly sophisticated forms of transportation with a solid track record, the largest carry up to 200 people in buses with three sections.

Signal priority systems stops cars as an 80 foot long ‘LighTram’ trolley bus moves through intersection from a transit lane in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of manufacturer.

The trolley bus is not new, and neither are innovative ways of making them work better. In the late 1970s Zurich, Switzerland started creating a network of exclusive transit lanes and signal priority for both streetcars and trolley buses. At that time transit signal priority (traffic signals designed so that transit vehicles don’t have to stop at traffic lights) had to be invented from scratch. Now multiple manufacturers provide well proven transit priority systems. Every year the Zurich transit authority gets closer to its goal of never having transit passengers delayed by automobile traffic. And Zurich now has the highest transit ridership in Europe, without a subway or elevated rapid transit.

In 1995 the city of Quito, Ecuador started using trolley buses in a slightly different way than Zurich – by building a trolley bus rapid transit line with enclosed transit stations. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a simple concept – you give buses a dramatic makeover that makes the rider experience much like rapid transit on rails but with a much lower capital cost. The main elements are dedicated lanes with enforcement to keep cars out, signal priority so buses seldom have to stop at traffic lights, and all-door boarding to reduce the time spent at stops.

Many BRT systems now use digital video cameras on the front of buses to photograph and ticket vehicles that intrude into bus lanes, a powerful incentive for drivers to stay out of the way. In Europe, manytransit agencies no longer differentiate between Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail lines. Bus Rapid transit is typically a bit faster than light rail, and has about the same maximum capacity.

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