Special Report: Snapshot of U.S. Bus Fleets

April 21, 2021
Bus ridership is slowly returning, capital budgets are bouncing back, bus enhancement projects are proceeding and the industry continues to work toward a more resilient future.

Transit ridership, which has traditionally been used as a benchmark of success among individual systems, as well as nationally, took a nosedive in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the average drop in ridership in the U.S. was around 73 percent, the fourth quarter of 2020 reflected a steady increase from the rock bottom which appeared in the second quarter of 2020. Based on the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Quarterly Ridership Reports, bus ridership improved around 29 percent between Q2 and Q4 2020, while demand response ridership shows an approximate 51 percent increase between the same quarters.

Mass Transit’s “2021 Mobility Outlook,” a survey of transit agency readers conducted late in 2020, revealed more than 55 percent of respondents expected service levels to return in 2021, but 49 percent expected ridership to return sometime after 2021.

As systems prepare for riders to return, an extra focus is being paid to ensuring employee and rider safety. Increased cleaning efforts continue, and more systems are focused on improving air filtration within vehicles and driver barriers by installing curtains or permanent plexiglass on vehicles..

Bus stops are also seeing their share of investment. For example, Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) installed what it called a first-in-the-nation installation of a SolStop Bench, which provides LANTA riders with comfort and safety in places where space would not permit a more traditional bus shelter. The product includes a two-seat bench, touchless activation of a solar light and permanent schedule signage for routes serving the stop. And the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission’s (RTC) Transit Amenities team took on a bus shelter beautification project in March 2021 where 75 shelters were washed and painted to restore their appearance.

Despite the immediate short-term challenges associated with the pandemic, agencies continue to pursue new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects with Utah Transit Authority’s Odgen BRT project, Minneapolis Metro Transit’s METRO D Line and Birmingham Xpress all starting construction recently. Several new lines started revenue service in the past year, including the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County’s final piece of its Virginia Street Project Bus RAPID Transit Extension, the Capital District Transportation Authority’s Blue Line, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s METRORapid Silver Line, The Rapid’s Laker Line and Omaha Metro’s ORBT.

In addition to new bus projects, current networks are undergoing reassessment. One example is Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Better Bus Program, which is a $2.1-billion, five-year plan created to consolidate all of L.A. Metro’s bus upgrades under one roof. The delivered program will provide additional comfort to riders, faster trips and address racial inequities through additional bus lanes, more reliable real-time information and modernized bus stops, among other improvements.

Vehicle Power Options

Continued move toward alternative propulsion

The transit industry has been unwavering in its commitment to positively impact climate change even during the challenging operating environment of the past year. CALSTART published its “Zeroing in on ZEBs” report in early February, which found the U.S. zero-emission bus (ZEB) market grew by 24 percent in 2020 and the number of transit properties to have ZEBs on order or in service now stands at 229 – an increase of 53 percent over 2019.

“Despite the harmful impacts COVID-19 had on the transit industry last year, the ZEB market grew significantly. ZEB’s are the bright spot in the market, and this increase is reflective of a growing level of confidence in technology, which is an improving business case,” said CALSTART President and CEO John Boesel.

The report found state and federal investments and incentives played a key role in the U.S. bus market’s transition toward zero-emission fleets. In the U.S., the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No-Emission Bus Program has distributed up to $485 million for ZEBs since 2013. Canada’s federal government set a goal to support the purchase of 5,000 zero-emission buses in the next five years and put aside C$2.75 billion (US$2.17 billion) of the country’s C$14.9 billion (US$11.73 billion) in dedicated transit investment to help meet that goal.

While federal, state and provincial financial support can significantly aid the transition goals of a given system, developing better procurement strategies is also an area to improve upon. A paper published by the Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) and the Renewable Hydrogen Fuel Cell Collaborative (RHFCC) in December 2020 looks at ways to reduce costs associated with zero-emission buses.

The paper, "Procurement Strategies for Reducing Capital Costs of Zero-Emission Buses," evaluates the challenges associated with procuring ZEBs and how joint procurement strategies can effectively decrease costs in the North American market.

The authors explain capital costs can pose barriers to commercialization, but understanding the challenges of joint procurements, as well as alternatives to traditional joint procurement, can help drive down costs to speed the transition to zero-emission fleets.

Fleet Age and Facility Investment

Operations, maintenance and administration facilities see big investments

The age of rubber-tired revenue vehicles has been improving steadily. The percentage of active vehicles beyond their useful life as reported by the National Transit Database (NTD) shows improvements in bus, articulated bus, over-the-road bus, van, minivan and trolleybus fleets.

While fleet age is improving and fleets are evolving, agencies are investing in operations, maintenance and administration facilities. Agencies operating rubber-tired modes spent more than $410 million in stations, $164.7 million in administration buildings and $724.5 million on maintenance facilities in 2019 based on NTD information.

One significant project to begin construction in 2020 is the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority’s new operations and maintenance facility. The project was the first to secure a loan through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Rural Project Initiative. The $13-million loan in combination with other funding will deliver a facility that will offer three times the space the authority currently has available. The new facility will also allow for future inclusion of battery electric bus chargers and a solar canopy.

Accessibility remains a focus for agencies, with information found with in the NTD showing 80 percent of rubber-tired vehicles are within ADA compliance and 97.8 percent of non-rail stations are accessible. The 2020 Rural Transit Fact Book reports strong numbers among rural transit providers, with 84 percent of rural transit vehicles ADA accessible.

There is a push to look beyond the accessibility of a vehicle or stop and ensure sidewalks, systems and other infrastructure that supports transit service is accessible to all. For example, in 2017, Houston Metro began implementing a multi-year Universal Accessibility Initiative that optimizes bus routes, upgrades bus stops and associated infrastructure (such as sidewalks and wheelchair ramps) to meet or exceed ADA standards by 2024.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.