Travelers to Oslo, Norway can expect to move around fossil fuel-free by next year, when the city plans to unveil the world’s first fully electric public transit system.
A deal to replace the city’s remaining diesel-fueled buses with 450 electric ones by the end of 2023 was announced in October. The move will round out Oslo’s all-electric public transit offerings, which already includes a network of electrified trains, trams, and ferries, as well as more than 200 electric buses already in operation.
Developed in response to climate change, the city’s emissions-slashing transit strategy is also aimed at improving public health by reducing air pollution—which is the greatest threat to public health for Europeans, according to a United Nations report released this fall; more than 300,000 premature deaths were attributed to air pollution in the E.U. in 2019. While Oslo has steadily reduced its emissions in recent years, road traffic is behind the city’s largest emissions output today.
Øystein Dahl Johansen, spokesperson for Ruter, the public transport authority for Oslo, Norway explains that the new bus fleet will also be quieter and more comfortable for passengers. “Many of the old diesel buses that are being replaced are around 10 years old, and have old technology and comfort standards,” he says.
The bus purchase agreement represents a 500 million kroner ($51.3 million) investment for Oslo, which city officials say will translate to savings long-term. While electric buses might have higher upfront capital costs than standard diesel buses (averaging around $750,000 versus $500,000 in the U.S.), proponents say they ultimately carry lower operations and maintenance costs.
"The maintenance is cheaper, it's also cheaper for the operators of the electric buses," Sirin Stav, Oslo's Vice Mayor for Environment and Transport, told Reuters. "All in all, this is a win-win situation,” she said.
While Ruter doesn’t anticipate that the move to electric will increase ridership within the transit system, Johansen says that, in the bigger picture, it makes Oslo a more attractive destination for visitors and residents alike. “Emission-free public transport makes Oslo a better city to live in, with less air pollution and less noise,” he says.
The city’s move toward electric transportation fans further out, too: Oslo tourists might opt in for electrified taxis, airport shuttle buses, rental cars, and tour buses. In fact, electric vehicles now outnumber gas cars on Oslo’s roads.
However, environmentalists caution that electric mass transit carries its own ecological burdens, especially around the manufacturing and recycling of batteries, an industry that is projected to grow as much as 40 times its current size by 2040. Ingvild Roerholt, a transport specialist at Norwegian environmental group ZERO, says, “There are big emissions, environmental problems, and human rights violations associated with parts of the [battery] industry today.” She says the burgeoning industry has to take accountability and make improvements in order to meet acceptable environmental standards.
Roerholt also says that public “transparency and traceability” from Ruter around emissions data, including emissions generated from the electric vehicle production process itself, will be crucial to ensure that desired climate targets are actually met.
Ultimately, Oslo aims to be the world’s first nearly emissions-free city by 2030, citing additional goals like improved walking and biking routes and more energy-efficient buildings. Audun Garberg, from the city-run Climate Agency of Oslo, says Oslo’s strategy “is to make it easy to travel by foot, by bike, or by public transport—and to make all motorized transport zero emission.” Long-term, he says, “Less-motorized transport makes the city more people-friendly; a place where it is better to take a stroll, sit on a bench, have a cup of coffee, or to play on a playground.”
At a national level, Norway, too, has been a global pioneer for the green transportation revolution, claiming the highest per capita share of EVs in the world. It’s a status credited to government policies, like subsidies, that helped incentivize EV purchases for drivers, and aided in the development of a vast network of charging infrastructure. Norway has set targets for all new cars sold in the country to be electric- or hydrogen-powered by 2025.
An abundant and affordable supply of hydropower that powers nearly all of Norway’s electricity needs has likewise been essential in facilitating its EV transition. More paradoxically, Norway has plenty of funding to support the shift, thanks to revenue from its status as a major global producer of oil and gas.
“It is very important for Norwegian climate policy that we stop looking for even more oil and gas, and stop new field developments,” Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, a Green Party politician in Norway, told Bloomberg.
Roerholt agrees that the contradiction is a moral dilemma for the nation, but notes that Oslo’s status as an early adopter of electric transit technology can still “be a model other cities and capitals can follow.” She adds that, ultimately, “If everyone shifts away from fossil fuel use in the transport sector elsewhere, there will be no one to sell oil to.”
Beyond Norway, destinations around the globe are indeed embracing electric public transit solutions, as well, as they look to decarbonize transportation and tackle pressing climate targets, while improving upon local air quality and traffic congestion. From Berlin to Bogotá, Jakarta to Los Angeles, travelers can expect electrified public transit to morph into an urban norm in the years to come.