SHENZHEN (Guangdong) • Buses are plying in both directions along Shennan Avenue, but if you close your eyes, you may not realise this is a busy part of downtown Shenzhen.
All the public buses - 16,359 of them - are electric models that are quieter than the usual diesel-fuelled ones, making Shenzhen the first in the world to have a citywide all-electric bus fleet.
And the next target is to convert all its 17,000 taxis to electric ones by 2020. Already, 63 per cent of them are electric.
Shenzhen-based carmaker BYD, also the world's largest electric vehicle maker, makes 80 per cent of the city's new buses and more than 4,000 of its electric taxis.
"We want to use our technology to improve air quality and solve traffic congestion," said BYD founder and chairman Wang Chuanfu.
The electric vehicles and monorail system SkyRail made by BYD can help solve these ills, he added.
The first commercial SkyRail was rolled out in Yinchuan city in north-west Ningxia last year and has been well-received, he said.
All public buses in the city have been switched to electric models.
"Compared to subways, SkyRail requires one-fifth of the construction and operation costs and takes one-third of the time to build, and this is our strategy for green mass transit," he said.
Vehicles are the biggest culprits behind air pollution, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has said. In 2016, they produced 44.7 million tonnes of pollutants.
A study of 15 cities, including Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, shows that vehicles are responsible for 13.5 per cent to 41 per cent of the PM2.5 - microscopic particles harmful to human health - levels in the air.
To bring back blue skies and meet targets to cut carbon emissions, China is pushing consumers, public transport operators and carmakers to switch to new energy vehicles (NEVs). This is also in line with its ambition of becoming a global leader in making NEVs.
A few European nations are also promoting the use of such vehicles. Norway plans to ban fuel cars by 2025 while France and Britain want to do so by 2040.
While China has not set a deadline to effect a ban on fuel cars, it is forging ahead quickly, especially in public transport. In Shenzhen, a city of nearly 12 million people, a strong directive from the local government got things moving quickly - its public bus fleet went all electric within six years, ahead of schedule.
"If the government depends entirely on democratic ways, it will be very hard to implement new things that are beneficial to society," said Mr Wang.
He said the local government used "both economic and administrative means to promote the rapid transformation of the industry".
Besides the strict enforcement of rules, it also dished out subsidies for public transport workers and operators, as well as to build charging stations. For each electric bus costing more than 1.6 million yuan (S$329,000), or four times the price of a diesel one, bus operators could get a combined subsidy of one million yuan - 500,000 yuan each from the central and local governments.
In 2016 alone, the Shenzhen government pumped in 3.8 billion yuan to support the industry.
Observers say the quick roll-out is in part due to BYD being headquartered in the city.
"Its electric bus technology is mature, and it proactively cooperates with the government to support its green push. It also provides good after-sales support for the bus operators," said independent transport analyst Jia Xinguang.
Mr Wang Huinong, general manager of Shenzhen Bus Group, one of three main bus companies in the city, said that when it was converting more than 6,000 diesel buses to electric buses, BYD agreed to buy all the old buses.
"We also struck a deal with the automaker to exchange our bus batteries free of charge for the entire lifespan of our buses, which is eight years," he said.
This helped relieve some of the financial pressure, he added. BYD is also capitalising on other Chinese cities' efforts to go green. It sold 8,000 electric taxis to Taiyuan, the provincial capital of northern Shanxi. Within a year, the highly polluting coal town replaced its entire fuel-powered taxi fleet with green cars.
But not every province is open to using BYD's electric vehicles.
"Each province wants to use its own locally produced NEV, whether or not its technology is up to scratch," said Mr Jia. "So BYD has to venture out of China."
S'pore 'ideal' for fully electric transit system
Singapore is an ideal city to have a fully electric public transit system, said industry players in Shenzhen.
"Singapore is a compact city, making it easy to build charging stations all around the island to help with a smooth transition into an electric bus fleet," said Mr Wang Chuanfu, chairman and founder of Shenzhen-based BYD, the world's largest electric vehicle maker.
"And the strong leadership of the Singapore Government would also be helpful in pushing through this initiative."
Mr Wang Huinong, general manager of state-owned Shenzhen Bus Group, said going electric is also in line with Singapore's smart city ambitions.
Shenzhen Bus Group has put in a bid for Singapore's fourth bus contract comprising 18 routes. This is its first foray overseas.
"This gives us a chance to learn how Singapore manages its public transport," said Mr Wang Huinong, noting that it is in line with China's Belt and Road Initiative, which encourages Chinese firms to expand into places like South-east Asia.
"China's subways have made inroads into African countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia, but if we manage to enter Singapore, a developed country with such high service standards, it will be greatly beneficial to the building of the BRI, as well as our car industry," he added.
Last December, Shenzhen Bus Group started testing four self-driving buses on roads, covering 1.2km with three stops in Futian district in Shenzhen.
As the laws in China do not allow self-driving vehicles, a driver is required to be in the driving seat but does not need to steer the wheels. The bus, named Alphaba, can automatically avoid oncoming traffic, change speeds, make an emergency stop and even reverse into a parking space.
As for BYD, it wants to ride on Singapore's branding, even though its electric vehicles are exported to more than 200 cities in 50 countries.
Mr Wang Chuanfu said: "Although its market is not as big as China's, Singapore has a very strong demonstrative effect. It has great influence in West and South-east Asia."