AVTA, a transit agency primarily serving suburban and rural communities in Southern California, is the first in the country to go all-electric.
In the northeast corner of Los Angeles County known as Antelope Valley, the roughly ten-mile journey from Lancaster to Palmdale by city bus is fast, frequent, and disarmingly quiet. Out the tall windows, Joshua trees gesture like cartoon characters and California poppies bloom in a bright orange haze on the distant foothills. With the acquisition of its 77th electric bus — the exteriors all painted with those orange poppies — and ten electric microtransit vans, the Antelope Valley Transit Authority celebrated a milestone last month that no other transit agency of the country can claim: the first fleet to be fully electrified, reaching its zero emissions goal 18 years ahead of schedule.
While major city transit agencies are still years or decades away from electrifying their fleets, the MTA is aim for full electrification by 2040; The LA County Metro is hoping for 2030 – the Antelope Valley, a region of about 450,000 inhabitants, arrived there long before anyone else. It may seem that the smaller scale of cities involved makes AVTA a less than ideal test case, but AVTA serves the transportation needs of two cities with the populations of Syracuse and Albany, as well as dozens of other suburban and rural communities. There are hundreds of mid-sized cities like these in the United States, and that’s where the electrification revolution can begin. The big cities will be the ones that catch up. “Now they’re over 18 years behind,” Esteban Rodriguez, AVTA’s operations and maintenance manager, tells me with a smile as we tour the bus station.
There are lessons in much of what went right – and wrong – in Antelope Valley. In 2018, when the California Air Quality Agency set an ambitious goal for state transit agencies to achieve 100% zero emissions by 2040, AVTA took a a head start a decade earlier. In 2008, R. Rex Parris, Republican Mayor of Lancaster, was among those elected, including then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made trips to China attract BYD, a Chinese manufacturer of electric vehicles, in town. The region has long been a hub for defense contractors – Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are both based here; sonic booms punctuated the landscape a few times during my visit – but was hit hard by job losses and foreclosures in recession and mortgage crisis.
Plans for BYD to set up a factory in Lancaster, with an office in downtown Los Angeles, finally got underway in 2010. without much public scrutiny and with considerable tax incentives for BYD. And although local officials promised “good-paying green-collar jobs,” few of those jobs materialized at first. When the factory opened in 2013, groups of workers discovered BYD was underpaying Chinese temporary workers and employed “less than 40 workers here”, like the New York Times reported. protesters picketed BYD’s downtown office that year to demand more local hires, and when BYD workers unionized in 2018the company accepted a recently renewed contract community benefits plan this includes training programs, apprenticeships, and commitments to hire underrepresented groups such as veterans and formerly incarcerated people. This means that the people making the electric buses are, most often, residents of Antelope Valley, and the starting wage for a welder is $16 an hour, which is comparable to that of a nearby defense contractor.
The zero-emission fleet includes 57 BYD buses, 20 MCI commuter coaches and 10 GreenPower microtransit vans.
The deal Parris and others struck also included a contract for AVTA to buy up to 85 electric buses from BYD, and some of the first U.S.-made BYD buses were tested as part of the fleet. AVTA. Agency operators were skeptical at first. In the Antelope Valley, extreme temperatures were of greatest concern, with 100-degree summer days and sub-freezing winter nights. Operators therefore loaded the seats with sandbags to test the buses while turning on the air conditioning and heating. Due to the long distances covered by AVTA’s routes – some vehicles travel up to 150 miles round trip to LA daily – there was also concern about returning buses. (These commuter coaches in particular, which are made by another company called MCI, benefited from a bit of topographical randomness: the trip to Los Angeles, which is mostly downhill, actually charges the battery regeneratively.) Buses are plugged into a centralized bus station at night – a solar field due for completion in two years will power the buses with 100% renewable energy – but with a service area of 1,200 square miles, some buses have still need electricity on the go, so AVTA is working to disperse more charging stations on the ground.
Patricia Allen, an AVTA bus driver of four years, showed me an intriguing piece of electric bus wizardry at the main transit center. Installed in the bus bays are what are called WAVE Near Field Chargers – large square pads embedded in the asphalt. In order to refuel, Allen parks the bus on one while she takes a break during a layover. Sometimes connecting to charging systems can be tricky, Allen said, and in the winter, buses can take a while to warm up. But she says electric buses are an improvement over diesel in some ways: Older ones give off serious fumes. “They stank,” she said. “Big headaches.” Like many people who grew up in Antelope Valley, Allen is asthmatic; asthma rates among children in the Antelope Valley are double that of the rest of LA County. But over the past decade, the region has seen declines in both locally generated ground-level ozone and diesel particulate emissions that cause chronic health problems, says Bret Banks, executive director of the Management Agency. Antelope Valley air quality. Electrification was part of that, he said. “Operation of AVTA’s battery-electric buses has removed a daily contributor to toxic air emissions from the air of Antelope Valley.”
About 1,500 vehicles roll out of the BYD plant each year, delivering buses to 34 transit agencies across the country. On surgically clean ground, hundreds of hand-painted BYD buses in candy hues cruise along the line. Danny Alvarez grew up near here and is now one of 700 employees, managing BYD’s production of electric trucks and school buses. I met him in front of a seemingly endless row of green and blue striped buses heading for the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation – it will be the largest fleet of electric buses in the United States when it is delivered. “To see it start from scratch and see it build all over the factory and then also see them in use all over Lancaster and Palmdale, it’s just cool,” he said. “We are doing something positive. Something good.”
In California, the majority of people with access to electric vehicles live in a handful of affluent ZIP codes. What’s happening in Antelope Valley reverses that, providing electrification to communities cut off by trucking routes and suffering from bad air. As the United States pumps money into more robust bus service – $1.1 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is allocated to cities to purchase zero-emission busesalthough BYD, being a Chinese company, is not currently eligible for this funding — The realization of AVTA is a glimpse of what is possible. Other transit agencies can now look to Southern California’s high desert as a model for creating better jobs while building an all-electric fleet.