Special Report: U.S. Bus Fleets

April 19, 2022
What data is telling us about the trends impacting the bus market and the state of U.S. fleets.

Having entered the third year living with the COVID-19 pandemic, the transit industry has shifted its focus to providing services in communities based on changed mobility patterns. The American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Ridership Trends platform shows average weekly ridership nationwide for the first 13 weeks of 2022 is 107.4 million riders versus an average of 66.8 million riders in the first 13 weeks of 2021 – more than a 60 percent increase. While riders are returning to systems across the U.S., overall ridership remains reduced compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers.

Reduced ridership was cited as an ongoing challenge by transit agency respondents to Mass Transit’s “2022 Mobility Outlook,” a survey of readers conducted in late 2021 and early 2022. However, a very close second was recruitment challenges.

In a policy brief published in March, APTA found 92 percent of surveyed transit agencies stated they had difficulty hiring new employees with respondents saying bus operations positions were the most difficult to fill. Additionally, 66 percent of respondents said they had difficulty retaining employees.

Mass Transit addressed the industry’s labor issues in a recent article that explored how the pandemic exacerbated this challenge that had been developing prior to the health crisis. Employee data collected in the National Transit Database (NTD) shows overall employee numbers fell about two percent between 2019 and 2020, but when the data is isolated to vehicle operation employees, the count dropped 3.5 percent.

Despite ongoing ridership and labor challenges, the transit industry – particularly the bus segment - has several bright spots. The impact of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and its potential to speed the industry’s transition to lower-emission and zero-emission fleets, reduce State of Good Repair backlogs and promote transit as a transport mode worthy of federal investment cannot be overstated.

On April 1, one of San Francisco’s most anticipated transit projects began service with the opening of bus rapid transit (BRT) on Van Ness Ave. The project is the city’s first BRT and it is expected to deliver travel times that are 32 percent faster for San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Golden Gate Transit customers.

In addition to the Van Ness BRT service, there are eight more bus rapid transit projects expected to open in 2022 including Milwaukee County Transit System’s East West BRT; TriMet’s Division Transit Project; Metro Transit D Line in Minneapolis and Birmingham Xpress BRT, which the Alabama city hopes to have in service prior to the World Games 2022 commencing in the city in July.

BRT projects to begin construction since the summer of 2021 include Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation’s 15.2-mile Purple Line BRT; Clark County Public Transportation Benefit Area’s 10-mile Mill Plain BRT; and Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works’ 20-mile South Corridor Rapid Transit Project, which is one of six rapid transit corridors being built in the county.

Fleet Age Varies

Fleet renewal, replacement and expansion see boosted investment

The age of certain types of rubber-tired revenue vehicles has been improving steadily over the past few years. The percentage of active vehicles beyond their useful life as reported in the NTD shows buses, articulated buses, double-decker buses and over-the-road buses staying steady or with slight improvements, while trolleybuses saw significant improvements. Smaller transit vehicles such as vans, cutaways, automobiles, minivans and sports utility vehicles saw an increase in the percentage of active vehicles that met or exceeded useful life.

Mass Transit’s “2022 Mobility Report” found 36 percent of respondents reported their agency’s bus fleet was in immediate need for investment to comply with State of Good Repair, followed by 14 percent who reported maintenance facilities and 13 percent who reported stations/stops.

In early March, the Federal Transit Administration opened its first competitive grant opportunity under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law with the availability of a combined $1.5 billion through the Low or No Emission (Low-No) Grant Program and the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program. The Low-No Grant Program will have $1.1 billion available to help transit agencies purchase or lease low- or no-emission vehicles that are built in the United States. The Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program has $372 million available to help agencies purchase and rehabilitate buses, vans and other related equipment and build bus facilities.

Vehicle Energy Options

Pushing toward zero-emission fleets

The transit industry continues its efforts to transition to zero-emission fleets. The most recent edition of CALSTART’s annual “Zeroing in on ZEBs” report, found the count of full-size zero-emission buses (ZEB) in the U.S. grew by 27 percent in 2021 versus 2020. The report says the U.S. currently has 3,533 ZEBs deployed while Canada has 606, which includes 307 delivered in the past year.

“Early adopters such as large transit agencies in California, New York, Florida, Kentucky and Oregon continue to lead, but still are not at scale,” said Jared Schnader, director of Bus Programs at CALSTART. “Smaller transit agencies and regions that are not familiar with zero-emission technologies need additional resources and effort to begin their transition.”

In updated data released in early March, CALSTART notes global ZEB transit bus models available are expected to reach 262 by the end of 2022, which is a six percent increase versus 2020. However, most of those available models will be in the Chinese market.

CALSTART also points to the increase in range of ZEBs as a bright spot. CALSTART’s analysis of data from vehicle manufacturers shows approximately half of ZEBs available in 2022 have a range between 218km/135.5 miles and 388km/241.2 miles.

In January 2022, Antelope Valley Transit Authority’s (AVTA) electric fleet reached seven million miles driven and in March, the authority celebrated its achievement of becoming the first U.S. agency to fully transition to a zero-emissions fleet.

Agencies to welcome their first zero-emission vehicles recently include Omaha Metro Transit, Akron Metro Regional Transit Authority, OC Transpo in Ottawa, Ontario, and the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

On the hydrogen fuel cell front, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District became the first transit provider to commercially deploy 60-foot articulated hydrogen fuel cell electric buses, as well as launched its 100-percent renewable hydrogen production station. SunLine Transit Agency welcomed five hydrogen fuel cell buses last fall and celebrated the installation of a new liquid hydrogen pump to fuel those buses in January.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Editor in Chief

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the magazine’s editorial direction 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.