September 18, 2006
The Benefits of Small Buses
One interesting finding from last week's junket to Vancouver, B.C. is the range of transit vehicles in use, from SkyTrain (more on SkyTrain in another post) and catamaran ferries to trolley buses and more traditional diesel buses.
I was struck by the use of smaller diesel buses. When I inquired, I was told that these were used on somewhat lower ridership routes. They are branded as "Community Shuttles" and are popular both because they more easily integrate with neighborhood scale, and because they are more social (on a smaller bus you're more likely to interact with the driver and fellow passengers - something I've noticed on the small buses SMART uses on some runs).
When I've been in neighborhood conversations where TriMet was asked about smaller buses, the answer has always been that the operating costs are essentially the same as a larger vehicle because the operator labor costs are the major driver. So I was very interested to hear that in Vancouver, the union had allowed a separate pay tier for operators of smaller buses. I didn't dive into this, but I'm guessing that they hoped to get a few more jobs out of it. I wonder if the skill/training requirements are less for the smaller buses.
September 18, 2006 9:09 AM
John Labovitz Says:
I'll second the observation that "you're more likely to interact with the driver and fellow passengers."
I sometimes ride the CARTS bus from Silverton to Salem (and from there onto Portland via Amtrak), and the local bus is very friendly. One of the drivers knows everyone by name, there are often several conversations amongst riders, and there's usually some classic rock playing over the loudspeakers.
Yay for small buses!
September 18, 2006 11:42 AM
Bob R. Says:
From what I understand (at least this was the case in the past), federal subsidies are available only on certain types/models of buses for a particular use, and these subsidies do not apply to using small buses for regular transit service. It is perhaps an imbalance of subsidies (as well as the previously mentioned labor costs) that prevents such buses from being more common in US transit systems.
- Bob R.
September 18, 2006 12:40 PM
Reminds me of the union agreements with the fire departments that stipulates them to use the largest fire vehicles possible, because they need a larger staff.
September 18, 2006 8:13 PM
Terry Parker Says:
I agree, using smaller busses on low ridership routes makes sense. In addition to costing less upfront, it seems to me they would get better fuel mileage than the current big whales TriMet is currently running on most of these routes, three-quarters empty and getting only five to six miles per gallon. The problem, however, is with implementation of this strategy, and convincing the Committee on Accessible Transportation that not all new busses on regular routes need to be of the low floor design. To my knowledge low floor small busses are for the most part not manufactured because too much of the floor space would be taken up for the wheel wells.
September 18, 2006 11:00 PM
I hear the smaller buses actually cost similar to their larger counterparts, and it's actually a perception issue.
While helping the successful Committee to Save C-TRAN last year, I already knew two things as a given - 1) the smaller bus still has an engine/working parts to maintain, and 2) the driver still needs to be paid. What I learned from someone else on the committee is they actually get the same mileage as the larger buses.
September 18, 2006 11:25 PM
The capital costs for these types of buses ("cutaway" buses) are lower than full-size transit buses. However, they do not last nearly as long as the heavier-duty full-size buses. We retire ours after 5-6 years, while I believe TriMet uses theirs for 12 years or more. And I would also agree that the operating costs are probably not so different.
September 19, 2006 7:38 AM
The solution is simple... put in place competition. Of course actually applying market dynamics to transit seems to be unheard of in these parts but that would do it.
As long as the Politicians and Unions have say, transit won't be truly efficient. The amount of efficiency and cost savings to the citizens of this area could be massive if they got their act, and fear of "market" based choices under control.
I asked the same question months ago. Why are full size busses run on routes like #47. Cut the bus size and run more frequently. You'll get more people and the costs would go down...
...but then without much hesitation I thought to myself... the cost is the driver not the bus.
It's a pitty.
September 19, 2006 8:18 AM
Chris Smith Says:
Adron, that's why I asked about the skills and training. In an efficient labor market, if driving a small bus requires the same skills and training, why would an operator accept a lower salery for driving the smaller vehicle?
There's also the ADA angle. Our standards are more stringent than Canada's, which in turn are more stringent than Europe's.
Can the market deliver good transportation choices to the disabled?
September 19, 2006 8:20 PM
Jason McHuff Says:
I would say that the smaller buses should definately be easier to handle. After all, the front ends are just like on pickups--low to the ground and behind the front axle. Besides, there is not the stress of dealing with high passenger loads and pavement damage should be less. However, the union insists on one-payscale-fits-all and would not recognize the fact that say, Lines 72 and 84 are completely different. That being said, I have herd that TriMet did use LIFT-type buses on some of the Westside MAX shuttles (Orenco/Quatama).
Also, another thing that may encourage interaction between people on the bus is that smaller systems tend to have trips with more regular riders/operators. I occasionally take the Salem bus and there is still some camaraderie.
September 19, 2006 11:24 PM
Erik Halstead Says:
TriMet (well, then it was Tri-Met) did use cutaway busses when it introduced a series of routes known as "The Local".
In fact, one print advertisement Tri-Met had pictured a cul-de-sac of homes, each with a "The Local" bus in the driveway. The busses had unique wrap designs and did not have advertising racks. Later, the wraps were removed and the busses reverted to the standard colors on the LIFT busses...and now the busses are just LIFT busses (you can tell them apart because of the roll-style destination signs are still installed, which of course are no longer used.)
I frequently rode one such route, 50s (Cornell Oaks), and after a few months, Tri-Met began using the 1900 series busses (30' Flxible Metro) instead of the cutaway. My understanding at the time was that the drivers (who were regular TriMet drivers, not contracted) preferred the larger vehicles, and so did the passengers.
I know that these busses were also used on route 60 (Leahy Road), 53s (Arctic/Allen), and several of the 4Xs Hillsboro/Tanasbourne area shuttles, several Oregon City local routes, and a couple routes out of Gresham. I know some of these routes have since been discontinued due to low ridership (i.e. 50s).
However, King County Metro has successfully used cutaways on some of its more remote, local service routes - and of course most smaller transit agencies use them exclusively (i.e. Yamhill County, Tillamook County, Columbia County, SAM and CAT.) OHSU uses them for shuttle routes between Marquam Hill and downtown; as do a number of airporter companies, RAZ Transportation (Intel and Nike employee shuttles), Providence St. Vincent Hospital shuttle, etc.