That new bus smell

Gillig BRT bus
The Gillig BRT bus is meant to offer a ride comparable to light rail. It also has a fraction of the emissions of a regular bus.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The Nicollet Mall is the heart of the Twin Cities transit system. Buses roll down here at the rate of about 1,000 a day. Light rail trains cross it at 5th Street.

It's also a showcase for new transit technology.

About a third of the buses here are already diesel electric hybrids. Metro Transit hopes every ride down the mall can be powered by alternative fuel by 2010.

Gillig Phantom buses are being phased out
The Gillig high floor, 40-foot bus has been a mainstay of public transit in the U.S. since the 1980s. Metro Transit is retiring the model for a sleeker, newer version.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

But there's an even bigger change in the works for Metro Transit. One that's harder to see. The workhorse bus of the Metro Transit fleet for 20 years is starting to roll into retirement. It's the 40-foot, high-floor Gillig Phantom.

It's replacement is already rolling up and down the Mall and elsewhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Metro Transit's general manager, Brian Lamb, says they're a good investment at about $360,000 each. They'll replace the Phantoms over a period of years. There are scores of new hybrid buses, too. But Lamb says, the hybrids really aren't a practical replacement for most buses.

"Hybrids work best when you're in a stop and start environment, like in several of the inner city routes where they go block to block, because the regenerative brakes help reduce the overall strain on the engine," Lamb says. "For express routes and longer, limited stop routes, still you get the best bang for your buck with these clean emission diesel engines."

You get the best bang for your buck with these clean emission diesel engines.

They're still burning oil, of course, but they burn less of it because they're more fuel efficient. They also put out less than 10 percent of the pollution than the buses they replace.

Even the tailpipe is cleaner. It ends with a fan-shaped funnel that helps trap particulates and keep them out of the air.

But the change isn't just a matter of chemistry, either.

These are the first buses of the Internet Age. They have cool-burning LED interior lights and carry six digital video security cameras. They have electronic passenger counters to track per-rider revenue and record ridership stop-by-stop.

GPS units already let people track Metro Transit buses from their computers, but Lamb says the new buses will tell passengers where they are, too.

"All of our buses, new buses, have LED monitors that will tell them what intersection they're coming up to," he says. "And soon, these buses will be equipped with what we call voice annunciators as well, so they will help people know that they are coming up to Lake and Chicago. And they'll know it's time for them to get ready to get off the bus, for example."

Exhaust of Gilig BRT bus
The flanged exhaust of Metro Transit's new buses helps trap particulates and keep them out of the air.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The biggest change, though, is how the buses are built.

They have new, streamlined front ends.

The floor at the front of the bus has been lowered almost to curb height. It eliminates three steps from the boarding process, making it quicker and easier for disabled and elderly passengers to get on and off.

It also means Metro Transit can phase out the wheelchair lifts that took as much as three minutes to hoist riders in and out of the bus.

The changes are driven in part by growing ridership. Boardings for the first three months of this year were at their highest level in 24 years, and grew at a record rate. Metro Transit officials say the new buses will help keep the system running smoothly with the added traffic.

Trains are also raising the bar for public transit all over the country. Passengers want a better, flashier ride off the rails, according to Brian Macloed, a vice president with Gillig, the California company that makes the buses.

"As more people are starting to use transit," Macleod says, "they start asking questions, and saying the bus doesn't have to be an ugly looking bus. Why can't I get a better styled bus? And the whole concept is that you can move people, almost like a rail, but on a rubber tired vehicle."

Metro Transit is buying 164 of the new buses this year, and will eventually replace about 750 of the old Phantom models.

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