This new use of motorcoaches is as novel as the need for it is obvious. It would work particularly well in the afternoon, with commuter/express coaches (which do not share the same PM peak periods for their general riders with return trips from school as they do with AM work and school trips). They might also work as well with charter and tour operations, particularly on full-day “out-and-backs” whose return trips would begin after the Classroom Extension Bus’s trip would conclude.
Like the other motorcoach scenarios in this series of installments, I readily acknowledge that all of them lie somewhat, or even considerably, outside the normal scope of duty cycles and operating environments typical of our industry. However, this series is designed encourage the reader to think beyond the conventional boundaries which typically confine motorcoach usage, and think creatively about how these vehicles might be put to use during those hours when they would otherwise be sitting in a storage yard or parked during a layover. These ideas are not meant to be familiar. They are deliberately meant to stretch the industry’s individual and collective imagination — including in some future installments, not even using a motorcoach as a moving vehicle.
Transportation and Education
For those within the motorcoach industry unfamiliar with this reality, not every schoolchild residing beyond a reasonable walking distance from school rides to and from school in a school bus. In many urban areas, general educational school bus service is either limited to elementary (and to some extent middle school) students, or, as in cities like Washington, D.C., for example, non-existent for any students other than those with special needs. Similarly, many private and charter schools provide no busing service of any kind – particularly for high school and middle school students residing in urban areas where transit service exists. Finally, as the financial structure of our nation’s economy becomes increasingly strained, it has become more and more common to provide school bus service only to elementary school students, and in some cases, to them and middle school students only. Ironically, this trend provides an unusual opportunity to the Classroom Extension Bus, since high school students have longer attention spans, and may be more likely to even enjoy some of the presentations possible through this extended classroom time – not to mention a ride to a point much closer to their homes, much less during the time they would normally waste walking to them (or be driven there by a parent).
Yet even if many more students were riding school buses than currently are doing so, a school bus would not remotely lend itself to an extension of the classroom (at least not for learning purposes, even though it certainly would, and does, for safety and security purposes): Its spring suspension system and bench seats would be far too bumpy to permit students to write or type (although they might be able to squirt a few thoughts into their cell-phones or I-Pads). In contrast, a motorcoach – which could easily meet school bus certification requirements (see section below) – contains contoured bucket seats, individual overhead lighting and air conditioning modules, electric sockets (generally located on the rear underside of the seat cushion in front), high-quality interior speakers, video monitors and even a microphone for the teacher (the only one of these features that a school bus also has). Adding a small “white board,” a few magic markers and an eraser is almost an afterthought. Further, by adding four simple securement plates and a three-point seatbelt near the front of the bus, plus a garden variety manual wheelchair, the teacher’s seat could be installed in two minutes, facing rearward, toward the “class:” The ADA requires that only one securement position be forward-facing, and every motorcoach purchased beginning this year already has two of them. None of this even considers the further customization that the motorcoach industry is famous for. And while such vehicles are not what I envision for a motorcoach role, an element or two borrowed from this world might enhance the classroom environment notably. Readers: Start your imaginations.
Institutional and Regulatory Vacuums
It is a curiosity, if not an irony, that public transit buses are not be permitted to provide this type of service. If they did, they would violate “tripper service” regulations, effectively using service subsidized by the taxpayers to compete with unsubsidized school bus or motorcoach operators. Tripper regulations, in contrast, pose no institutional obstacles to unsubsidized motorcoach service, and further, many school bus operators also provide motorcoach service as well.
The few obstacles to deploying motorcoaches in this role involve the vehicle’s meeting a handful of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, such as rollover protection (FMVSS #220) and side-impact protection (FMVSS #301). Frankly, most motorcoaches would embarrass any school bus on the market in passing these tests – and for this reason, and because a manufacturer can “self-certify” his or her vehicle for these (and all other tests) – and thus not even have to pay for the tests to be conducted — many motorcoach manufacturers’ vehicles have already been certified to most school bus-related FMVSS standards.
One important standard out of reach until about two years ago is the compartmentalized seating required on all school buses, and the two- or three-point securement belts required by seven states (of these, New York, New Jersey and Florida require only lapbelts). But as we know (or should know), purpose-built, compartmentalized, high-back motorcoach seats with three-point securement devices embedded into the front face of their seatbacks are now commercially available. Beyond these “engineering changes,” the vehicle requires only eight-way flashers and a stop arm (both of which could be retracted and/or covered up for normal usage), crossing control guards (frankly an inexpensive and worthwhile safety-related addition to the front bumper for any passenger transportation vehicle), and school bus mirror systems so superior to those of typical motorcoaches that it would make sense, as a liability matter, to include them anyway. Interestingly, Rosco recently began selling the parabolic or “crossover” mirrors that jut out in front of school buses like antennae – although, for buses or coaches, these convex mirrors would be mounted adjacent to and slightly below the regular flat and convex curb- and street-side rear-view mirrors. Finally, from the World of “Didja Know?” there is no Federal requirement for the bus to even be colored school bus yellow – or as I call it (to toy with the school bus folks), “taxicab yellow” – almost the identical color! A few states oddly require this precise color, and have a paint chip color to use as a guide in painting. But no state requires that the entire bus be painted this color (and, indeed, many have white roofs, black bumpers, and some districts even allow transit-style advertising banners to be plastered onto their sidewalls to increase revenue). This means that one could turn a motorcoach into a “yellow school bus” in a matter of minutes simply by attaching a few “school bus yellow” magnetic panels (or via some other methodology) to the sidewalls, front cap and rear cap. As Bugs Bunny used to say, “That’s all, folks.” Are the few thousand dollars needed for these changes, plus a few minutes a day’s work, worthy as an investment that can create an additional 90 to 120 minutes of billable work per day for a vehicle that would otherwise sit around empty, collecting dust?
Education Dynamics and Impetus
It has often been cited that, internationally, the United States has recently been ranked 38th in education. The typical solutions cited for this (true of not) include, most notably, smaller class size and longer school hours – and more than one study has found smaller classroom sizes to be far less important than better teachers. In truth, our struggling schools more likely reflect factors like the increasing number of intact families and less emphasis on morality in our society in general. Regardless, extending classroom time by using school bus vehicles for teaching purposes time is never considered as a solution for the reasons noted above, relating mostly to the limitations of the vehicles themselves. And I suspect that the Classroom Extension Bus would not fare well in the outbound, AM to-school period since it might wear out the often-still-sleepy kids before they had a chance to hit their home rooms – not to mention the coincidence of AM work and school peak periods that would prevent commuter/express coaches from providing AM Classroom Extension service.
In sharp contrast, traveling home after school, on a luxury motorcoach, which could also include accommodations for snacks (employing equipment common to the motorcoach conversion industry), and with the additional class taught by a presumably charismatic and engaging teacher (or occasionally a guest lecturer, or teachers on a rotating basis), and using the vehicle’s existing high-technology equipment (extended further by the students laptops, I-Pads and other digital paraphernalia), the trip home could provide a more-than-tolerable alternative to walking home or traveling home in Mommy’s car — much less traveling home on “the bumpy bus that sorta could,” and which would not provide a learning environment.
Cost Factors and Logistics
To begin with, there are some important time-and-space-oriented positioning and relationships that must be in place for the Extended Classroom Bus to make sense. As a starting point, school-to-home trips that drop some of the student off early on the route, and regularly afterwards, would make little sense because the students who alight early would not remain on board long enough to “take the class.” But particularly in rural areas, the majority of students may reside a considerable distance from their schools – particularly true at the high school level where communities have far fewer schools lying considerable distances from many of their students. Further, routing is often designed to pick up and drop off clusters of passengers in specific or limited neighborhoods – instead of picking them up and dropping them off in a steady progression beginning close to the school and ending far away from it. In the former situation, the first drop-off often lies a considerable distance and time away from the school, and even the first student to alight would remain on board long enough for a worthwhile learning session to occur – although he or she may miss some of the short question-and-answer session that might follow. Like every Making More Money scenario, the Extended Classroom Bus is not practical in every situation, or in every community. But where the spatial and temporal characteristics align favorably – including long ride-times for even short routes emanating from inner city schools traveling in heavy traffic – the Extended Classroom Bus could provide a valuable boost to our educational system, not to mention to the motorcoach industry.
In terms of vehicle capacity, with a 57-passenger bus, a $3 fare would likely cover the costs of the trip (perhaps less for an older model coach) — given the fact that costs for all but the driver, fuel and maintenance have already been amortized by the other uses made of the coach. Then, of course, the teacher must be paid – although this cost may be negligible where the teacher lives near the last drop-off, can park at the storage yards in the morning and get picked up by a fellow-teacher passing nearby in his or her automobile, and can thus save money on fuel and be relieved of the stress of commuting). With 180 days of school a year, riding the Classroom Extension Bus could cost the average parent perhaps another $500 a year. How would this compare to private school tuition, typically between $20,000 and $40,000 a year? Compared to such costs, another 60 to 90 minutes of classroom time from a good public school for another $500/year is not a bargain. It is a steal. As a steal, it is not unthinkable that school districts might contribute all or some of the fares – just as they provide “transit passes” (albeit at a considerably lower fare).
Flexible and Innovative Fleet Tradeoffs
As noted above, many regional-based medium- and medium/large-sized motorcoach companies also provide school bus service. They do so with vehicles that typically last for only about eight to 10 years in a typical four-to-six-hour-per day duty cycle of a school bus deployed only 180 days a year (notwithstanding some marginal additional mileage from activity bus usage and trips to and from summer school and camps). While it would be a shame to let these vehicles sit in the yard every afternoon, it is also worth noting that their AM peak periods usually begin and end before most motorcoach out-and-back trips do. Thus, were one to use his or her motorcoach fleet as the Classroom Extension Bus during the PM peak, after also finishing its AM inbound school runs in place of its normal AM commuter/express run, that same operator could deploy his far-lower-cost school bus for the entire day as a low-cost, over-the-road charter or tour bus – or in communities that have no transit service, for transit purposes.
It is not a stretch to recognize that these substitutions are consistent with not only our goals, but with the economic dynamics we seem to be increasingly headed toward: Making the Middle Class poor, and making the poor an underclass of beggars. Methinks that placing non-school-bus-yellow metal plates on the sidewalls of school buses, covering up their lights and retracting their stop arms, would seem to offer an unusually-cost-effective alternative to both significantly more costly motorcoach service and radically-more-costly automobile travel. Of course, this is obviously not true were one to deploy the vehicle in a high-mileage duty cycle, where life-cycle costs reflect genuine operating costs. Not that the costs savings from a moderate substitution like this would compensate for, much less offset, the enormity of our far larger problems. But as a matter of public policy, I feel strongly that deploying school buses in transit service (as they often are during transit strikes) in a community that could otherwise not afford transit service at all is a trivial sacrifice compared to one-fourth of all American children going to bed hungry every night. Needless to say, the expansion of motorcoach scenarios would translate into the production of a significant increase in the number of motorcoach vehicles produced. As a consequence, a lot of families struggling as two-car families might be able to abandon one of them. This would hardly make a dent in our automobile industry, as most of the vehicles abandoned would typically be on the old side, and would not translate significantly into lower sales of new cars – for those fewer and fewer families that can afford them. As far as using a school bus as a low-cost “over-the-road” bus, the inclusion of a quick-change track seating system like those common to modern motorcoaches (to facilitate wheelchair accessibility) would permit the driver to re-space the seats in a matter of minutes, and squeezing a handful of rear seats together, could restore the more luxurious spacing typical of a motorcoach almost effortlessly (whereas school bus seat-spacing is typically a few inches tighter – although much of that is because of seat compartmentalization, which as noted, is now available on motorcoaches).
Convertibility and Profit
Sometimes important lessons come from places one might never expect them to. One lesson here stems from the demise of the TAM 252 School/Activity bus introduced into the North American market in 1991. Two orogenies that same year – the departure of Gillig and Crown from the school bus business, and the civil war in former Yugoslavia – decimated that project. But the two TAM 252 prototypes – including the only school bus that ever survived both a side-impact test (most others “passed” because the fuel system’s integrity was intact – although the sled destroyed the bus), and showed no discernible roof deflection from the FMVSS #220 roof-crush/rollover test (5 Â¼ inches of deflection are allowed) — are still on the road today: The prototype unit crash-tested was repaired for $3500, and particularly with its counterpart’s track-seating system (another innovation that modern motorcoaches have available in far-superior form), we sold both prototypes to a tour operator in Southern California, who repainted them non-school bus yellow, removed the flashers and stop arms, and with the nation’s only two “fully school bus-certified” transit buses, much less with true integral construction and a six-air-bag pneumatic suspension system, made an outrageous profit deploying them, largely to school districts, for field trip purposes ( as well as for other tour and charter service purposes) largely because they were (obviously) fully school bus-certified. These 1991-vintage vehicles are in effect lasting at least five times longer, mileage-wise, than a typical school bus (i.e., not counting the Crowns and Gilligs, many of which have been on the road, in a school bus duty cycle, for more than 30 years now), since they are deployed for significantly more miles (and with a more fuel-efficient, 8.3L engine yielding roughly 10 mpg). So do you really think, with a motorcoach actually designed for this purpose, someone could not today duplicate the same results, or even greater profits, by transporting students in a school bus-certified motorcoach?
For those of us fortunate enough to be familiar with European motorcoach experiences, it should be pointed out that many of their motorcoaches are used solely to transportation schoolchildren. For example, some TEMSA coaches deployed in Turkey actually have a school bus “plaque” mounted onto their exteriors. Further, runs are sometimes dedicated to completely different types of trips. For example, once it has reached the last school in its “tier” of AM trips, a bus or coach used to transport schoolchildren makes its next run transporting shoppers from the suburbs to the downtown area of a major city. In the early afternoon, it returns from the downtown area, drops off the shoppers, and then returns to various schools to provide their students with return trips home. So the notions of convertibility and flexibility identified above are not exactly novel. They are simply advanced compared to the tight roles to which we generally restrict our passenger transportation fleets.