Ten Stunning Accomplishments in Buses and Motorcoaches and their Operations

In last months’ installment, I cited roughly a dozen of the most stupid and counterproductive aspects of motorcoach vehicles and operations we managed to cobble together over the past several years. By itself, that overview provided a very unbalanced and inaccurate snapshot of the industry as a whole. Balancing it off, this installment will cite 10 (more actually) of what I consider stunning projects that illustrate what leadership and vision can accomplish even in a relatively small sector of the economy. Imagine what would be possible if many other industry sectors in the United States did the same.

As with last month’s examples of items and issues that reflect negatively on our industry, this months list of stunning accomplishments is not prioritized. Rather, the accomplishments are organized to emphasize the range and diversity of creative and courageous thinking, and the magnitude of change that can occur from a handful of striking innovations whose creators were willing to actually do something.

  • Megabus. Throughout transportation history, U.S. pricing strategies have been among the most recalcitrant on the planet. As an example of comparison, for decades, passengers on most European trains could ride in first or second class compartments – the former at only slightly higher prices, but with most passengers seated, considerably more space, and isolation from the most number of “undesirables” who unfortunately deter a significant number of otherwise “choice” riders. While Megabus has not yet separated its riders into “classes,” its graduated pricing policies have had an enormous impact on ridership increases. Just as I have been a thorn in the side of the paratransit community for decades by arguing that subscription service is a higher form of service than demand-response service, Megabus recognized that the comfort of having a guaranteed seat far is advance is worth much more than the risk of not obtaining one at all at the last minute. As a consequence, fares have been graduated dramatically – with last minute seats filled for a dollar or two for trips of considerable length (e.g., New York to Washington, D.C.). Not only does such a policy guarantee the full utilization of seating capacity, but it fulfills an invaluable and often overlooked social goal: For those who can make last-minute arrangements (and this does not include only the poor), virtually anyone and everyone can afford long distance travel at the price of a subway ticket. As we decline toward a second-world country, such an approach provides an astonishing adjustment that will help us cope with it. So while Megabus will not only improve the mode split from private occupancy vehicles to buses and coaches, it will also accommodate the sociological and economic shifts needed to accompany it.
  • Clean Engine Technology. While our new engines’ astonishing reduction in emissions may not make a dent in global air quality improvement compared to, say, China’s coal fires, the rapid melting of the North Pole (23% in the past two years) and Antarctica, and even the increasing defoliation of our own forest lands in most the Western States, 2010 bus and truck engines will emit roughly 3 percent of the pollutants spewn forth only a generation of buses and coaches ago. As the disproportionally largest polluters among passenger vehicles, these changes illustrate what is possible when we set out minds to it. If we could accomplish similar things with larger problems, we might actually be able to breathe by the year 2030. So if only of symbolic consequence, this improvement provides at least a small degree of hope, while it illustrates the phenomenal capabilities of our industry when we make a commitment to meaningful change.
  • Double-Decker Buses in Intercity Service. Another brilliant innovation from Coach USA has been its recent and increasing deployment of double-decker buses on long intercity runs. While the ultimate ridership potential is undercut obviously by the luggage capacity problems, that limitation only affects part of the market – and under-seat storage capacity and overhead luggage bins accommodate the luggage of “light” travelers. Otherwise, this approach effectively doubles the capacity of buses – with enormous potential for both lowering fares and/or increasing profits. Needless to mention, ABC Companies and Van Hool deserve considerable credit for making these vehicles available – including considerable investments in modifications for the North American market.
  • Compartmentalized Seats with Integrated Seatbelts. Unless they were simply confused about it, the past ignorance of or disinterest by motorcoach manufacturers and other members of the community about compartmentalized seating systems has been astonishing – at least to someone who knows what they genuinely contain (i.e., using school bus seats at the basic model). Recently, one manufacturer introduced a high-back, purpose-built, heavily-padded, genuinely-compartmentalized seat with lap belts embedded into the passenger side of the seatbacks. The reclining aspect of motorcoach seats still leaves a challenge (I have the solution, and am awaiting participation in a bus project before investing in the patent). But the development of the seat itself was, by far, the most important step, offering manufacturers and their customers an alternate to traditional motorcoach seats with seat belts, and effectively eliminating any Federal or state mandate to force seatbelt usage upon us – a mandate lying just down the road. For those not aware of the obvious advantage of compartmentalized seats as a “passive” technology, it must be pointed out that passengers need not do anything for the application to work beyond simply remaining in their seats.
  • Door-Opening Mechanism Handrail Circumvention. Regular NBT readers are well-familiar with my crusade against needlessly dysfunctional stepwells and handrails, and the apathy shown by coach manufacturers in addressing them and their obvious problems. At last year’s BusCon show, I finally saw a “conversion” with double-pantographic doors whose manufacturer configured handrails to wind around the inside surface of the poles around which the doors must pivot to open or close. While narrowing the entrance to the stepwell by a few inches, this innovation prevents passengers from using door opening mechanisms as handrails – and the spate of mayhem that some of the lawsuits involving premature door closings I have been involved in as an expert witness might otherwise create.
  • Three-hundred Sixty Degree Profile Interior Video-cameras. This innovation has been around for a few years, although few coach purchasers elect it as an option. This single camera gives the driver a complete view, from the center of the bus, of all passengers within the compartment (not just their faces showing above the high seatbacks visible through oversized, convex, rear-view interior mirrors. An even more valuable technology in transit, with rear doors and stepwells, this technology is available as motorcoaches begin adapting their rear wheelchair lift doors for additional usage (e.g., by employing “active” lifts, and even locating restrooms in the luggage bay area adjacent to these steps as per some European coach models). Otherwise, as a safety matter, this mirror provides the driver with a greatly-enhanced tool for motoring full-coach passenger behavior while spending less visual time away from the windshield and exterior mirrors – time for viewing which must be maximized while the coach is moving.
  • Double-Decker Buses. For those NBT readers who missed my two installments on this subject (see November, 2008 and February, 2009), open-air double-decker buses are becoming more common in a handful of cities, and I expect the trend to expand gradually to others. While one might argue that such vehicles replace pedestrians, such is not really the case because of the city-wide distances covered, and the nature of operations whereby one can alight and later re-board to complete far more of a long trip between points too far to reasonably walk between than would be probable as a pedestrian. While not really an innovation, the recent emergence and growth of new double-deckers designed for use in North American cities is beginning to open up other possibilities: Some transit agencies are already involved in discussions with these operators to use such vehicles on selected commuter/express routes – with much greater opportunities in the South where the North’s cold winters will likely curtail roof-top riding during the winter months. Like Van Hool did for the double decker units deployed in intercity service, Denis deserves considerable credit for making these vehicles available, and for the investments involved in doing so.
  • Compressed Hoses and Other Engine Improvements. While not a motorcoach innovation, but one that certainly could be, several years ago the Detroit School District created a Request for Proposals (RFP) to purchase 80 school buses with greatly modified engines: Mostly less hose length, reconfiguration of hoses and other components, and additional filters – such that oil changes would have to be made only once a year. While the three school bus manufacturers kicked and screamed, two of the three bid on this RFP, and Thomas built and sold them. The whining was similar to that of regulatory-required emissions reductions. But the point is, the industry accomplished it. While knowing America, no manufacturer is about to invest in such changes at the development or prototype level without serious opportunities for sales and profits looming closely over the horizon. However, that fact does not suggest that we cannot accomplish such feats when we put our U.S. engineering minds and skill to the task – if and when the incentives to do so appear, or even if they are not imminent.
  • Smart Tires and Improved Fire Suppression Systems. Particularly as a considerable number of bus and coach fires originate at or near the tires, “Smart Tire” technology recently introduced, coupled with other improvements in fire detection, have gone a long way to compensate for other innovations (e.g., hotter-burning engines for reducing pollution) that have been leading to an increased number of bus fires. Such developments do not merely illustrate trade-offs among safety characteristics: They illustrate the fact that creative design and clever engineering permit our products to “have their cake and eat it too.”
  • Global Positioning Devices. Taking advantage of our network of satellites and digital technologies – such as global positioning satellites and automatic vehicle locators – have not only improved the ability to render service more efficient, but have also greatly enhanced security. These innovations are particularly important for a mode whose vehicles often operate thousands of miles away from their storage yards, much less dramatically apart from the normal ranges of radio communication equipment.
  • Light-Emiting Diodes. Practically skipping over the stage of fluorescent lights – which themselves are orders of magnitude more efficient than traditional incandescent lighting – buses and coaches are increasingly employing LEDs for a range of functions from interior lighting to head signs.
  • Wheelchair Interlocks. The outgrowth of FMVSS #403 and #404 – legislation for which wheelchair securement manufacturers actually lobbied their regulatory agencies to adopt – has created another generation of “interlocks” for passengers using wheelchair lifts. Similar safety devices like the seatbelts mounted on lift platforms that must be fastened for the lift to even lower or rise extend these safety features even further. It took a long time for the consideration of wheelchair users to catch up with those of other bus and coach passengers. But developments to ensure their safety are now keeping pace with those of other riders.
  • Rough Road Sensing and Correcting Devices. In the newest buses and coaches, sensors detect roadway deviations and effect “self-corrections” to stabilize the vehicle, decreasing risks of accidents like rollovers, while also mitigating road surface aberrations that would otherwise compromise passenger comfort.
  • Widened Suspension Systems. More and more coach manufacturers are extending their air bags to “outboard” positions, which not only improve ride quality, but enhance safety by, for example, decreasing rollover propensity. As with road sensing/correcting devices, comfort is also enhanced by these innovations as they improve directional stability – not only “softening” the vertical shocks from bumps and dips, but also reducing roll, pitch and yaw.
  • Improved Work/Play Environment Technologies. Today’s coaches contain pretty much the same interior accoutrements as many modern commercial airplanes. As options, virtually all coach manufacturers and even many conversion companies, offer single-position light fixtures and A/C outlets, and video screens. But more recently added have been WI-FI capabilities, sockets (to keep your laptop batteries from running down, and for charging them), and the obvious access to the internet that these amenities facilitate.

Fitting into the Globe

I am not claiming that none of these innovations have shown up elsewhere – particularly in Europe. But our buses and coaches have traditionally lagged far behind in a broad spectrum of safety and comfort features. Even while more foreign products enter the market (and, in truth, largely because of it), the gap between the quality of North American and other continents’ buses and coaches is narrowing quickly and dramatically.

The importance of these changes is not merely a domestic phenomenon. It has important international implications. Soon to begin running out of fuel and potable water on many parts of the globe, our industries cannot afford to sit still and slowly sink into the heart of darkness. Environmentally, we must contribute, and contribute significantly, to even hope to catch up. While the innovations noted above may not re-freeze much of the North Pole or offset the carbon monoxide generation of China’s coal fires, every industrial and service sector has the responsibility to squeeze every gram of conservation out of our design, engineering and operating choices. Some of the innovations noted above have reduced pollution to a pittance of what it was a mere generation of buses ago, while others have doubled the passenger-carrying capacity of vehicles that already carry as many passengers as 30 to 40 personal-occupant vehicles. These are not little improvements. These are gigantic leaps of the type and magnitude needed for our survival.

To the critical reader, it is also obvious that this author cannot count to ten. But that is not really true. The fact that this installment actually covered fifteen major innovations is merely an indication of my excitement about and passion for our recent accomplishments. Perhaps I am more appreciative of them because my typical work, as a forensic expert, so often shows me the down side of our failures. But I also have a “world view” of things, and while obviously an American, I do not typically think like one. This is one reason why the improvements identified above feel so important to me: They’re helping our industry catch up to, if not keep pace with, worldwide public transportation standards and products.

One can begin any speech about any subject at any point in history by claiming that, “it was a period of great change.” But we are beginning to enter one where we can no longer induce the rest of the planet to follow our lead. Ranked 38th in education and 50th in healthcare does not help. But I am not willing to sit back and watch America turn into a wasteland of trailer parks and K-Marts. Nor should any of us be – although one might think so from the way we tend to use our votes.

Perhaps there will never again be a single nation that so dominates the planet as we did during the second half of the Twentieth Century. Spiritually, that is not necessarily a bad thing if it also means that billions of other Earthlings experience less hardship and suffering, and if it means that they can actually dream too – even if their dreams are not as bloated as ours. But the United States can still play a powerful and dominant role in this world. We cannot accomplish this feat simply by tricking other nations, and our own citizens, out of their money. But we can accomplish it if the various sectors of our economy continue to make dramatic contributions to both our nation’s and other nations’ welfare. We should beam with pride about the contributions which the innovations cited above demonstrate about our ability, our effort, our creativity, our sacrifice, and our resolve.

Publications: National Bus Trader.