Management & Operations

For Transit Agencies, Bus Size Is Relative

Posted on June 1, 2003 by Leslie Davis, executive editor

When it comes to running your buses, perception is key. Operating a 40-foot bus with only 12 people in it during off-peak hours gives the public an idea that your transit agency wastes fuel and pollutes the environment unnecessarily by running empty buses. Swap in a 30-foot, 23-passenger vehicle, and the story changes. The community still receives the service it requires, and the agency is viewed as running fuller loads. The transit agency is also seen as being environmentally conscious. “It’s good for PR,” says Dave Rynerson, who is in the service development section of King County Metro Transit in Seattle. “Small buses give us measurable operating cost savings while also appearing more appropriate to the public in cases where passenger loads are not very high.” King County began operating under-35 foot buses in 1994 and now has 130 of them in active service. Of its total vehicle fleet of 1,300, the agency has 35 Champion 25-foot vans and 95 30-foot Gillig buses. “They are considerably more maneuverable than a standard coach, yet a heavy-duty transit bus in many respects,” Rynerson says. “They add some flexibility to operate in areas where full-size buses would be too heavy for the pavement or too difficult to maneuver.” The smaller vehicles are used mostly in fairly low-volume service, and are normally assigned to specific routes. When the agency’s suburban service was expanded, only small buses were suitable for the routes. That is now being refined to make service more efficient. When necessary, routes are operated by both large and small buses. “The running time is more proportionate to the load rather than the size of the bus,” Rynerson says. The vans are used in areas where parking lots are accessed or where passengers are dropped off in front of their destinations. Also, vans suffer less wear and tear than buses in areas where the pavement is uneven. The most noticeable difference between the different-sized buses is the fuel economy, Rynerson says. The 25-foot vans average about 9 to 10 mpg and the 30-footers around 5.5 mpg. King County’s standard buses average about 4.5 mpg, and its articulated buses 3.5 mpg. Of course, both the real and perceived cost savings of running smaller buses is also important. It’s cheaper to buy smaller buses, but they typically do not last as long. Buying three small buses over a 12-year period works out to about the same cost as buying a standard bus that has a 12-year life span. Since a percentage (about 35 vehicles) of King County’s smaller fleet is subcontracted, those costs get amortized during the contract period. Wheelchair lift operation is also considered when determining what bus to put into service. Though all of King County’s buses are wheelchair accessible, the vans require the driver to go outside of the vehicle to operate the lift. “That’s not as effective where there is a lot of lift operation or stopping in traffic,” Rynerson says. Economies of fleet size Because the greatest number of small loads is operated in East King County, most of the agency’s vans are located at its East Base maintenance facility. “There are economies to having the fleet in one place,” Rynerson says. “All the parts are there and people know how to maintain them.” The Champion vans average 75,000 miles per month and have an average of 18,684 miles between trouble calls. “This is a relatively new fleet, and it is performing quite well,” says Jim Nale, maintenance supervisor for East Base. From a maintenance perspective, the vehicles are not too difficult to keep up, Nale says. The brake life is shorter because of the nature of the service but, otherwise, they’re “just like a mini version of a big coach,” he says. “We just don’t get the life out of them like we do with a standard coach because of the brakes and transmission.” The transmission initially proved a problem when the first group of vans was delivered because they weren’t equipped with an overdrive eliminator. Due to the low speeds of the vans, they frequently go into and out of overdrive. The problem was remedied by the time the other vehicles were delivered. Otherwise, the maintenance staff has had good luck with the smaller buses. “The Ricon lifts are very durable and the Ford engine is really reliable,” Nale says. From a parts standpoint, the prices are comparable to those of a standard bus and even more available, Nale says, because the vans are built on a Ford chassis. The vehicles also allow for more room in the shop and the parking yard, and the maintenance staff is frequently trained to keep up with changes in technology and techniques. The fleet runs on ultra-low sulfur diesel, which currently costs more than other fuels but is a “step in the right direction” to reduce particulate matter, Nale says. Even though many mechanics enjoy working on the smaller buses because they offer variety, Nale says standard coaches are more up his alley. “In a perfect world, I’d rather just work with standard coaches,” he says. “They don’t eliminate the opportunity for substitution on other routes and more spares are available.” Creating the perfect bus The size of the bus isn’t the only factor that affects passengers’ perceptions. The bus itself has a lot to say about the agency. Montgomery County Transit Services (Ride On) in Rockville, Md., spent a lot of time creating small buses that its passengers would want to get onto. “Customers were complaining about small buses,” says Howard Benn, an assistant general manager at Ride On. “The community liked them, but the customers didn’t.” The community liked the small buses because they better navigated streets and seemed less intrusive than standard coaches. The passengers, on the other hand, wanted something that had the features of a big bus, including wider aisles and better lighting. “The problem was largely with the vehicles,” Benn says. “We were getting double and triple the complaints we got for regular buses.” So Ride On went to work creating cutaways that felt like transit buses. It added heavy-duty flooring, more durable seating, LED signs and fluorescent lighting. And while the vehicles have four entry steps, making it a little harder for elderly passengers, the wide doors accommodate walking aids. “If you’re a customer now, it feels like a [standard] bus and, from the outside, it’s cute,” Benn says. “[The changes] make a cutaway more palatable to the rider and, by being small, more palatable to the community.” Ride On operates 30-foot buses manufactured by Supreme Corp. (for gasoline) and ElDorado National (for diesel). The agency is going to start purchasing 35-foot vehicles next year to help recapture some of the capacity lost to wheelchair lifts. “Thirty-five foot vehicles represent our way of using heavy-duty transit without being intrusive,” Benn says. Ride On fills niche Ride On began operating minibuses in the mid-’70s to fill a niche that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) did not. The buses provided feeder service to WMATA rail lines and took over routes the agency abandoned. Because Montgomery County is a suburb with many winding streets and cul-de-sacs, small buses seemed like the natural fit, Benn says. “Originally, we circulated where 40-foot buses wouldn’t fit,” he says. “Our trademark was small vehicles.” As the agency grew, some communities didn’t want big buses, especially where they couldn’t fit on the streets. Contracted service proved that cutaways were popular because they could go into neighborhoods, Benn says. But the quality of the ride was not one typically associated with the agency, as the vans had no air suspension and were carrying heavy loads, Benn says. Ride On decided to purchase its own vehicles rather than contract so it could write vehicles to its own specs. First Transit still operates some of the agency’s night routes and maintains the buses it operates. For Ride On, the capital costs per year for a cutaway vs. a standard bus are similar, Benn says. “Cutaway vans have a five-year life cycle, but think three years in a heavy load environment,” he says. Maintenance perks The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) in Buffalo, N.Y., began running its MetroLink service about three years ago. It serves mainly low-income and access-to-jobs riders and runs buses with 24 or fewer seats. The service has taken off, and so have the maintenance benefits. “Normally, there’s an average of one mechanic to three [standard] buses,” says Carl Woodby, manager of bus maintenance at NFTA. “One mechanic can do seven to 10 small buses.” The small buses are replaced every four years, reducing the need for corrosion maintenance and keeping the overall cost per mile down, Woodby says. “In four years, we’re done with the bus and don’t have to rebuild the engine or transmission,” he says. Woodby notes that things tend to wear out quicker on the smaller vehicles. “Any time you use a one-ton van chassis, you run the risk of beating it to death,” he says. Buffalo also has a lot of narrow streets that 40-foot buses can’t negotiate. The 25-foot body-on-chassis vans the NFTA operates allow the agency to enter those neighborhoods and are new enough to give a good impression, Woodby says. NFTA’s fleet includes 320 standard buses, 26 paratransit vans and 10 small 24-passenger buses. The latter two are manufactured by Coach & Equipment and are purchased through state bids. The agency purchases the basic vehicle and adds such options as radios, cameras and electronic destination signs. It pays attention to such amenities as seating, flooring and wheel wells to make sure passengers are comfortable, Woodby says. The price difference is $60,000 for a basic mid-size bus compared to $320,000 for a standard bus. But, again, due to life cycles, the agency will end up purchasing three mid-size buses for every standard bus. The NFTA runs into the same perception problem other agencies have. “Public transit agencies get criticized for having this huge bus out there and no one’s riding it,” Woodby says. “Typically, the only difference is the running cost. You still have to pay for the driver.”

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