From Colombia to Argentina, major cities in Latin America are starting to adopt electric bus fleets. In a region with the highest use of buses per person globally, officials believe the transition will help meet climate targets, cut fuel costs, and improve air quality.
Medellín will have 65 electric buses in service by the end of the year, making it the second-largest electric bus fleet in Latin America. MARIA GALLUCCI/YALE E360
In Medellín, Colombia, passengers cram aboard a battery-powered bus during the morning commute. Inside, the vehicle is a respite from the crush of cars, taxis, and motorcycles winding through traffic outside. The driver, Robinson López Rivera, steers the bus up a steep ramp, revealing views of hillsides covered with rooftops of tile and tin. The bus dashboard indicates that the batteries are mostly charged, with enough power to last through the evening rush hour.
“It’s a little smoother and more comfortable to drive. And there’s hardly any noise,” López Rivera says from behind the wheel. He gently brakes as a street vendor pushes a fruit cart across the dedicated bus lane. At night, the bus will return to a parking lot by the airport, recharging its 360-kilowatt battery pack while the city sleeps.
An electric bus charging terminal in Santiago, Chile, which draws power primarily from solar panels. ENEL X
The other 77 buses in the city’s bus rapid transit system, called Metroplús, run on natural gas and move about 251,000 passengers daily. Thousands more privately owned coaches and minibuses burn diesel as they traverse the sprawling metropolitan area of 3.7 million people, with older models leaving a trail of sour-smelling smoke. Faced with chronic air pollution and concerns about climate change, Medellín is now trying to move quickly to electrify its entire mass transit network.
Metroplús launched its first electric bus in April 2018. Another 64 battery-powered buses will hit the streets later this year, having recently arrived on a ship from Shanghai. The new units will make Medellín the second-largest electric bus fleet in Latin America, after Santiago, Chile.
Across Latin America, city officials and transit agencies are increasingly embracing electric buses as a way to help improve air quality, reduce fuel costs, and offset rising greenhouse gas emissions. As battery prices decline globally — and as cities and national governments adopt climate change policies — electric buses are rolling out in at least a dozen urban areas, from Mexico to Argentina.
In Santiago, some 200 battery-powered buses now circulate in the capital city, with 200 more slated to arrive later this year. The Chilean government aims to fully electrify public transport systems nationwide by 2040, a goal that will require deploying thousands more zero-emission buses. In Colombia, the nation’s Green Growth Commission has called for electric buses to comprise 100 percent of future municipal purchases. Bogotá’s mayor recently announced plans to buy nearly 600 electric buses for its bus rapid transit system, and the city of Cali recently purchased 26 units. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, has bought 20 battery-powered buses.
The region’s fleets still represent only a small fraction of the electric buses in operation globally. Worldwide, nearly 425,000 electric buses were on the roads last year — 99 percent of them in China, where government policies to improve air quality and support manufacturers are accelerating the industry. European cities deployed some 2,245 battery-powered buses in 2018. The United States, meanwhile, had just 300, according to the research firm BloombergNEF.