Medium-sized buses got their start when vanpooling became popular following the oil embargo of the ’70s. They are again growing in popularity due to the features that set them apart from smaller and larger buses.
“The concept of the medium-duty bus is the fastest growing segment of the bus market,” says Sheldon Walle, senior vice president of ElDorado National. “That’s mainly because of the impression they make to the public. It looks better to have fewer people on a smaller bus.”
A medium-sized bus can be defined as having an overall length of up to 38 feet and a GVWR of 15,500 pounds to 27,000 pounds. It is either built on a rail chassis with forward control or a medium-duty cutaway and can seat up to 41 passengers without luggage.
When compared to a small bus, that means more passenger capacity, better driver ergonomics, reduced maintenance cost and longer service life. The frame rail section height increases from 7 to 8 inches to 9 to 10 inches and the tire size is at 19.5 inches rather than 16 inches. The load capacity also increases from a maximum of 15,000 pounds for a small bus to a maximum of 27,000 pounds for a medium-sized bus.
“Medium-sized buses also have a longer service life … operating at the mid- to low-end of their design capacity,” says Dan Herman, bus marketing manager at International Truck and Engine. “Engines and transmissions routinely provide 500,000 miles of service in medium-duty vehicles.”
Drivers also benefit in the switch from a small to medium-sized vehicle. It allows them more workspace, better visibility, a better ride and a lower noise level (on the cutaway chassis).
When put up against a regular bus, a mid-sized vehicle provides improved maneuverability, comparable service life and reduced purchase and operating costs. “It’s shorter with a short turning radius, making it easier to operate in congested areas,” says Herman. “It has a comparable service life but operates below service limits, giving it longer durability.”
Two of the biggest benefits of going from a large bus to a medium bus are the reduced purchase and operating costs. A large vehicle now costs anywhere from $250,000 to more than $350,000, whereas a luxury medium-duty bus can be purchased for $100,000 to $125,000.
The lower weight of the vehicle (a large motorcoach can weigh up to 50,000 pounds) provides higher fuel economy, and there is typically a lower cost for such maintenance items as tires, brakes and oil changes. There are also lower investment and operating costs and a shorter build and delivery time.
Types of medium-sized buses
Without question, large buses have always dominated the market. The first small bus, built on a van cutaway chassis, was developed in 1979. Medium-duty buses on rail chassis were first available in 1983 and on a cutaway in 1996.
The two types of medium-sized buses also vary. Buses built on a rail chassis offer two more seats and better forward visibility. The cutaway version provides better driver access and ergonomics, better maintenance access and reduced noise level (due to the engine being under the hood in the front of the vehicle), and the finished bus is done at a lower cost.
Perception is a key to operating the mid-sized bus. “The perception of the mid-sized vehicle is that it is more neighborhood and, therefore, user-friendly,” says Jay Goodwill, a senior research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research and former general manager of Sarasota County (Fla.) Area Transit (SCAT).
When SCAT first brought the medium-duty buses to its fleet, the agency had no problem garnering a positive public perception. “We saw an acceptance of the bus,” he says. “There was no [negative] change in ridership.”
In fact, Goodwill says the agency had high community and political acceptance. The buses also allowed the agency to fit ridership demands, putting larger buses only on those routes that needed them.
As ElDorado’s Walle pointed out, it is perceived that the transit system is more effective if the buses are full. And that may mean filling up smaller buses to give that appearance. “People also perceive it as having fewer pollutants,” he says.
Convincing the unconvinced
Despite its shown benefits, not everyone is convinced that medium-sized buses are the way to go.
“There is stubbornness in fixed-route transit to move toward smaller buses,” says Goodwill. That may be because transit agencies are identifiable by larger buses. But, he says, even that is starting to change with the improvement in quality and choices of the mid-sized vehicles.
When Goodwill was general manager of SCAT, the agency operated everything from small to large buses. On both its fixed-route and paratransit services, SCAT operates about a dozen mid-sized buses. A recent study by the agency determined that, during a one-year period, medium-duty buses had the lowest cost per mile and the highest fuel economy (see chart for comparison).
One of the biggest perks of the mid-sized bus, according to Goodwill, is the shorter procurement time. The lead time for a large bus can take anywhere from 18 to 24 months, but it only takes about 90 to 120 days for a mid-sized vehicle.
The only drawback of operating the buses is the additional parts needed in the maintenance shop, says Goodwill. He did find, though, that SCAT’s maintenance staff prefers working on the mid-sized vehicles rather than smaller cutaways.
Operators are concerned with passenger weight on a smaller load vehicle. “The feds say 150 pounds per seat is standard,” says Halsey King, president of Halsey King & Associates. “There is no percentile group for infants, just male and female. The design weight and capability of existing lifts are based on criteria of the ’70s.”
Heavy wheelchairs have also posed a problem, causing operators to turn away passengers seated in them. The Federal Transit Administration and the American Public Transportation Association did release White Book specifications for buses 30 feet and smaller. In it, there are standards regarding wheelchair lifts.