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“The driver said there was just this kind of bit of a glow in the bus,” said Pierre Gourdain, managing director of FlixBus USA. “People were really proud. It’s a historic moment.”
But don’t try to book your electric bus ticket yet. The Seattle to Eugene, Oregon trip last month was part of a pilot program. It’s going to take a lot of money and infrastructure buildout before electric buses are plying the nation’s interstates on long-haul journeys. Gourdain talked to Inhabitat about how we might get there and about FlixBus’ place in U.S. transit.
FlixMobility, the umbrella group that owns the FlixBus and FlixTrain brands, launched in Germany in 2013. The three founders Jochen Engert, Daniel Krauss and André Schwämmlein aimed to combine e-commerce with technological advances and sustainable transportation. The company quickly took off in Europe, becoming the continent’s largest intercity bus network and now running in more than 30 countries.
In 2018, FlixBus USA began to conquer the new world, starting in the southwest. Its patchwork expansion around the U.S. accelerated over the next few years. In October of 2021, FlixMobility showed the depth of its commitment to U.S. bus lines by buying Greyhound. For now, Gourdain says, Greyhound and FlixBus will operate as separate brands.
“We have a majority of women riding our buses,” Gourdain said. “And the rest of the industry has a majority of men riding in the buses. Ours probably skews a bit younger. We have a lot of students, but also a lot of young professionals. It’s also a bit more urban and less rural. It’s a bit more point to point.”
While Greyhound customers may stagger up to a counter in a bus station and pay in cash, FlixBus riders are buying tickets through their phones. Gourdain emphasized that FlixBus is tapping into a whole new market of Americans who want a long-haul alternative to cars or planes.
Partnerships with bus companies
Now here comes the confusing part. FlixBus doesn’t actually own all those green buses zooming through the highways. In Europe, hundreds of individual bus companies are driving for FlixBus, from Portugal to Norway. FlixBus USA has about 50 private bus company partners. These are the kinds of businesses you call when you want to charter a bus for your high school football team or your church group.
“It works a bit like a franchise,” Gourdain said. “So basically, a partner will come to FlixBus and say, ‘Hey, I really want to get into this long-distance bus game.’”
The bus companies themselves buy the coaches, hire the drivers and operate the routes. FlixBus sells the tickets, plans and markets the routes and builds the brand.
In the pacific northwest, MTRWestern operates the routes, and drove the Thanksgiving weekend pilot electric run from Seattle to Eugene. The Seattle-based bus company hopes to be FlixBus’ first partner in developing regular electric bus service.
Building an electric bus network
So what is it going to take to build out a full electric bus network connecting U.S. cities? Well, first you need the buses. Then you need places to charge them.
“Those buses are not for sale yet, so you can’t really put your hands on them,” Gourdain said. “And they’re also super costly.”
MTRWestern has applied for a grant with the state of Oregon that will pay part of the cost of new electric coaches as they retire old, polluting diesel buses.
Next problem, the approximately 200-mile range. This works okay for transit systems operating within a city, where only one charging station is needed, the buses are always close to their power source and the transit operator buys in bulk. Out on the open roads, it’s another matter. While Gourdain says it’s possible to power a bus from an electric car charger, it’s going to take a while. Driving 200 miles, then taking an eight hour charging break is not going to thrill long-haul travelers.
FlixBusUSA is counting on the infrastructure bill passed in November allocating $65 billion to improve the U.S. power grid and $39 billion allocated to public transit systems. Advancing technology should drive charging times down further, battery ranges will increase and more public power stations for large vehicles will become available. The recent pilot run from Seattle to Eugene was possible because of Portland’s Electric Island, a heavy-duty electric truck charging site. Daimler Trucks North America and Portland General Electric opened the eight-vehicle charging station in April. It powers up electric cars, buses and even semi-trucks and is open to the public.
Helping its operating partners get electric buses and finding charging stations are two very large challenges. Still, FlixBusUSA intends to have a full-time electric bus route up and running in 2022, probably in Oregon. And if that proves successful, it can spiderweb across the U.S. as buses and charging stations become available.
“Today, clean transportation is an elite thing,” Gourdain said. “The entry to ride electric with FlixBus is $19. We are already the cheapest way to travel in the U.S. compared to anything else. There’s nothing cheaper than Flixbus. We want that experience, the cheapest, to also be clean and electric.”
Images via FlixBus