The Multipurpose Bus

In past articles, I have written about the numerous roles motorcoaches have assumed in the transportation landscape, the marketing opportunities associated with them, and the challenging safety and liability issues which often accompany them. Yet practically unnoticed by the motorcoach industry, a quiet revolution has begun smoldering in both the pupil transportation and transit industries – where both the FTA-sponsored Transportation Research Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are, in their own fashions (the TRB through a study, NHTSA through a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), exploring the feasibility of, and nationwide interest in, a multipurpose bus.

These agencies’ rationales and priorities for such a mode differ somewhat: Through the TRB, the FTA project will actually develop specifications for a bus deployable in both pupil transportation and transit service (either alternating ridership groups, or co-mingling them – as various state regulations may or may not permit). The NHTSA project is aimed more at improving the safety of non-yellow school buses commonly used to carry schoolchildren in non-home-to-school service. Both visions focus largely on rural areas, which often cannot afford either a school bus or transit system – and would have low ridership on even an integrated service. Motorcoaches, however, have not been formally excluded from either project. As roughly 30 percent of motorcoach passengers are schoolchildren, our industry should take a keen interest in these developments. The fact that, in some European countries, many motorcoaches transport no one but schoolchildren (mostly on home-to-school trips) should heighten it.

Safety and Liability

No one doubts the industry’s ability to design a passenger transportation vehicle to serve multiple user groups. The key issues center around the market interest in such a vehicle, and the safety and liability concerns these integrated services raise. Curiously, most of the critical issues in the conceptualization of the multipurpose school/transit bus do not apply to motorcoaches:

  • Standees. Motorcoach passengers generally do not stand while riding (or at least the occasions of their standing and moving around are, or should be, limited), and they have pneumatic suspension systems comparable to transit buses (on which passengers ride as standees regularly). One cannot help raise the question: If motorcoaches were designed and fully-equipped to accommodate standees, drivers were trained to protect them, and dangerous duty cycles were eliminated (or at least prohibited), should standees be allowed on motorcoaches? What makes this question so difficult – and so important – are the results of a recently-released National Academy of Science study (Report #269: The Relative Risks of School Travel) which found that transportation on any type of bus is dramatically, and in some cases exponentially, more safe than any other form of transportation – at least for home-to-school trips (to which the data were refined to apply to).
  • Accessibility. Unlike school buses, an increasing number of motorcoaches manufactured are now required to be wheelchair accessible – and the number will reach 100 percent in a few, short years. Yet the manufacturers have cleverly addressed the seating capacity issue by installing mid-position seats on the same tracks used for wheelchair securement – permitting operators to simply squish a few rows together to “create” a wheelchair securement position, and re-space them for ambulatory clients. And at the operating level, at least one company (DATTCO) declared, at the last UMA Conference, that its greatest area of commercial growth lay in accessible service.
  • Seat spacing. This issue can be addressed (to accommodate both the tight spacing of compartmentalized school bus seating) by installing all the seats on tracks, and installing special motorcoach seats already available on the commercial market, certified to FMVSS school bus seating standards.
  • Floor height. “High-end,” full-size transit buses with high floors are no longer even being manufactured for the North American market (at least none were on display at the most recent APTA conference). At the same time, no low floor school buses have been developed. The latter could change with further development of the new Bluebird/Henley’s low-floor model, and if Gillig re-enters the school bus market (via the multipurpose school bus market) with its new low-floor model with massive sidebar protection. Either company’s presence in the multi-purpose vehicle market is purely speculative. But both are possible – especially given NHTSA’s opinion that the best use of additional funds in school bus production would involve reinforced sidewall protection (as opposed to occupant restraints, the main focus of their four-year study).

As a design and engineering matter, the window size and retention issue could also be addressed simply by installing school bus-type windows (i.e., smaller, vertically-opening windows, with opening size adjusted to various state specifications). From a marketing perspective, the motorcoach industry’s obsession with beauty and European styling has obscured a valuable niche market: The two prototype school/activity buses introduced into North America in 1990 by Slovene bus/truck manufacturer TAM – preceding the single-rear-axle motorcoach introduced briefly in 1993 – were simply repainted after their crash- and road-testing, and are still actively deployed in motorcoach operations in Southern California. Beyond their dramatically lower acquisition costs, superior fuel economy (largely through the use of a high hp/high torque Cummins C-series engine), and development from a monocoque motorcoach vehicle envelope – they remain the only two coaches in the country fully certified to all FMVSS school bus standards. With 30 percent of the nation’s motorcoach trips provided to schoolchildren, these vehicles’ field trip potential (and less-costly, less-luxurious features), combined with other motorcoach uses, have translated into the company’s most often-deployed buses in a fleet otherwise comprised of mostly new MCIs, and mint-condition Crowns. As a result, these coaches yield the fleet’s largest per-vehicle profits.

Pipe Dream or Soothsaying

As it became obvious to many motorcoach manufacturers how easily their coaches could pass most of the critical school bus-required FMVSS tests (the roof deflection from FMVSS #220 was so marginal on the TAM 252 school/activity bus that it was never even repaired before being repainted and placed into service), other manufacturers have increasingly subjected their vehicles to these tests – to find that they often exceeded the requirements, with the exception of some window retention problems contained in FMVSS #220). Otherwise, as noted, the big problem that remains really involves paint color – hardly a design or engineering issue: Both passengers and motorists following or approaching a bus or coach have been conditioned to expect and accommodate crossing in front of school buses (whose stop arms and emergency flashers theoretically stop traffic in both directions, on most types of streets), while to the rear of transit buses (which have neither these accoutrements nor “school bus yellow” paint).

To the degree that this crossing enigma can be overcome – a major focus of the FTA-sponsored study noted above – an expansion of the motorcoach market is almost certain to follow. It is too early to speculate on the eventual inclusion of motorcoaches in home-to-school transportation – perhaps in geographic areas which cannot afford either school bus service, transit service or even their integration. As recently as six months ago, such a development was almost inconceivable. All this changed, however, with Special Report 269, after reams of accident data could not establish that a school bus was any safer than any other type of bus. Admittedly, both the data (and the Report) had their shortcomings. And a more detailed presentation would have explained that different types of buses are safer for different usages: School buses where crossing is involved, and motorcoaches for higher-speed, non-stop-and-go travel with no crossing. Even the National Transportation Safety Board quickly retreated to this position after some misinterpretation over the implications of its interest in exploring the feasibility of requiring motorcoach drivers to obtain school bus certification – a requirement being hotly debated in the State of Illinois.

Safety and Marketing

Apart from the development of specifications for a multi-purpose bus, an important question the FTA project hopes to answer is whether or not anyone will buy it. This question is haunted by the commercial failure of the TAM 252 school bus project, but far more consequently by the disappearance of both Crown and Gillig from the school bus market the very same year. Yet the need for such a vehicle apparently exists, and the FTA and its Transportation Research Board are determined to explore it. To the degree motorcoach operators and manufacturers wish to participate, make a note of this author’s e-mail address.

Can an idea like this be only one genuine safety problem away from reality? In answering this question, one must acknowledge that the crossing enigma is one daunting safety problem – even though most of its current victims are struck by vehicles other than the bus transporting them and, as a result, do not appear in most bus-related accident data bases. Of these victims, schoolchildren seem to be the largest class – on both transit and school bus services. But if this enigma is solved for the transit and school bus modes, the similar involvement of motorcoaches cannot lie far behind. Unfortunately, the degree to which this is true has far more to do with interest and effort than technology.

Beware the Van Winkle Syndrome

A dozen years ago, on the eve of the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act, few members of the public transportation industry would have wagered, at 100-to-1 odds that, by the Year 2003, “high-end,” high-floor transit buses would disappear entirely from the U.S. market. And in 1970, few members of the planet would have taken 100-to-1 odds that bottled water would soon cost more than bottled milk. Worse yet, few 1960-vintage investors would have bet on a 1969 moon landing.

In the World of passenger transportation, a decade can race by in the blink of an eye. And one day, you are simply older. If we make the effort, someone might be saying, ten years from now, “one small step for buses, one giant step for buskind.” I hope we can afford bottled water for the ceremony.

Publications: National Bus Trader.