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Welcome to the 21st Century, NYC buses

by Benjamin Kabak

No, that’s not a Wachovia ad; it’s a hyrbrid bus. (Photo by Librado Romero/The New York Times)

The New York City buses are the under-appreciated and oft-maligned part of the City’s vibrant public transportation network. Some people swear by the bus system, especially those that run crosstown, while others bemoan the slower-than-walking speeds and unreliable service as evils of the bus system. Still others would like to see the MTA be more aggressive with the buses by working with the Department of Transportation to set up dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes.

Love ’em or hate ’em, buses serve as a great complement to the subway system, and this morning, I’ve got two bus stories for you. Both of them involve technological upgrades to the bus system. We start with state-of-the-art hybrid automobile technology.

Yesterday, William Neuman wrote about the new hybrid buses the MTA is testing. While the city already has hybrid buses — 600 hybrids out of a fleet of 4400 — that run, as hybrid cars do, with a mix of battery and diesel power. The new bus, a product of Design Line International, looks different than any current New York City bus and runs on 100 percent battery power. Take it away, Cityroom:

The test bus is different in that it runs on battery power all the time. It has a diesel engine, but that is used only to charge the battery, although the bus also uses the brakes for that purpose. The diesel engine is different too. It is a turbine engine.

Jerry Higgins, the director of new bus technology for New York City Transit, said the manufacturer predicts the bus will get about seven miles per gallon, which is about double the fuel efficiency of the transportation authority’s current hybrid bus fleet.

Wow. I had no idea that hybrid buses got just 3.5 miles per gallon. I can only wonder what the 3800 non-hybrid buses are doing to our air, and I have to believe that those empty buses running late at night aren’t doing the environment any favors. For that reason alone, I’m in favor of a more fuel efficient bus, but this bus may just be a one-time test. According to the MTA, they will test this bus in various boroughs for two months before deciding whether or not to place an order.

Meanwhile, as the MTA looks into technology that would improve our environment, they’re also gearing up to implement bus signs telling riders just how many more minutes they’ll have to wait for the next bus. While other countries have enjoyed this technology for years, the MTA hasn’t figured out how to implement GPS bus tracking yet. A recent report on WNYC talks about the ways in which the MTA is using GPS technology to keep bus schedule regular and let riders know how long they’ll have to wait.

Beth Fertig, at our excellent public radio station, reports:

So far, only 7 bus routes are taking part in the 7 million dollar pilot study – all in midtown and the Upper East Side. There are only 15 display signs in the bus shelters, not all of which are working. New York City Transit acknowledges there are still a few glitches. Officials wanted to experiment in the busiest parts of Manhattan because that’s where GPS encounters the most interference from tall buildings and the traffic is heaviest.

If it all goes right, the MTA will expand this program to the rest of the city at a cost of $78 million. They will also attempt to integrate real-time bus information into their Website. But that just sounds like we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

It’s hard to like these bus upgrades. For years, riders have bemoaned the lack of arrival information at bus shelters, and now we’re finally getting them. If the GPS timeframe is any indication, we should see those hybrid-turbine buses arrive at the same time as the Second Ave. subway.

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Tomás October 12, 2007 - 3:42 am

I’ve been watching this closely since 1999, when the TA first announced that they planned to test the GPS tracking on buses. I was very suprised to learn how difficult is to track them with a great amount of tall buildings all around!

I now live in a Spanish small town where they implemented this technology for years, and is very reliable. Also you can send a text message from where is no electronic display, and you would have another one in a few moments informing you of the next approaching buses. That idea would be great in NY!

I posted the information on New York, here, (in Spanish), with references to the NY Times, back to 1999 and 2000.

William October 12, 2007 - 7:53 am

we arrived in nyc a few weeks ago from san francisco, where the public transportation system is in shambles and seemingly stuck in reverse. we did have nextbus, which gave riders an idea of when the next bus or train would be arriving.

unfortunately, too many times did these signs not work. nothing like the false hope of getting to work/home/play on time!

the pubtrans system here is so much better than what we experienced in sf, however if these nextbus-like notification systems are to be implemented, they better work or there will be some ugly name calling.

peter October 12, 2007 - 9:00 am

No, it’s a Wachovia ad (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They own the bus, and are letting NYCT operate it. Wachovia is investing in the turbine-hybrid technology.

Benjamin Kabak October 12, 2007 - 9:02 am

William: People will probably engage in ugly-name calling the first time it doesn’t work anyway. NYers demand, for better or worse, 100 percent perfection out of their public transportation system. It allows for little room for error.

peter: That’s amusing. I like it. I think branding — stations, buses, whatever — is a good way to draw in more money for the Authority, and it’s pretty easy to ignore if people think it “mars” the system or something ridiculous like that.

Scott October 12, 2007 - 3:05 pm

The article in the times is incorrect – the hybrid buses that are currently running are not like hybrid cars (that is, they have both an electric and mechanical drive train depending on which power source is operational).

The hybrid buses running now have an all electric drive train (i.e. no transmission). The diesel engine only turns a generator that powers the electric motors – much like how a train engine works. This allows for the use of a smaller engine, which saves fuel. The electric motors also have better acceleration which is why the drivers like driving them in heavy NYC traffic.

Joyce October 14, 2007 - 12:07 am

Some questions:

What is the seating configuration inside? Can anyone send pictures?

Also, can FTA funds be used to purchase these buses? They seem to be manufactured in New Zealand.

Ken October 14, 2007 - 6:09 pm

Will they be QUIETER than the current ones? One thing that annoys me about trucks in general in the city is how obnoxiously loud they are. And the buses are no exception sometimes.

cWj November 10, 2008 - 6:00 pm

Well, stand next to an M1A tank and tell me how quiet you think it is….(wokkawokka)

Actually, the current hybrids are noticeably quieter than the internal combustion engine (ICE) buses. Anytime a vehicle is driven electrically and just charged with ICE, you won’t have as much of the revving we associate with ICE. Those engines do rev higher, but that’s only where the generator needs to produce more current to keep the batteries properly filled for a given load.

Whether turbine diesel will be quieter than current diesel, I can’t say. Do you prefer “whir” or “roar”?

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