The Electric Trolleybus: a Sustainable Choice for Portland

One thing I noticed my years living in Seattle was how much that city loves to copy Portland’s innovations. Government officials were constantly taking tours of Portland and bringing back ideas, many of which have borne fruit. Seattle now has a streetcar line, for example, and has just recently decided to start working on Neighborhood Greenways. I always wondered if there was anything Portland could learn from Seattle, and now I think I have found one. I refer to the electric trolleybus, which is not an innovation but rather an old idea that deserves new life.

The venerable electric trolleybus, once ubiquitous before the era of cheap oil, is now rare in North America. Cities across the continent traded overhead wires for diesel fumes during the decades after World War II. A few notable cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, chose instead to keep a core network of these vehicles, recognizing the benefits of quiet operation, zero tailpipe emissions, and the ability to easily climb hills. Anyone who has ridden a trolleybus knows they are far more pleasant to ride than diesel bus, and a modern trolleybus can approach streetcar levels of comfort.

In addition to these advantages, the electric trolleybus is inherently more environmentally sustainable than the diesel bus. Most electricity generation is only partly generated from fossil fuels, and in many cities like Seattle it is made up entirely of renewable energy like hydroelectric and wind power. The electric grid is also a much more efficient way to deliver energy than an internal combustion engine, so less energy is being wasted overall. A transit system that uses more electric vehicles can reduce its carbon footprint significantly. King County Metro in Seattle recently did an evaluation comparing the impacts of trolleybuses and diesel buses, and found that on virtually all measures the trolleybuses performed better.

What does this all mean for public transit in Portland? TriMet touts the sustainability of its light rail lines, but its bus fleet is almost entirely made up of aging diesel buses. Given that buses will always be an essential component of our transit network, it is essential that they be targeted for improvement. I would argue that the best way to make the bus system better and more sustainable would be to start building out a trolleybus network, starting with the Frequent Service Network.

Installing the wire costs about $3 million per mile, and the buses cost somewhat more than diesel buses, but given the many advantages it seems worth it. In addition, here’s an important and little-known fact: the federally-funded New Starts grants can be used for electric trolleybuses, not just streetcars and light rail. Rather than immediately build yet another light rail line after the Milwaukie project, TriMet could use federal funds to instead embark on a transformative modernization of its bus system that would have a positive effect all over the region.

It is worth noting that $3 million per mile is also a small fraction of the cost of building a streetcar line. I like streetcars as much as the next transit nut, but I think they should be specifically targeted towards focusing development in “urban renewal” areas, not built along areas where zoning is unlikely to change much in the future. The development impact is really the only thing streetcars seem to do better than a good bus, and even then the results are mixed. I’ve seen many fine developments tout their location on a major bus line.

It might make sense extend the streetcar to Hollywood, since it’s a designated growth center and could use the help, but perhaps we should build out some other corridors with a high-quality, modern, electric trolleybus network as seen in many European cities and a few American ones. Then we just need to wean Oregon off coal and TriMet could eventually reach carbon neutrality. This would make our transit system more sustainable, more comfortable, and cheaper to operate in the long run as oil prices rise.

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