Electric buses in Santiago de Chile: Sustainable mobility?


A critical perspective on the introduction of electric buses in Santiago de Chile’s public transport network. A reflection on the need for connecting these policies with long-term sustainability strategies and intersectoral governance arrangements in order to endure on effective sustainable policies. Embedding these efforts in the current power devolution is an opportunity to shape new institutional arrangements which could unlock the effectiveness of electric buses in full. 

Transport policies are a crucial element in accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the year 2030. However, according to the first global mobility report [1], the world is not on track to achieve the mobility-related SDGs  since the high demand for mobilizing goods and people continues to increase at high costs for future generations. Therefore, it is urgent to generate strategies to reverse these trends since the costs to society in terms of congestion, accidents, inefficiencies and pollution are very high.

Accordingly, something that has characterized the management of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has been the introduction of new fleets of electric buses in the capital city of Santiago. Whether as part of the ex-Transantiago or RED [2] - which is the system that would supposedly replace it - there are already more than 200 buses currently in operation and a new fleet of 180 buses has just been announced for September 2019. Gloria Hutt, the current Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, has expressed the intention that by 2022 30% of the fleet will be fully electric. Meeting this goal would reduce the GHG emissions (greenhouse gases) from the buses by 35%.     

In Chile, according to data from the Chilean Ministry of Energy [3], about one-third of energy consumption can be attributed to the transport sector, and 98% of this consumption comes from oil derivatives. At the same time, this sector is responsible for more than 22% of total GHG emissions in the country, which is why clean energy integration into the transportation sector is critical. These policies need to go beyond public transport since the vast majority of these emissions come from the use of individual vehicles. Therefore, any strategy that doesn’t take care of individual vehicles it’s unlikely to be effective.

The introduction of electric buses is a valuable effort in moving from a public transport model based on fossil fuels to other less-polluting modes of transport. Also, this initiative is in line both with the importance of solving an internal environmental pollution problem in the city of Santiago, as well as with the urgency of taking concrete actions to mitigate global warming. Unfortunately, we believe that in the case of electric buses, the contribution to emissions reductions is very marginal and, therefore, loses value if it does not go hand in hand with measures aimed at reducing the use of private vehicles.

Furthermore, we see a lack of specific strategy on how to promote sustainable mobility. Especially important is the interaction between different modes of transport and stakeholders, for which resources, infrastructure and an integrated urban governance framework are required. The latter seems to be an abstract element but is a crucial to unlock much of the mobility problems in Santiago. Moreover, it is imperative to produce new institutional arrangements that promote and enhance intersectoral coordination, collaboration and experimentation for decision-making setting a common ground to act upon sustainable mobility in a city level.

in the case of electric buses, the contribution to emissions reductions is very marginal and, therefore, loses value if it does not go hand in hand with measures aimed at reducing the use of private vehicles

Therefore, we cannot evaluate a public policy that seeks to have an environmental impact only through valuation in public opinion surveys or media coverage. Although these elements are relevant, if we want to take sustainable mobility seriously, we need to take actions that go in line with long-term planning strategies. For this, resources must be available, and progress must be made towards institutional frameworks that allow these initiatives to be strengthened as part of a more significant effort. 

In that sense, the first ever city-level authority election (regional governor) to happen in Chile in the 2020, and the parallel power devolution discussion, represent an enormous window of opportunity to generate an institutional framework to achieve better coordination and intersectoral decision-making for a greener and sustainable mobility. Nevertheless, we must consider the elements above exposed and approach integrated urban planning and sustainable mobility as one thing. It is essential to integrate decisions about public transport infrastructure, operations and to generate incentives to use alternatives to individual vehicles (such as special tariffs zones) all at the same time. These are the kinds of considerations necessary to generate a new common ground for decision-making. 

We applaud efforts in introducing more electric buses, but only if linked to complimentary policies to reduce carbon emissions. Otherwise, these policies will be no more than cosmetic changes, which could help to obtain short-term political capital, but which will not alone realize more sustainable cities.

[1]Global Mobility Report, 2017.

[2]Name of the previous and new public transport system of Santiago which include public buses, metro and the city-rail. 

[3] Estrategia de electromovilidad, documento en consulta, Ministerio de Energía Chile. http://www.minenergia.cl/archivos_bajar/ucom/consulta/Estrategia_Electromovilidad_en%20Chile.p

Ignacio Pérez is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. ignacio.perez@ouce.ox.ac.uk/ @JIPerezK


Ariel López is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidad de Chile.