Bus Innovations

What is it to be innovative when designing a new transit vehicle? Do you design a new vehicle from scratch? Or do you make changes to your existing product line to take into account new innovations in design?

You can expect the latest models in transit bus design to show up for the bus display at APTA’s Bus & Paratransit Conference. But what exactly is new about these vehicles? How different are they from previous models? And what exactly has been done to make riders more comfortable, because a rider who is comfortable and enjoys their experience is one that will come back for more.

Let There Be Light
The style of a bus is largely dictated by the want of an agency and the needs of its ridership. Still, there are certain factors that seem to be universal across all buses. Two of these factors include noise and lighting. A quieter, brighter bus is more appealing to riders and this can mean making changes to windows.

DaimlerChrysler weighed into this year’s bus market with a complete redesign of its familiar Orion VIII bus. While it has just been on the streets since 2002, five years can be a long time in the transit industry. As part of this streamlining of the Orion VII model, DaimlerChrysler made changes to its windows to enhance their usefulness. The windshield was changed to a two-piece symmetrical design set at a common angle, and the passenger windows were updated with continuous side glass.

New Flyer likewise has added continuous side windows and eliminated visible fasteners in its buses to enhance lighting and reduce interior noise. More windows were the solution for ABC, who added rear windows to its vehicles to increase the lighting and give the vehicle more of an openness feeling.

For North American Bus Industries — now a combination of NABI, Blue Bird and Optima brands — the idea of making its buses lighter and quieter was something that had to be tackled differently for each brand. The Blue Bird buses are outfitted with solid glass windows with optional sliders to present better visibility. Mounting the A/C unit on its roof allowed the Optima Opus bus to include large rear and side windows for greater visibility for its passengers. The Opus also has a one-piece windshield, increasing safety as it accommodates larger wipers, giving more than 25 percent more visibility due to their reach.

El Dorado took a different take with the windows in its buses, looking to block out light by making GL-20 glass standard on all of its buses. GL-20 glass is a tinted glass, which actually absorbs heat by blocking the sun’s energy, making the bus cooler overall. It also reduces reflected glare, so it’s easier for riders to see inside the bus. And due to its ability to block out the sun’s radiation, it protects bus interiors from discoloration and fading.

BRT — Bus “Rail” Transit
Just take a look at the latest round of funding grants from the FTA and you can see that bus rapid transit (BRT) is one of the quickest growing sectors in the transit industry. Due to the affordability of its implementation and the adaptability of its vehicles, BRT is becoming a favored way of enhancing transit systems across the country.

But the latest advances in BRT technology harkens the idea of bus rapid transit back to the days of the rubber-tired trolley with the new BRT vehicles looking more and more like light rail vehicles.

As with the Lane Transit District (LTD) in Mass Transit’s July/August cover story, agencies like LTD in Springfield, Ore., and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority are already putting these cutting-edge vehicles into operation and finding tremendous success with them.

Both New Flyer and NABI are offering the light rail-styled BRT vehicles. The greatest change on these vehicles is the number of doors. These vehicles sport up to five doors, three curbside and two streetside. These extra doors allows riders to board from both the vehicle’s right- and left-side, making entering and exiting the bus much quicker and easier — key elements in a bus rapid transit system.

These BRT buses are available in both 40- and 60-foot models, to allow for more passengers and all feature sleek styling with wheel covers giving that rail “feel” to the vehicle.

Creature Comforts
While bus manufacturers are looking to make their overall package more attractive to riders, what are the component manufacturers doing? What innovations are they making in their own products to make bus riding a more enjoyable experience overall?

American Seating knows that comfort is king. To that end, it conducted research to determine what was important to riders. It found out that comfort is a key factor in ridership and hand-in-hand with comfort is aesthetic appeal. It also concluded that the population is getting larger and growing older as time goes on, so space and accessibility are also factors modern riders look for.

From this research, American Seating developed its InSight seat design. This design includes increased sitting area, legroom and back height. Its slim form increases spaciousness between rows for more accessibility and its composite resin material minimizes passenger injury in a collision.

As far as comfort and accessibility goes, nothing beats the doors on Star Trek — you know, the ones that opened on their own when people came up to them. Door technology has advanced remarkably since the time when drivers had to open the door themselves, but now they are truly space-age. Vapor Bus has introduced a new Vapor CLASS sensing system that actually opens doors for riders when they come near.

The system uses ultrasonic transducers to sense the presence of a person near the door. When a person is in proximity of the door, a signal is sent to the door controls, which opens the doors and keeps them open as long as a presence is sensed. This makes exiting the bus easier and reduces dwell time, improving overall headways.

Operator Improvements
Even more important as a bus innovation than improved rider comfort is improved operator comfort. An operator who is at ease in his position has fewer distractions from the road and makes sure his passengers get to their destinations safely and on time.

For the major bus manufacturers, making bus drivers comfortable is about giving them the space they need to get their job done. Both DaimlerChrysler and New Flyer have increased the driver’s area in recent models. Most have increased the size of their windshields as well to brighten the dash and give the driver more visibility. The dashes have also been updated to move the switches within easier reach of the driver.

One interesting innovation the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has put into practice is a shift lock, which as MTA’s chief operating officer, Bob Baulsir, explains, changes the entire way an operator does his job.

“On transit buses there’s no key,” says Baulsir. “Basically once you are in the driver seat if you turn [the switch] to run and hit the starter it’s going to run.

“Now on every other bus, you get in, you turn it to run, hit the starter it runs, push it into drive and off you go.”

Baulsir explains that the fleet has been installed with a proprietary shift lock key developed in partnership with Gillig, “So you have to have the key in the ignition. [The bus] it will start and it will run, but you can’t move it. It locks out the transmission.”

Putting the bus into gear is a part of a process only the operators will know. “You have to have your foot on the service brake. You have to release the parking brake while your foot is on the service brake. And then you can turn the key to put it into gear so we know you are not going to put it into gear unless you are sitting in the seat, which is really what we’re looking for,” says Baulsir.

This partnership with Gillig created something that Baulsir describes as, “just absolutely unique to our business. I don’t know if anybody else has done this yet. I guess it would have been two to three years ago we went through this with Gillig and designed it. But Gillig designed it and it’s built into the multiplex system because it doesn’t have traditional wiring, it’s all computer logic.

“So we sat with them and said, hey this is what we want to do. And we all sat down with their engineers and this is what we came up with. And I guess the biggest thing was that you had to accomplish all of these things before you can turn the key on or off, which is pretty important, and then that you couldn’t copy the key, because what good would the key be if you could copy it.”

As he explains, “Every driver that gets out of the bus has to take their key with them. That’s our policy. So if you’re driving and you go to the mall — a lot of times they will layover at the mall — and you want to use the restroom, what everybody else has to do is you have to shut your bus off and lock it and you can’t leave it running or anything like that. And then your bus is sitting out there and if someone knows what they are doing, they would turn this switch and start it up. And off they go in your bus.

“On our bus you can’t do that because they have to do the same thing, put it into neutral, foot on the service brake, apply the parking brake and while you’re holding the service brake only then can you turn the key and take it out.

“And once the key is out, you can’t move the bus.

The added security of being able to get off your bus without worrying about someone stealing it and going for a joyride is actually only one benefit of this new system. It also provides extra protection in the bus yard as well.

“The other thing it does, and this is a problem at every transit system, is you cannot park this bus without setting the parking brake. And if you do, you can’t take your key out,” says Baulsir.

“See the big problem with buses is, and every transit system in the country has this problem, as you pull up, you know, you’ve had a long day, you’re just thinking about going home. You pull up on the lot, shut the bus off and you never set the parking brake. And then the bus is just sitting there.

“And what usually happens is a lot of times you park buses back to back, and the bus behind it will pull up and just touch it a little or something, and off the bus goes rolling across the lot with nobody in it.”

Without the key in their hand, the operator can’t leave the bus, and without the parking brake locked, the operator can’t take out the key. This locks down the buses good and tight in the lot and whenever the drivers aren’t on them, something Baulsir can’t help but marvel at.

“It’s amazing that it does both of those things,” he says.

“So we can get out of the bus, leave it running — in the summer here it’s pretty warm. That’s probably an understatement. It’s not unusual for us to be up in the 100 degree weather.

“We leave the bus run, leave the air conditioner on and take the key out. You can’t move it. So we can let the passengers sit on the bus while the driver goes and uses the restroom or whatever the case may be.

“And nobody can move the bus, plus if you’re not trained, you don’t have one of our keys. And you can’t copy the key. All of the keys are numbered,” Baulsir says.

And for the last two years this innovation has worked for MTA without a hitch. So much so, that it has retrofitted its entire fleet with it now.
“You can’t even start the vans [without it], but you can get on our fixed-route buses, start them and run the A/C and all that stuff, but if you don’t have the key, you’re not going anywhere,” Baulsir says with a smile.

Mechanical Improvements
When you’re riding a bus, you can see the driver, but it’s easy to forget all of the people working for the agency whose job it is to make that bus go. These are the people who spend their days repairing and maintaining the fleet so its riders can get comfortable buses that run on-time. What innovations have been made to make their jobs easier?

For El Dorado this meant addressing the problem of corrosion on its buses. It changed all of their door frames to stainless steel and made Tectyl 121 the standard for their underbody coating. Tectyl 121 is a black-colored, wax and bitumen-based substance, which gives the underbody an abrasion-resilient film increasing its protection against corrosion.

New Flyer, NABI and DaimlerChrysler all sought to make the maintenance job easier on their buses by making it easier to get at essential components. New Flyer moved these components above the floor on its new low-floor buses. NABI moved the main electrical panel containing the main bus controller inside the bus to the backside of the driver’s barrier/radio compartment. It felt that beyond easier access for technicians, this new location also kept the vital electrical components in a cleaner environment. The redesign on the DaimlerChrysler Orion VII bus included a widened engine door with new gas springs. The rear lamp panels were also redesigned with hidden hinges that allow them to swing open or be removed entirely, giving greater access to the engine compartment.

EMP has come up with an innovation that makes keeping a bus cool that much easier. Its “miniHybrid” retrofit replaces hydraulically driven fans and pumps with an electronically controlled thermal system. This interesting device consists of electric fans, an optimized radiator and CAC, fan controllers, jacket water and charge air temperature sensors and a 400-amp alternator. The system can improve fuel economy by 25 percent and the fans can be reversed, cleaning debris from the radiator.

Buses, like all of transit, are continually being updated, redesigned and improved. Staying on top of what you can add to your transit fleet just may give you the advantage you need to keep your riders happy and your costs down — a winning combination!