Are electric school buses the future of school transportation?

Five students from a local high school appealed to the school board to switch over to electric school buses:

Photo by Wesner Rodrigues on

Five students from a Peace and Conflict Studies class at Naperville Central High School researched electric buses from various angles. They told the school board about the potential health benefits, the grants available to mitigate the costs, and the long-term financial benefits. They also provided examples of surrounding districts currently investing in electric buses.

“Through conversations with experts and subsequent research, it is evident that electric buses are vital to our future,” student Emma Orend said. “We must implement them into our school district’s transportation fleet to benefit both the environment and ourselves.”

While school board members and Superintendent Dan Bridges didn’t respond to the students during Monday’s meeting, the issue arose on March 21 when the board approved the purchase of 17 diesel-powered buses at a cost of $1.8 million. Board members Donna Wandke and Joe Kozminski voted no, with Wandke expressing frustration at the lack of urgency in shifting to electric buses.

District Chief Financial Officer Michael Frances said a shift was difficult because the district didn’t qualify for grants that would make the transition affordable. The standard 71-passenger diesel-powered buses purchased by the district cost $108,497, but the electric equivalent costs anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000.

I had to post about this after writing several days ago about how school buses have not changed in decades. I could imagine several possible scenarios given this possibility of electric buses:

-A few influential districts in each region are the early adopters, other surrounding districts are interested observers, and when the electric buses work out, they gain market share.

-Districts wait to see if there is more money available – grants, other sources – before spending a lot more upfront for electric buses.

-Certain districts might experience more pressure from students, parents, members of the community, and board members to purchase electric buses as part of broader efforts to be more environmentally sustainable.

-The electric buses might not run on diesel but they might look very similar on the exterior and interior. Absent the black smoke, will they present a better experience for riders?

The interior of American school buses have not changed significantly in 30+ years

My heyday of riding a school bus started over three decades ago and lasted for about 9 years. I do not remember many specific moments from those rides, usually short ones in a suburban setting, but I could easily describe the interior of the bus. Steep steps up. A domed ceiling. Lots of brown or green rows on metal frames. Metal windows that fogged up often and required pinch tabs at the top to slide down. A long and narrow aisle. A wide rear-view mirror for the driver to watch the back of the bus. A particular smell.

Photo by cottonbro on

This interior has not changed for decades. As an adult, I have been on a school bus a few times in recent years and it looked almost exactly the same. It felt very familiar very quickly.

Why haven’t buses changed in decades? A few possible reasons:

-They require a significant monetary investment so they continue because they cost a lot to replace.

-It works as a long box on wheels. Why make changes to what “works”?

-There are few innovators in this space. What would be a game-changer in the school bus industry? Increased efficiency? More safety features? A significantly lower cost?

-People want future generations to have the same bus experiences they had as kids? (On the opposite end of speculation, do experiences on school buses while kids discourage American adults from choosing buses?)

Perhaps like the vehicles of the United States Post Office, school buses are destined to live forever.

Arguments for and against bus rapid transit in Nashville

Here is an overview of arguments for and against plans to introduce mass transit in the form of rapid bus service to Nashville:

The Amp, a referential name in Music City, is the $174 million bus-rapid transit project proposed to link the western stretches of the city to East Nashville over a 7.1-mile span. It’s the first in-earnest attempt at reliable mass transit in Tennessee, and it has been pitched as a way to keep pace with peer cities like Austin and Charlotte. Nashville is poised to add a million more residents in the next two decades, further snarling already-jammed travels along the busiest corridors. The hope is that the Amp, running in a bus-only lane and with priority at traffic signals, will, over time, help unclog commutes and improve quality of life…

Detractors include residents from North Nashville, a mostly lower-income African-American neighborhood, who feel like they’re being left out and would prefer to see increased regular bus service in their community. (One state representative even threatened to sue city officials if North Nashville is not more integral to the project.) Fiscal conservatives, of which Nashville has plenty, say the project is an example of government largess. And then there are the residents in and around the mayor’s neighborhood, whose traffic and parking concerns have been rolled into an increasingly fraught class war.

Back when public debate over the BRT first started heating up in fall of 2012, a West End resident actually told a transit planner at a public hearing that “we don’t want the riffraff from East Nashville in our neighborhood.” Another homeowner said an influx of “burger-flippers” into the western precincts was a worry, prompting one East Nashville merchant to propose a T-shirt idea: “Burger flippers for the Amp.”…

Malcolm Getz, an economist at Vanderbilt University and a lightning rod of the opposition, has tried to make the case that the Amp’s route, which starts in a gentrified East Nashville neighborhood, crossing the Cumberland River before coursing its way up the densely developed West End Avenue, was chosen to benefit landowners, who are banking on increased land values and more development.

But Jason Holleman, a city councilman who supports public transportation but whose western district includes some of the loudest naysayers, counters that in reality, the route was chosen to serve areas with the highest commercial density, including the city’s two largest employers, HCA and Vanderbilt University…

Opinion polls on the Amp have offered mixed results. One survey, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant aimed at boosting transit support, found that around 77 percent supported the Amp after surveying 500 registered voters. In another survey conducted by the Nashville Business Journal in which 2,200 participated, the results yielded an almost 50-50 split. Anecdotally, support appears to be tied to where residents reside, with the East-West divide coming up again and again.

Common themes that come up with major projects: who exactly is the mass transit going to serve? Do the costs lead to increased business and revenues down the road? Who benefits from all of this? Aren’t buses for lower-class residents? It is interesting that Nashville feels like it should catch up with other cities it competes with; bus rapid transit as an exciting amenity for visitors and tourists! And, as is noted in the final paragraph, a single bus corridor may not be able to do much for a big city built around cars but it could be part of a larger package that eventually effectively utilizes mass transit (though this may be a long time off).

All of this reminds me that it is often easier to have mass transit or major infrastructure from the past to add to rather than trying to create something new in today’s world where there are so many competing interests and costs seem so high. Of course, older projects had their own problems. For example, a lot of major post-World War II projects involved more liberal use of slum clearance with little regard to the people who lived there. (I’m thinking of the construction of interstates through Chicago as well as the University of Illinois-Chicago campus.)

Photographing the class divide on LA mass transit

A photographer considers what is revealed at the bus stops of Los Angeles buses during late night hours:

J. Wesley Brown’s vivid nighttime portraits of bus riders are a refreshing look at a rarely seen side of Los Angeles. The city’s freeway interchanges are iconic, but for many Angelinos, these bus stop dwellers represent an even more authentic feeling of home.

Brown, 34, spent two and a half years roaming the city to shoot Riders, a series of fascinating portraits of ordinary people doing ordinary things. That might seem like a mundane topic, but Riders offers a commentary on the societal strata of Los Angeles.

“Riding a bus in L.A. is the most outwardly visible sign of class divide,” says Brown.

In shooting Riders, Brown found the movie posters in bus stop advertising sometimes offered a commentary on the scenes framed by the bus shelters. And his exploration of the city noted that poorer neighborhoods that don’t attract advertising dollars often don’t have bus shelters at all.

Los Angeles is known for its cars, highways, and driving. Yet, owning a vehicle is expensive and mass transit is a necessary part of life for those with fewer resources. The current LA Metro might not be as expansive as the once-extensive streetcar systems but a major city today can’t function well or serve its full population without at least some mass transit.

It sounds like the pictures also highlight one of the odd features of car ownership in the United States: outside of a few places, like Manhattan, many Americans would choose to purchase a car when they have the economic means. Whether this is because a car offers more independence or is a symbol of having reached a certain social status or mass transit is viewed as more lower class or a combination of these, attaining car ownership is an important part of American life.

Children and mass transit

As a new father who uses public transportation almost exclusively, two recent items re: public transportation and children caught my eye. First, a Rockville, MD “Principal Calls CPS After Mom Lets Daughter, 10, Ride City Bus to School” [h/t Adam Holland]

It had been brought to her attention, the principal said, by some “concerned parents,” that my daughter had been riding the city bus to and from school. I said, yes, we had just moved outside of the neighborhood, and felt that this was the most convenient way for our 5th grader to get there and back. The principal asked was I not concerned for her safety? “Safety from what?” I inquired. “Kidnapping,” she said reluctantly. I said that I would not bore her by talking statistics that, being in the business of taking care of young children, she surely knew better than I did….

It was raining hard the next day so I offered to drive L. [my daughter] to the bus stop. I thought she’d want to wait in the car with me, but she said, “It’s okay mom, you go work. I want to say hi to my friends.” “Your friends?” “Well, they are not my kid friends. They are just, you know, my people friends.” There was the Chinese lady, the lady with the baby who cried a lot (but it’s not his fault, he can’t help it), and the grandma who always got on at the next stop. In a few short weeks, my daughter had surrounded herself with a community of people who recognized her, who were happy to see her, and who surely would step in if someone tried to hurt her.

My son is only five months old–years away from travelling solo. But I can attest that a community springs up around him whenever I take him on a bus or train. Our fellow riders are generally friendly when he is happy and understanding when he is not.  Either way, they definitely notice him, and I have little doubt that they would step in if something were wrong.

Moreover, even at his young age, my son seems to enjoy making friends through these public interactions, often going out of his way to stare at someone seated nearby until he catches their eye and can start smiling and babbling at them. As Carla Saulter explains in a second post, “Why Public Transportation Is Good for Kids“:

It’s become part of the collective American belief system that cars are the preferred (if not the only acceptable) mode of transportation for our children. Cars are now viewed as an essential tool of good middle-class parenting — both as a means of keeping our children safe from the evils of the outside world and of providing convenient access to the myriad destinations to which we are required to deliver them….

As they grow up riding buses and trains, kids master the skills required to get around. They start small, like my daughter, who recently began carrying her own bag (a pink backpack with a train, per her request) and move on to stop recognition, schedule reading, and trip planning. Long before their peers are old enough to drive, junior transit riders have the skills to ride solo. The confidence that comes from these abilities will help them when they face problems mom and dad can’t help with.

And speaking of facing things … Kids who spend most of their time in controlled spaces — from home to car to school/mall/lesson/play date — have very limited contact with the people they share the world with. Kids who ride transit, on the other hand, have plenty of opportunity to interact with their fellow humans. They learn to accept differences, interact politely with strangers, and set and respect boundaries.

Riding mass transit can be inconvenient, and it certainly isn’t a parenting panacea. However, it can also be a safe, wonderful option for exposing children to other people and the wider world.

I think my son and I will be riding the bus for years to come.

Can buses attract wealthier, more educated residents?

Amanda Hess discusses ways in which bus lines could attract wealthier, more educated riders:

Can a city build a less stigmatized bus? After all, the racial and class bias attached to city buses has little to do with the vehicle itself and everything to do with the riders on it. Garrett and Taylor note that though “bus ridership declines with rising income, the use of streetcars, subways, and commuter railroads tends to increase with higher income.” As the blog Seattlest put it in 2006: “If the actual goal is to get people out of their cars and onto transit by choice, no one’s going to give up the hybrid for a damn bus.” But it was not always this way. When public buses were first introduced in Washington, D.C. in the early 1900s, many riders viewed them as a more comfortable, “modern” alternative to the existing streetcar system. By the 1960s, the city’s streetcar lines were abandoned and dismantled. In 2009, D.C. began laying track for a new line of (exorbitantly expensive) streetcars, including along some “blighted” corridors of the city, all of them already served by city buses. The plan was targeted less at getting commuters where they needed to go and more at coaxing them to move in this “new,” exciting way—maybe even to parts of town they previously avoided.

Choice commuters want a transit solution that seems modern, even if it’s actually old school. Really, they want a transportation choice that feels made for people just like them. And there’s no reason—as Salon’s Will Doig has argued—that buses can’t achieve a similar reversal as the revitalized streetcar. In major cities from Colombia to China, Doig says, the bus has risen to become “a form of what people see as upper-class transit.” In Mexico City, “the [Bus Rapid Transit] system has come to be seen as the upper-class form of transit because it’s perceived as safer and cleaner” than the subway. As Doig notes, making buses that beat the subway often means making them act more like trains—streamlining routes and limiting stops; making bus and train routes appear more equivalent on transit maps; renaming bus lines after colors instead of numbers; cordoning off dedicated bus lanes to avoid traffic congestion.

While some of these improvements are practical, overcoming the stigma is also a matter of gimmickry that doesn’t help anyone get to work any faster. In the United States, the DOT has noted that bus rapid transit systems can benefit from “an articulated brand identity” that helps improve “the image that choice riders have of transit.” Newer bus lines targeted at choice commuters are often painted in bright, contrasting colors with the city’s existing buses. These new bells and whistles don’t come cheap, and discretionary commuters aren’t eager to finance the cost—remember, they don’t have to be there. Meanwhile, existing bus commuters are left with no choice but to accept fare increases, even if their buses aren’t getting any better—actually, even if they’re getting worse.

What is the point of public transportation? Is it a social service to help those most in need? Or is it an environmental initiative to get drivers out of their cars? And can it ever be both? “Unlike any other public transit around town,” reads the advertising copy for the DC Circulator, a fleet of cherry-red buses that run on five limited routes, arrive every ten minutes, cost a buck a ride, and have successfully courted the most elusive bus demographic—60 percent of Circulator riders hold college or graduate degrees, and 18 percent bring in over $80,000 a year. But it appears to have attracted these new riders without losing sight of the city’s captive riders. Thirty-four percent of Circulator riders are black, and 44 percent make under $40,000 a year. After several years of operation, the Circulator finally cut some lines around the Smithsonian and Convention Center and expanded its service to some predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. A train could not be so easily diverted.

Interesting discussion. It reminds me of some of the efforts to introduce buses into the Chicago suburbs through PACE and other organizations since at least the early 1970s. Even when introduced to heavily trafficked routes, such as shuttling commuters from train stations to other parking areas or large workplaces, the buses have had difficulty attracting riders. I suspect even when the buses are free and ultra convenient, suburbanites would tend to turn them down. Why? Two reasons, one of which Hess discusses. First, there is some sort of stigma attached to buses. Second, certain people would rather (and can) pay more for the freedom and alleged convenience that driving offers. Of course, these two issues can be intertwined. But I think this is tied to the American love of the automobile and the cultural emphasis we place on not being tied down by transportation options that seem more out of our individual control.

I do wonder where a public discussion of mass transit as a social service would go…

Patents, infrastructure, and payouts

Joe Mullin at Ars Technica reports on a disturbing new trend, public sector patent-trolling:

Patent holders will file a lawsuit about anything under the sun these days, but a man named Martin Jones has embraced an alarming new strategy—suing cash-strapped American cities over their bus-tracking systems.

The most recent suit was filed last week, claiming that Portland’s TransitTracker system infringes a patent owned by ArrivalStar, the patent-holding company that enforces Jones’ patents. Two more, filed in February, claim that transit systems in Cleveland, Ohio and Monterey, California infringe three ArrivalStar patents.

While it appears that ArrivalStar may have a profitable run with this strategy, I have to believe that such suits will inevitably backfire.  Patent trolling is already a big problem that is getting increasing scrutiny, and going after local political entities like cities and transit authorities is only going to increase the amount of unfavorable scrutiny.