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New-Look "Bus Rapid Transit" Buses vs. Light Rail Vehicles: A Personal Evaluation

Commentary by Darrell Clarke • August 2005

Darrell Clarke is co-chairman of the Los Angeles-area Friends 4 Expo Transit organization, a transit advocacy group (and an underwriter of the Light Rail Now Project) which helped generate public and official support for the Exposition Blvd. light rail transit project, now under way.

"Bus Rapid Transit" buses, with a sleek, streamlined look, and with more exotic propulsion systems, such as hybrid diesel-electric or gas-electric drives, are frequently being compared favorably to light rail cars, even being described as "train-like" and "light rail on rubber tires". But how do the "new look" buses actually stack up?

I can personally speak to the new Los Angeles articulated buses from NABI (North American Bus industries), about to be operated on the new "Orange Line" busway of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) in the San Fernando Valley. One of these NABI buses was used as a backdrop for an MTA Earth Day press event this past spring, which I attended.

LA BRT NABI bus Basically the NABI "BRT" bus for the "Orange Line" (see photo) is a 60-foot articulated version of their regular 40-foot low-floor CNG bus, with some rounded decorative trim. NABI representatives say it is quieter – and perhaps it is a little – but there's still typical bus engine noise and vibration. It has a low floor except the rear of the trailer, with a slight floor hump over the articulation joint.
[Photo: LACMTA]

Santa Monica bus Santa Monica Big Blue Bus has a batch of new 40-foot low-floor New Flyer LNG buses. Riding them and their earlier New Flyer low-floor diesels, I find that the newer ones have less noise and vibration, but no one would confuse one with an electric vehicle.
[Photo: Santa Monica Big Blue Bus]

Santa Monica has not rushed to embrace hybrids. According to a Big Blue Bus representative, the agency has invested in LNG infrastructure for air quality, and there aren't LNG-fueled hybrids available. in regard to a comparison of CNG vs. diesel, the latest Santa Monica LNG New Flyers are slightly quieter and smoother, but more similar than different compared with older ones.

Denver hybrid bus The first time I experienced hybrid (combustion engine + electric) buses was at the 2000 Rail~Volution in Denver. Their new composite-bodied downtown pedestrian mall buses with electric drive and a small engine were much smoother and quieter than conventional motor buses ~ basically the experience of an electric trolley bus.
[Photo: L. Henry, 2003]

Denver hybrid bus interior of a Denver Transit Mall hybrid bus. Crowding is frequently a problem on even the most advanced buses because of limited interior space.
[Photo: L. Henry, 2003]

The Long Beach, California transit agency is acquiring a number of hybrid buses. Recently I visited Long Beach to evaluate some of these new 40-foot hybrids, and found a number of them on the downtown transit mall next to the Blue Line light rail transit terminus. (A short sound video of one of these, playable with Windows Media Player, is available online. For download instructions, see:

My subjective take was that these buses produce more of a whine sound, with a little engine rumble on acceleration. It's definitely not silent (or as quiet as my Prius), but rather less noisy than a conventional diesel or CNG/LNG bus. Unfortunately, it was not a convenient opportunity to take a ride on one.

On the basis of these personal experiences, plus what I know of technical developments and experiences elsewhere, I think there is a role for hybrid buses to quickly provide upgraded service on existing boulevards. But I believe they will remain inferior to light rail in a number of respects:

· Smooth ride on rails vs. uneven pavement for bus;
· Speed through intersections, where a single long train can be given pre-emption with signals or gates, but multiple buses could not do so without obstructing cross-traffic;
· Faster acceleration of electric rail compared with motor or hybrid buses;
· Greater rail transit appeal to drivers who have nice cars as their alternative.

LA Gold Line train Los Angeles County MTA Gold Line light rail train runs through South Pasadena.
[Photo: LRN file]

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2005/08/09

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