Saturday, June 26, 2010

Getting Bus Size Right

Small buses could have a big impact on efficiency
Source: Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board

I encourage people to ride transit, but transit needs to do more to green itself and to operate more efficiently, comfortably and conveniently.

In places with low population density, like suburbia, there are often bus routes with infrequent service and many empty seats. But what if the bus were smaller on these routes?

If the bus were smaller, it would likely have better fuel economy, saving the transit agency money and reducing pollution, without causing crowding (because of the low ridership). These savings could be taken to pay for more frequent service, thus reducing to some extent the main thing that holds suburban transit back: having to wait forever between buses.

I'm speaking at a really general level here of course. I don't know how much money could be saved by doing this, and it would involve one-time capital costs (buying smaller buses).

However, it seems worth looking into. Transit agencies have very limited resources, and they need to root out waste wherever possible if they hope to offer service that can attract new riders. Small buses on routes with low ridership could be a powerful tool to free up resources for more convenient service, and to bolster the green credentials of transit.


  1. Many community members out here have been pushing RTA to reduce their bus sizes on lower-demand routes, but most of the responses I've gotten from RTA have basically said that small buses do very little. Even though they have a (comparatively) large fleet of vans and trolleys, the primary driver in operations costs is nothing related to the bus itself- it's the driver. Wages and benefits are the biggest share of the cost of running a bus. Especially with an agency that runs on CNG, which costs a fraction of the price of diesel or gasoline right now- in fact, since smaller vans often run on gasoline, they may be pricier to run than big CNG buses.

    Furthermore, and I found this one out during our negotiations for night service, RTA's union contract actually mandates a 40-foot bus. Why this is, we don't know, but RTA can't run anything smaller than a 40-footer on local routes, or they'll break their union contracts.

  2. Well, it seems as if the primary benefit would be environmental then, in the cases where it is allowed.

    I'd still argue for studying it. It may not produce huge savings, but any money saved could be helpful.

  3. Adding to the above: assuming the buses run on the same fuel.

  4. Actually, I don't think that labor costs are that big of a factor. According to someone who actually works in the planning office of my local transit agency, standard-sized buses costs &70.000 an hour to run while a large van costs $40.000.

    Also, the unions have essentially been broken in many metro areas, although they still get blamed when the transit agency doesn't want to do what the public wants them to do.