By Dylan Darling

The Register-Guard (Eugene)

The electric cars set to start buzzing people around downtown Eugene on Friday aren’t just about convenience.

The EmGo pilot program also is about reducing the carbon footprint of transportation in the city.

“EmGo is a great example of community partners coming together to test a creative solution that can help our community reach its climate goals,” said Chelsea Clinton, sustainability analyst at the city of Eugene. “Powered by low-carbon electricity from (the Eugene Water and Electric Board), EmGo users, who might otherwise be driving, will lower their carbon footprint by not using fossil fuel to get around downtown.”

The program is just the latest example of how the Lane Transit District, which runs buses in Eugene, Springfield and other parts of Lane County, is pursuing ways to reduce the carbon footprint of its fleet of about 100 buses. The carbon footprint is how much greenhouse gas, particularly carbon dioxide, or CO2, its fleet produces.

For more than a decade, LTD has used hybrid buses. The hybrid buses burn about three-quarters as much fuel as their diesel counterparts.

The fleet is now 60% hybrid and 40% are traditional diesel burners, LTD Assistant Manager Mark Johnson said. “We’ve done a lot over the years,” he said.

Earlier this year, the district added two fully electric buses to test how they would perform.

By contrast, TriMet, which serves the Portland metro area, has a fleet of 700 buses that’s 98% diesel. It has 687 diesel buses, eight hybrid buses and five fully electric buses, said TriMet spokesperson Tia York.

The Salem Area Mass Transit District fleet is made up of 44% compressed natural gas buses and 39% diesel buses. Of the 76 buses, 34 burn compressed natural gas, 30 run on diesel and one is a hybrid, said Patricia Feeny, transit district spokesperson.

While the LTD board passed a sustainability resolution in 2007, the agency is in the process of updating its sustainability goals, potentially setting a greenhouse gas reduction goal.

LTD is the only transit district in the state offering a free, electric option such as EmGo, Johnson said.

EmGo will begin with five fully electric cars that carry up to five passengers each, initially available from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The service area is primarily between Fifth and 13th avenues and Charnelton and High streets. The cars will pick up and drop off riders at 70 stops, including one by the federal courthouse on Eighth Avenue.

While EmGo represents a new type of public transportation, reducing carbon footprint still comes down to focusing on the classic ways of moving people around a city.

Johnson noted that the best way to reduce greenhouse gases is to increase bus ridership. LTD provides about 10.2 million bus rides per year, but Johnson said there’s room for more. LTD officials are looking at ways to encourage more Lane County residents to take the bus.

Transit officials and other supporters of EmGo are hopeful that the new service may inspire users to become bus riders, too.

The hope is that riders would take a bus to arrive downtown and then EmGo to move around downtown.

“We are really in the process in looking at technologies for all of our vehicles,” Johnson said.