'They're turning heads': What it's like to ride Iowa City's colorful new electric buses

Olivia O'Keeffe didn't expect her commute to class Monday to be much different than any other day that she would take the bus from her sorority house to downtown Iowa City.

Until the large orange and white bus rolled up to her stop.

O'Keefe, a University of Iowa international studies student, became one of the first passengers to ride Iowa City's new electric buses Monday. Her initial observations:

"I thought it looked fancy and saw that it was electric. It looks really nice," she said. "Normally, I'm used to the older creaky bus that is much louder. But this was so smooth."

Iowa City announced last week that it would roll out its four new electric buses, hoping to reduce carbon emissions in the city. Each bus proudly proclaims "I'm electric" on bright orange signs at the front and in the side windows.

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'A monumental leap forward': Electric buses could help Iowa City reach sustainability goals

While riding the new bus on the free Downtown Shuttle route, all that could be heard was an electric hum, heat blowing from the vents, the sound of tires rolling down the street, and the usual weekday hustle and bustle of downtown Iowa City.

But cutting down on noise pollution is just an added benefit of the new buses, which Iowa City leaders hope can help the city eventually move toward net-zero emissions.

Darian Nagle-Gamm, the director of Iowa City Transit, told the Press-Citizen the city hopes to transition its whole fleet to electric buses or other vehicles that have no-emission or low-emission technologies. That could include hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles.

"Every time a vehicle is being replaced right now when it ages out of production, virtually any type of vehicle we use, we are considering an electric or other low- to no-emission vehicle option," she said.

Nagle-Gamm said that the rollout of the new buses was going well as the drivers got used to the new equipment Monday.

"They stand out, and they're definitely turning heads," she said.

Iowa City purchased the four buses using $3.3 million in Federal Transit Administration and Iowa DOT grants.

Passengers ride on an Iowa City Transit Proterra ZX5 electric bus on the Downtown Free Shuttle route, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.
Passengers ride on an Iowa City Transit Proterra ZX5 electric bus on the Downtown Free Shuttle route, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Nagle-Gamm said the city will pursue additional grant money for future electric bus purchases, but city money will also need to be used. The city paid $1.2 million out of its own pocket, or $306,514 per bus and associated charging equipment, to match the grant funds for these four buses, making the total cost over $4.6 million.

The city purchased the buses from Proterra, a designer and manufacturer of zero-emission electric transit vehicles and electric vehicle technology solutions for commercial applications.

According to Proterra's website, its ZX5 bus features faster acceleration, industry-leading gradability, and the most battery storage on any 40-foot electric bus, offering a range of more than 300 miles per charge.

Nagle-Gamm said at the end of the day, each electric bus ideally will be plugged in to charge, but that the city expects to be able to drive them as long as possible during the day.

While the lithium battery powers the buses' acceleration, the bus does have a nine-gallon diesel tank that is largely used for heating the passenger cab in the winter.

Iowa City has enough capacity to charge its four buses with its current electric vehicle infrastructure, but may have to invest in additional capacity as it purchases more buses in the future.

Since Iowa City uses MidAmerican energy as its utility company, much of the energy used to charge the four buses each day will come from wind. According to its website, MidAmerican is seeking to lead the nation in its quest to provide 100% renewable energy to its customers. In 2020, it delivered 83.6% renewable energy annually to Iowans with more than 3,300 turbines spread across the state.

"It is a monumental leap forward in terms of sustainable transportation to have electric buses in use in a public transit system that relies on 84% renewable energy," Nagle-Gamm said.

Iowa City is not alone among Iowa cities in switching to electric buses. Ames announced that it would roll out its first electric buses in June.

Nagle-Gamm said hopping on an electric bus is a major jump in terms of sustainability rather than driving a personal automobile that relies on fossil fuels. She said the next step for Iowa City to reduce carbon emissions from transportation is to encourage more people to take public transportation or ride their bicycles.

"We need to make our transit system work better for those who rely on it every day, and we need to make it a better option for the rest of the community," she said.

O'Keeffe said she is glad to see Iowa City move toward electric buses, especially as she tries to do her part to reduce carbon emissions.

"Not only was (the bus) nicer, but I know that it's better in the long term than gas and fossil fuels," she said.

More: MidAmerican proposes adding enough wind, solar generation to meet all of Iowa customers' power needs

How to ride the new electric buses

The four buses will be rotated out with each other on only two routes in Iowa City: the free downtown Shuttle and the Oakcrest route that also runs through the University of Iowa medical campus on Melrose Avenue.

Nagle-Gamm said that all four buses will be used on all but one route in Iowa City by later in the winter or spring. The West Iowa City route can't use the new buses because of a low-clearance railroad bridge on Iowa Avenue.

An Iowa City Transit Proterra ZX5 electric bus on the Downtown Free Shuttle route pulls up to the downtown interchange on Washington Street, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.
An Iowa City Transit Proterra ZX5 electric bus on the Downtown Free Shuttle route pulls up to the downtown interchange on Washington Street, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Only two electric buses will be on the road at one time while the other two remain on the sidelines as backups in case a bus needs to be replaced.

While the downtown shuttle is free, all other routes cost $1 per ride or require a transit pass that can be purchased at a number of locations in Iowa City including:

  • Iowa City Hall.

  • Iowa City Parking at 335 Iowa Ave.

  • The 1st Avenue Hy-Vee.

  • The Waterfront Hy-Vee.

  • The Hy-Vee Drug Store at Rochester and First Avenue.

  • And the North Dodge Hy-Vee.

Children younger than 5, disabled pass card holders, seniors over age 65, senior pass holders, Medicare card holders and Johnson County SEATS card holders ride free. Nagle-Gamm said Iowa City is set to start a pilot program for Sunday service later this year.

Riders can consult a map of bus routes and bus stops by using the Transit app, which also has tools to plan trips in Iowa City.

More information on bus passes, pricing, routes and upcoming changes is available on Iowa City's website.

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George Shillcock is the Press-Citizen's local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at GShillcock@press-citizen.com and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Iowa City launches electric buses. Here's what it's like to ride them