Infrastructure & Environment

The Year of the Superbus

In the Atlanta region, commuter buses have all the comforts of home. With television sets on board, passengers can lean back in cushy seats and...
by | January 31, 2008
 

In the Atlanta region, commuter buses have all the comforts of home. With television sets on board, passengers can lean back in cushy seats and catch up on the news, check the weather forecast and watch sports clips. The shows are not in real time, but close. Like the entertainment on board airplanes, daily programming is loaded before the buses leave their DeKalb and Fulton county yards, and it's updated several times a day.

That's not all that's come or is coming to the once-lowly bus. City and county fleets all across the country are pulling into the high-tech fast lane, gaining ground on cars for commuting. "This isn't the bus your father or your grandfather rode," says Lurae Stuart, a program manager with the American Public Transportation Association, noting that the new generation of buses offers passengers benefits -- not just TV but Wi-Fi and other high-tech amenities -- they couldn't enjoy if they were behind the wheel of a car.

In addition to the high-tech pitch, bus fleet managers also are putting their money into vehicles that are faster, quieter and more fuel efficient than their older counterparts. These newer buses require less maintenance and, with better fuel efficiency, are less costly to run.

BELLS, WHISTLES AND WI-FI

Nothing is more attractive than Wi-Fi. At least that's the thinking of many transit agencies. After all, motorists making their way around traffic-clogged highways can't open their laptops and download YouTube videos, read their favorite blogs or put the final touches on a PowerPoint presentation.

What transit companies are finding, however, is that Wi-Fi is a plus -- mostly on longer commuter routes where passengers can sit down, log on and get to their bookmarks. On crowded short runs, where riders may have to stand for most of the trip, wireless access doesn't compute. Riders are more apt to look to their BlackBerrys.

That said, a growing number of transit systems are making the investment in Wi-Fi for longer commuter runs. The Utah Transit Agency, for instance, recently put wireless on its express commuter bus that runs the 45-mile route between Provo and Salt Lake City. UTA had previously pilot-tested Wi-Fi on four of its buses and found that the offer of wireless did attract riders. The agency pegs the cost of the feature at $5,000 per bus.

In Colorado, Mountain Metropolitan Transit has Wi-Fi on the buses that ply the route between Colorado Springs and Denver, a 75-mile commute. "The response has been great," says Amy MacDonald, a spokesperson for the city of Colorado Springs. "People love it. They can spend that time working when normally they would be driving." The bus ride takes a little longer than commuting by car but, MacDonald reports, the bus passengers "like that trade-off." The Wi-Fi signal is strong enough that some commuters in cars are taking advantage of it. "People tell me," MacDonald says, "that when they drive alongside the bus, they can connect to the Wi-Fi from their cars."

To make sure their riders can access the high-tech amenity in comfort, the buses have reclining seats and cup holders as well as luggage racks for briefcases, backpacks or other items that might otherwise crowd the feet or seat. Tech amenities aside, comfortable seating is always welcome.

The use of high-tech signage and announcements is also improving bus rides -- particularly those in denser urban areas where buses make a lot of stops. Many fleets now have buses programmed to announce stops as the vehicle approaches a cross street or station.

To reduce the frustration of waiting for the bus, some cities send alerts to passengers on their computers or PDAs. The alerts might say when the next bus arrives or that there's trouble on the line. Such systems are, however, still a work in progress. The transit system in Washington, D.C., for instance, has had to suspend the program for about a year while it upgrades its technological infrastructure and improves the processes that provide the data.

No matter how upbeat the accessories, buses can attract commuters only if they take good care of their riders. New technology applies here as well. Some buses now come with GPS equipment, enabling satellites to track the buses' exact location. This comes in handy if a bus needs to make detours, runs into traffic jams or veers off a route unexpectedly. It's also helpful when a passenger falls ill -- or the driver does. Under any of these situations, dispatchers can locate the bus quickly and send help.

There is one downside to this space age technology: It doesn't work well in dense urban areas. Tall buildings block transmission of GPS signals.

There can also be safety issues inside the bus. Many city buses now use cameras to watch for unruly or even criminal behavior. Denver buses, for instance, are outfitted with cameras that point down the bus aisles. When there are complaints or if passengers become irate with the driver, the Regional Transit District can pull the video and see what happened. The video also provides information when there are accidents involving the bus, helping the city to defend itself against lawsuits.

SPEED COUNTS

Another effort to improve bus travel and ridership keys in on a phenomenon called bus rapid transit. It is an awkward term for a transportation service that the Federal Transit Administration has dubbed "rubber-tired light rail," by which it means that BRT offers the quality of rail transit with the flexibility of buses.

The heart of BRT is speed and efficiency that mimics "heavy" rail without the expense of laying the rail lines. BRT may use longer buses so more people can hop on at once or dedicated lanes so buses don't get caught in regular traffic. It may stop at fewer stations so trips are quicker or use traffic-signal prioritization so buses sail through lights. Instead of minimal shelters for passengers waiting for the bus, it may have stations with roofs, walls, seats, food services and even Wi-Fi. A BRT system can have all of these features or just one or two.

Several cities have started incorporating aspects of BRT into their transit plans. Los Angeles, for instance, keeps traffic lights green for the buses and spaces stops farther apart. The buses also have a low-floor design that makes it easier and faster for passengers to get on and off. The system, introduced in 2000, was an immediate hit. Its growing popularity led the Metropolitan Transportation Authority this year to order longer buses, but they are so long -- 65 feet as opposed to the usual 40 feet -- that the California Department of Transportation had to exempt them from its size limits in order for the prototype to be allowed on the road.

Cleveland also is investing in a fleet of long buses. So far, it's got two of them. The buses have doors on both sides -- like a train -- and will run through downtown in a bus-only lane that has split platforms for several miles of the 7.5-mile route. Passengers will board on one side and exit on the other. The program got off to a rough start because of long-running construction of the bus lanes in the central business district, which closed streets and disrupted traffic.

Those headaches have eased now. One ploy helped to counter the public's grumbling. During a tryout period Christmas week, passengers could board the long buses for free, helping everyone get accustomed to the new bus. Some drivers donned Santa Claus suits when they drove the new vehicles along the main route, adding to the holiday spirit and feeling of goodwill.

FUELING FORCE

Hybrids are making inroads into bus fleets. New York City Transit runs hybrid-electric buses that are particularly suited to the stop-and-go traffic of a big city. The state-of-the-art propulsion system saves fuel and produces lower emissions, helping with the city's air quality issues. The agency began looking into the new technology more than a decade ago, when it started experimenting with six buses. Since then, 325 hybrid-electric buses have traveled more than 10 million miles, saving the city more than 1 million gallons of fuel.

For Minneapolis, which has also invested in hybrids, a great benefit is being able to run quieter buses on a pedestrian-friendly downtown corridor. In good weather, a section of the street known as Nicollet Mall is filled with outdoor diners at sidewalk cafes. Noisy, smoke-belching buses would interfere with the urbane atmosphere.

The buses get about 5 miles per gallon, compared with less than 4 miles per gallon for conventional buses. A 1-mile-per-gallon differential adds up to 1,970 gallons in fuel savings annually per bus. If Minneapolis' whole fleet of nearly 900-buses went hybrid, the savings could top $5 million annually. That's a pipe dream at the moment. The high-tech buses cost $200,000 more per bus than conventional ones, not including parts and warranties. It will take a while for the city to build up its fleet.

Minneapolis' hybrid buses also save on fuel by using electricity generated by braking to run parts and systems, such as air conditioning, fans and motors. In regular buses, the gas or diesel used by the engine runs those systems. In these hybrid buses, the power still comes from the engine but huge, high-voltage batteries recapture energy and charge the batteries while the bus is in use. They can be used to run accessories. Yet, the buses still are able to function with smaller engines, and the smaller the engine, the better the fuel economy.

SUPER SCHOOL

City bus fleets are not the only ones benefiting from technology. So are school systems. Not because they want to coddle their passengers, but because technology gives them a route-planning edge that helps them save money.

That's the case in Round Rock, Texas, a suburb of Austin that's expanding at a rate of 8 percent a year, making the Round Rock Independent School District one of the fastest growing in the country. School officials have to move 41,000 students from home to school and back again on 157 bus routes every school day -- even as the school district gains students.

Thanks to a software program, it's been able to balance school bus loads so that the school district doesn't have to buy additional buses -- which would cost $85,000 to purchase and $5,400 a year to operate. The program not only assigns students to buses but can alter bus routes daily and even change a student's bus assignment from one day to the next.

A second-grader, for instance, might board the armadillo bus one day, only to be directed to the koala bus the next. (Yes, the buses are all named for animals.) If a bus route isn't carrying enough students to justify itself, managers cut out that route and disperse children onto other buses. "Software gives us the ability to micromanage student rider loads," says Dan Roberts, executive director of Long-range Planning and Business Support Services, which handles transportation for the district.

When a child's route changes, he or she takes home a paper slip with notification. Parents can then go to the district's Web site to confirm the change. "It allows the parent to type in the address and all the eligible bus stops, so they can see what bus services are available," says Roberts. "The student can confirm, 'I'm no longer an aardvark. I'm an ant.'"

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