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New DC Circulator buses will have USB ports and better air conditioning

Don’t let their bright red paint trick you. DC Circulator buses are getting old. More than half of the fleet’s 49 vehicles are ready for retirement after ten year’s service driving circles around D.C., says Will Handsfield, the transportation director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District.

“They were delivered at the beginning of the Circulator service, and they are coming to the end of their useful life,” he says.

Soon – perhaps as early as next week – 18 new, diesel-electric hybrid buses will replace the oldest Circulators on the road. In addition to being more energy efficient, the new buses will have better air conditioning and USB ports for riders to charge their phones.

“Now you can’t pretend your phone died if you’re late to brunch,” he says.

In the long run, the DC Circulator may transition to fully electric buses. They are more expensive, but they make up their cost in fuel savings, Handsfield says.

“They are better for the environment and quiet enough that you can hear what the person next to you is saying,” he says.

So what’s the downside? The electric buses can only go about 80 miles on a full charge, while diesel buses can travel roughly 350 miles on a full tank, says David Warren, director of sustainable transportation at New Flyer, which makes both kinds of buses. As a result, electric buses have to “power up” between routes, pausing to charge at electric gantries, which look like low-slung street lights.

Before electric buses can be deployed for the Circulator fleet, D.C. has to set up mobile charging stations and a garage for overnight charging, Handsfield says.

“It’s a logistical challenge, but we think it’s worth it,” he says.

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the number of new buses.

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