The Changing Landscape: Trends In Transit Bus Service

By Lisa Jerram, APTA Senior Director of Bus Operations and New Vehicle Technologies

The American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) 2023 Mobility Conference explored the emerging trends in transit bus service that are shaping the future of public transportation. With bus ridership rebounding to 70 percent since 2019, Dorval R. Carter, Jr., APTA Chair and President of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), declared that buses will continue to play a crucial role in providing transportation solutions for two key reasons: flexibility and adaptability.

Two innovations that will drive the U.S. transit bus industry over the coming years are bus electrification and deployment of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) And Successful Implementation

Combining the efficiency of a rail system with the flexibility of buses, BRT is emerging as a cost-effective and sustainable way to provide fast, reliable, and high-capacity transit service. In the most recent Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grants (CIG) Dashboard, 58 percent of the projects listed are BRT projects, both small and large.

At APTA’s Mobility Conference, six BRT and bus priority lane projects from across the U.S. shared their success stories. In Minneapolis, Metro Transit opened its fifth BRT line, the METRO D Line, in late 2022 and has seen corridor ridership increase 50 percent over the prior year with weekend ridership higher than pre-COVID.  In California, LA Metro is partnering with the City of Los Angeles and StreetsLA to install bus priority lanes on high-ridership segments. A 2019 pilot project resulted in bus speed improvements up to 30 percent, improved reliability, and increased ridership during bus lane hours. Likewise, the New York City DOT targeted frequent, high-ridership bus segments for its transit priority projects like the 14th Street Busway, which improved bus travel times by 36 percent and increased ridership by 24 percent.

The agencies also shared the complexity of BRT and bus priority projects and key lessons learned. In Alabama, the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) launched its first BRT line, the Birmingham Xpress, last September. A daunting challenge was bringing together a multifaceted project team, including city government, and managing multiple interlocking infrastructure pieces, from platform connections to bus connections. A major takeaway: simplify where possible. Since this was BJCTA’s first experience deploying BRT, they decided against using center-running stations and electric buses, focusing instead on successful deployment of the initial BRT elements. From there, they could expand on innovative design elements as time and funding permits.

Another key lesson was the need for direct and frequent communication with the public, especially the riders and those who live along the bus corridors who may not be able to participate in the usual public meetings held by agencies. Many agencies described how they went door-to-door in some cases to make sure they were talking to those most impacted by the new service.

Bus Electrification And Sustainable Solutions

One of the most significant trends in transit bus service is the widespread adoption of electric buses, with many agencies now moving from the pilot stage to planning full-scale transitions. The Mobility Conference explored lessons learned from the pilot programs; how to manage energy demands of a large battery bus fleet; how hydrogen fuel cell buses fit into zero emission plans; and how to prepare the maintenance department for the new electrified fleets.

Utility coordination is critical for planning and managing a battery electric fleet, as is getting the right contact at the utility and asking the right questions. APTA and the Edison Electric Institute released a “checklist” for agencies on what agencies should ask and what information they should provide to their utility to kickstart a productive relationship.

Utilities can also become partners in the funding application, developing plan, and in the facility design planning process. Agencies also need to make use of charge management systems to ensure that they right size the charging infrastructure deployed and optimize charging to manage energy costs. In addition, charging infrastructure must be reliable and resilient, and able to operate in a range of weather conditions.

Another option to zero emissions is hydrogen fuel cell buses, which provide longer range and shorter fueling times. A panel of hydrogen suppliers and fuel cell bus manufacturers talked about the fueling options available, which can include distributed hydrogen and can be delivered by trailer and stored in high-pressure tanks onsite, similar to a CNG station. Another option is onsite production using natural gas or electrolyzers. All these options are scalable from a pilot bus stage to full deployment. Given that this transit hydrogen supply chain is still new in the U.S., agencies should begin exploring their options early in the planning process to determine what’s most viable and cost effective.

Finally, the transition to electrified buses — whether battery electric or fuel cell — requires training employees in new technology, maintenance procedures and safety protocols associated with electric buses. APTA’s day-long Maintenance Workshop featured presentations on the basics of battery and fuel cell buses; the safety equipment and protocols required for working with high voltage systems; and how to approach preventive maintenance on these new technology buses.

AC Transit estimates that it will take around 318 hours (about 2 weeks) of Zero Emission Buses (ZEB) specific training for mechanics; they are preparing a full ZEB workforce training program that includes hands-on technical training, while the International Transportation Learning Center and APTA are developing a ZEB Maintenance Training Curriculum Guide that will help agencies create internal programs.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is an international nonprofit of 1,500 public- and private-sector organizations representing an $80 billion industry that employs 450,000 people and supports millions of private sector jobs. APTA members are engaged in bus, paratransit, light rail, commuter rail, subways, waterborne services, and intercity and high-speed passenger rail service. Visit www.apta.com.

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