Santa Barbara’s Downtown Electric Shuttle Report Card

An old downtown Waterfront Shuttle
Courtesy Photo

Santa Barbara was a pioneer in the use of electric buses, putting together the first such fleet in the U.S. more than 25 years ago. The iconic State Street and Waterfront shuttles were replaced this year with 14 from Chinese manufacturer BYD, which had run into trouble recently in Los Angeles with underperforming buses and other issues.

“We have 30-foot shuttles from BYD,” said Hillary Blackerby, not the 40-foot buses Los Angeles had purchased. Blackerby, a spokesperson for Santa Barbara’s bus system, explained that the Metropolitan Transit District’s history with electric buses and its personnel’s expertise kept them from the steep learning curve Los Angeles bus drivers are complaining about and the issues with range, terrain, and braking.

“We went through three manufacturers in the first couple of years,” Blackerby said, “so we were familiar with the need to be very thorough and to work with the manufacturer to make sure everything was right.” One of the wrinkles they had to iron out had to do with third-party parts, like the wiring harness. The downtown, waterfront, and cross-town shuttles run on routes that are relatively flat, and they aren’t necessarily charged daily: “We knew what duty cycles worked the best.”

The new shuttles have a 144-mile range, and they all drove the 130 miles from the factory in Lancaster on one charge, Blackerby said, but their Santa Barbara routes total 75 miles at most, and mostly much less. The drivers like the turning radius on the new vehicles, she said, and the additional power they have.

“The new shuttles were customized as much as possible to be like the previous shuttle,” Blackerby said. “Removing the windows is more of an undertaking, but the plan is to remove them for the summer so everyone can enjoy the fresh air.”