Transit Buses 101: Who Makes 'Em?

Metro Transit New Hybrid Bus at Living Green Expo 2009 2
Gillig BRT transit bus for the Twin Cities' Metro Transit. Photo by Randy Stern

We often take buses for granted.

When we commute, we don't care what we get onto to get us to our destination. We hop on, find a seat, plug into some device and hope nothing crazy happens next to us. If we have to stand, we hope that we are equally safe and secure.

But, all this business of homeland security and economic insecurity creates a wedge in our own psyche. We take the bus so we can leave the car behind, so we can save money without feeding the petrol pump. Yet, we do not want to be presented with a class war inside of a conveyance we are paying for through our property and incomes taxes. We might not be vocal about these wedges, but they are indeed present deep inside our minds.

Yet, we have to live with the decisions we make to get us to work on time comfortably and safely. If we chose public transport based on a decision dictated by our pocketbook, we are doing our part to cut emissions and reinvesting in our transportation infrastructure. Our decision to ride transit has a positive adding to a trend towards growth in bus, rail and commuter ferry ridership.

Have you ever thought about the exact vehicle you are riding in? Why is it so large? Why do some operate on natural gas, while other just drink diesel? How does the hybrid system work on a city bus? It is indeed rare that an actual rider becomes curious and interested in the conveyances they patronize every weekday.

Today's city buses average about 40 feet in length, seats 50 or so and is equipped to meet the American with Disabilities Act (or equivalent laws in their corresponding countries). What we may or may not know is who makes the buses we ride from home to work and back. As a service of V&R, here is a guide to each manufacturer of your city bus. You may be a bit surprised who are the actual players in the North American transit bus business…

BEFORE 1975: There were two players in the transit bus game in the USA. One was General Motors' GMC Truck and Bus Division. They built the iconic New Look bus with the "fishbowl" windshield. Since 1959, they changed the transit business in one fell swoop. By 1975, GMC changed public transport again with the introduction of the space-frame RTS transit bus. Aerodynamic and modular in design, the RTS shaped city streets with innovation never seen on any transit bus anywhere in the world. GMC was joined by Ohio-based Flxible, then controlled by Grumman. Flxible built their own version of the New Look bus with a bit more squared off design than the GMC. Flxible also created their own modular modern bus in the 870 – again squared off in design and imposing on the street. 870s had frame issues by the end of the 1970s that needed to be mended. They enjoyed a life well into the 1980s.GMC and Flxible were soon joined by American Motors-controlled AM General and the USA units of Germany's Neoplan and M-A-N in the growing transit bus field. By the 1990s, the game changed again. Hence giving us, these current manufacturers…

GILLIG: The Hayward, California based transit bus maker began in 1890 as carriage builder. Its primary business until 1977 was building school buses. That was when they were on the verge of constructing one of the most popular and utilitarian transit buses in modern history: The Phantom. Every city across the USA has had a high-floor Phantom in their transit fleet. They were simple to build and offered primary comfort for patrons along their journey. Many cities continue to operate the Phantom, even though Gillig has moved on to their Low Floor and BRT lines. Both lines are gaining in stature thanks to a simple layout and a bit more design flair than the iconic Phantom.

NEW FLYER: The Winnipeg-based bus company has been on the forefront of transit bus design and engineering for the past several decades. In fact, they're the first to build a low-floor transit bus in North America, something of a necessity these days in light of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's predecessor built buses designed by Flxible and AM General for the Canadian market. Today's buses are of it’s own design. Today's LFR and Xcelsior buses are amongst the leaders on the road, including a high volume of articulated ("bendy") buses throughout North America.

NABI (NORTH AMERICAN BUS INDUSTRIES): If one is looking for the most distinctive buses on the street, they would look no further than North American Bus Industries. Any trip to Los Angeles will yield a greater view of what the Alabama-based company offers to transit operators. Currently, NABI builds two of the leading bus designs in the business: the Metro and the BRT. Both buses are a part of L.A.'s streetscape these days. Since L.A. is all about style, NABI stretched the idea of the transit bus to new levels of design and functionality. It is worth noting that Cerberus Capital Management – the former owner of Chrysler – currently owns NABI.

NOVA BUS: GM ended up divesting their successful transit bus operation to a series of smaller companies dotted around North America. GM's legacy continues with a Quebec-based bus company, currently North America's foothold for Volvo’s successful worldwide transit conveyance business. Nova’s buses are mainly sold in the province of Quebec, but you can some of their buses on the streets of Chicago as operated by the Chicago Transit Authority. The LFS and LFX are the only products on the Nova Bus catalog – both serving their customers dutifully.

ORION: Volvo's main competitor, Daimler AG, also has a foot in North America's transit bus business. Canadian bus company, Orion, has been on the leading edge of construction and technology in this segment. Orion’s business in North America is normally in Canada and throughout the northeastern USA, so you rarely see an Orion bus on the road. Compared to products built by NABI, Nova, Gillig and New Flyer, Orion's buses may seem a bit utilitarian and mundane. However, the revisions on the Orion VII with its flush headlamps make these solid machines attractive again.

MOTOR COACH INDUSTRIES: A growing part of the transit bus mix has been the use of intercity-style coaches for long distance commutes. The leading supplier of these longer distance commuter coaches is MCI, now called Motor Coach Industries. The D40 and D45 motorcoaches are perfect for express services from outer ring suburbs and the exurbs into the downtown core. Their imposing size alone leads to absolute comfort inside. If you need to commute about an hour out for work, you can relax in their seats and watch the traffic stay still. Based near Chicago, coaches are built in North Dakota for a variety of customers – Metro Transit, SouthWest Metro Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Council included.

You see, there are stories behind these transit buses. Think about it when you end up behind one – or, on one. You might appreciate there are distinctive ones out on the road that offer the same amount of loyalty from their operators. Well…at least…

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