The answer is “yes and no.” Different size buses serve different purposes, just as minivans and sedans are not interchangeable. Here’s a rundown of the buses in Community Transit’s fleet:
40-footers: The bulk of our fleet seats 39 and has two doors for faster boarding. Some of these buses are configured for the longer trips of commuter routes to King County, with more comfortable seats and other amenities. Our newest 40-footers were purchased in 2008. Our oldest are 1995 models (we extended the usual life on these to save money for service last year). We have a total of 116.
60-foot articulated buses: These buses seat 60 people, including seats in the “bendy” part that people either love or hate. Almost all “artics” are dedicated to commuter service to King County, though some local trips on Highway 99 have so many riders that we have operated “artics” there at times. We have 111 in our fleet.
62-foot Swift buses: These buses were custom-designed to suit Community Transit’s bus rapid transit service. There’s a third door and wider aisles for faster boarding, leaving lroom for 43 seats and more and overall capacity of 80. Swift buses are the first hybrids in Community Transit’s fleet. That decision was made after a cost analysis showed that the extra cost of the diesel-electric hybrid would be balanced out over time by the lower cost of operation in the stop-and-go environment of Highway 99 service. We have 15.
Coming soon: Double Talls will start going into service this fall as the newest addition to our fleet. They will replace older articulated buses with 42-foot double decker buses that provide more seating per bus (73 people). We’ll have 23 by the end of the year.
People often ask, “Why don’t you use smaller buses and save money?” One answer is that smaller buses don’t save money in our system. First and foremost, labor is one of our largest costs, and the same skills and training are needed to drive a 30-footer as a 40 or 60-footer. The smaller engines of even smaller vehicles tend to wear out under the heavy wear of transit use – our buses average more than 50,000 miles a year each.
A recent review of Community Transit maintenance and fuel costs over the past nine years showed that while 30-footers cost slightly less in fuel (2 cents less per mile than a 40-footer), they cost 7 to 10 cents more per mile in maintenance than the 40-foot buses. Articulated buses tend to have the highest cost of operation per mile (though also the most boardings). That’s one reason we’ll be replacing our oldest articulated buses with more efficient Double Talls in the coming year.
The bottom line is that putting the right bus on the road is both an art and a science. Within a bus route that operates throughout the day, there are some trips that are more crowded than others, and some sections of the route where the bus is full while others where it looks temporarily empty.
We are constantly evaluating the costs of our current bus fleet and planning for the fleet of the future, one that will best carry our riders while getting the most value for taxpayer dollars. For an international perspective on public transportation, check the World Bank's take on bus size options here.