Building a better bus

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The optimal city bus must be inviting and safe to ride in, it should be convenient to board and exit, and the journey should be quick. These are the main areas on which we have focused with the new bus we are currently testing in regular service.” –Peter Danielsson, project manager, Volvo Buses

Ah, the ubiquitous city bus – a vehicle considered by many to be the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the trucking world, as they just get no respect for the job they do.

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I’ll wager that motorists of all stripes (truckers included) have ground their teeth in frustration more than once in the driving lifetimes when penned in behind a slow-moving bus wending its ponderous way along traffic-choked streets. Even those commuters that use public transportation tend to disrespect the bus, favoring instead the sleek feel of light rail systems (something that the Portland Tribune discovered in a story posted back in 2007).

Yet buses remain the simplest (and often cheapest) form of public transportation available to our ever more heavily congested cities. For that reason, the folks at Volvo Buses are rolling out a new redesigned model (at left) aimed at making this stalwart vehicle a more attractive option to the public, fellow motorists, and bus drivers alike.

This new bus from Volvo is part of the roughly $34.9 million European Bus System of the Future (EBSF) program, which 47 different researchers, public authorities, and companies – including Europe’s five largest bus manufacturers.

[You can watch a video bellowing detailing MAN Truck & Bus’ Lion's City GL articulated bus, constructed for the EBSF program. This is undergoing tests along the 11 kilometre (6.83 mile) Line 86 with the inner city of Budapest, Hungary. Line 86, by the way, is comprised of 46 total stops and handles 26,000 passengers in each direction per day.]

The aim is to develop and test buses with properties designed to attract more passengers while at the same time offering the conditions needed for more cost-efficient operation, explained Peter Danielsson, project manager at Volvo Buses.

“Public transport plays a decisive role in solving urban congestion and air pollution,” he said. “But what can be done to persuade more people to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead?”

To that end, Volvo is testing its new model at in Göteborg, Sweden, as part of a cooperative venture with Chalmers University of Technology, public transport authority Västtrafik and transport operator Veolia.

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Volvo started off the new bud design process using simulation exercises in which researchers from Chalmers investigated how passengers respond to different situations on a typical journey. Danielsson said. The researchers also interviewed 300 passengers who regularly traveled along Route 16 in Göteborg to discern their feelings toward public transport, especially in terms of likes and dislikes.

As a result, for starters, In order to make it easier to get on and off the bus, Volvo made the door openings at the front are much wider than normal and are located behind the driver so passengers walk straight into the bus.

The doors open outwards so as not to encroach on passenger space and they open and shut with a quick sideways movement, somewhat like on a metro carriage, added Danielsson, with boarding heights adjusted closer to the curb height at the bus stop to make things easier for passengers with mobility difficulties and those with baby carriages.

“With these solutions, we can speed up passenger flow and reduce standstill times at bus stops by up to 25%,” he explained. “This means we shorten the overall journey time, which is a factor of considerable importance to passengers.”

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The Chalmers research also indicated the need to give buses a more “welcoming interior,” resulting, in Volvo’s case, in the articulated “concertina” section in the middle being constructed of a transparent material to admit more light. In addition, the interior layout has been changed to increase passenger capacity by 20% compared with a conventional articulated bus, he said.

“By positioning the front axle as far forward as possible, the wheel housings do not take up any of the passenger space,” Danielsson noted. Also, in order to accommodate more standing passengers during peak periods, the seats in the front part of the bus fold out of the way and can be electronically locked upright by the driver.

“Another important aspect of the project is to test and monitor how changes in driving style can help give passengers a more pleasant journey; for instance, through gentle braking and acceleration,” Magnus Lorentzon, project manager at Västtrafik, pointed out.

“So, as part of the project, we have therefore equipped all the buses on Route 16 with features that help the drivers drive gently,” he said. “All the drivers on this route have also received training in docking at bus stops in such a way that passenger entry and exit is made easier.”

[This operating “style” also mirrors what’s being called “eco-driving” to help boost fuel economy. It’s also a style driving that works extremely well when paired with hybrid powertrains, which is a technology Volvo Buses is incorporating into more of its models; a powertrain that can boost fuel savings by 30% compared to a conventional diesel engine, the company said.]

MariAnne Karlsson, a researcher at Chalmers assigned to this project, noted that both driver and passenger feedback will be monitored during the three-month course of this particular bus test vehicle, with results tallied by spring 2012 indicating, in her words, “whether the bus of tomorrow bus is here to stay.”

Let's see if it does indeed.

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