Do Buses Save Gas?

Paul Milenkovic
by Paul Milenkovic
do buses save gas

I recently passed a highway billboard offering "A cure for your addiction to oil." It was another example of my tax dollars hard at work: an oversized ad for Madison Metro, the Wisconsin's city bus company. Yes, where once fuel conservation was the moral equivalent of war, it now seems to require a 12-Step program. With the price of sweet, light crude flirting with a $100 a barrel price tag, we're all supposed to get "on the wagon." I mean bus. So, off we got to Auto Owners Anonymous.

I find my group crowded into the bus dispatcher's office of the Madison Metro central garage. Metaphorically speaking, think Louis De Palma's cage from Taxi where the drivers line up to be the butt of insult jokes. The dispatcher's office is where the Q&A session goes down, before we're introduced to rows of engines and transmissions and then meet some two hundred city buses.

A hand goes up. "What kind of gas mileage does a bus get?" It's a patently ridiculous question. Although fuel prices are high, the go-juice needed to run a fleet of buses is only a small fraction of their total operating costs. Tax revenues account for the lion's share of Madison's Metro budget, not fares. But I suppose the high cost of gas is on everyone's mind. Maybe that's because there's a big sign on the back of our local buses asking traffic-trapped motorists if they're "Feeling the pinch at the pump?"

"Oh, about six miles per gallon. The new hybrid buses coming in this year should get about eight or nine."

Discretion being the better part of withstanding politically correct peer pressure, I thought, "Six MPG for a bus in city traffic? Get outta here!" Rivet counting research engineer that I am, I couldn't keep quiet.

"Are you sure? One of your publications spoke of a system average of 30 passenger-miles per gallon. Assuming a load factor of seven to ten passengers, you are likely in the three to four mpg range."

Madison Metro's CEO directed me to the National Transit Database. Transit districts getting government support are required to report their fuel usage, ridership and budget to this central clearing-house. The data is freely available to those willing to spend a chunk of their precious life paging through it. My counselor suggested that I look at Indianapolis, Indiana for comparison.

I looked up the 2003 figures for Madison Metro and Indianapolis along with PACE, the suburban Chicago bus network. The diesel-powered bus mpgs were 3.8, 4.5, and 3.9. The average numbers of passengers per bus were 7.4, 8.1, and 9.6. Taking into account that gasoline has less energy than diesel, the gasoline-equivalent passenger mpgs were 25.3, 32.9, and 33.3. The average trip length was 3.1 miles in Madison, 5.0 miles in Indy, and 6.4 miles for PACE.

Only seven passengers on an average bus? On what planet? Every time I get on the bus, it's standing-room only. Heck, there must be 60 people fighting for my oxygen. And if a bus gets three mpg, I reckon I'm getting 180 mpg on the ride home. What kind of car gets fuel efficiency like that?

But you can't fight the numbers. Car drivers get chastised for driving alone, but buses operate with empty seats too.

I know this for a fact because my employer offers a driving cessation program called "Transportation Demand Management." In other words, I get a free bus pass (discounting taxes). And I've actually used the pass for the five-mile trip home when my wife borrows my car. It's standing room only when I get on. But by the time I get off, I'm the only passenger left, and the bus has a good part of its route yet to finish.

When that bus returns to make another rush-hour outbound trip, either "Out of Service" or running its route, it's probably carrying few to none passengers. Figuring-in off-peak service… I guess the seven passengers per bus average isn't so incredible after all.

Anyway, the Madison Metro bus' estimated 25 mpg ain't bad. It's probably better than a lot of people get from their ride, especially on a three-mile trip. That said, it's not out of reach for a Civic or Corolla driver, and you don't have to pay for the bus driver's pension. Oh wait, you do, either way. Never mind.

The signs on the sides of Madison Metro buses show people enjoying expensive warm-weather vacations, asking "What would you do with the $7k a year you could save by taking Madison Metro?" Even after therapy, I'd take that $7000 and make lease payments on a nice, roomy SUV so I won't have to park my backside in a too-narrow transit seat and travel to work in bodily contact with a stranger. Clearly, I need more help.

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  • Gibbleth Gibbleth on Jun 09, 2008

    I used to own a transit bus. No kidding. A normal diesel bus such as mine, a 330hp Detroit Diesel equipped RTS, carries some 48 passengers full at a maximum efficiency of 8 mpg @ 55 mph. At the bus' top speed of 62 mph, it gets 6 mpg. At the average operating speed and mode of the bus, ie, stop and go traffic, it gets 3 mpg. Modern hybrid systems get better, but are not widely deployed. If anything, CNG buses do worse on fuel mileage. Now, if you compare my normal car, a 2002 Chevrolet Suburban, to a transit bus, it looks bad on first blush. However, my truck normally has five people in it. I work from home so the only time it goes out is family outings, shopping and such. It travels the same sort of traffic mode as the transit bus, local start and stop traffic, and gets around 11 mpg doing it, I'd guess. That means it gets around 55 mpg/person, blowing away the bus. Then there's the convenience. I rode the bus once or twice going to work in Boulder, CO, when my car at the time, a v6 Camaro, was on the fritz. The bus took an average of an hour and a half to get to work and over two hours to get home, with two transfers each way. Three and a half hours compares poorly with the Camaro's hour and a half total commute, forty-five minutes each way. The reason for this is pretty simple: the bus went a lot of places I didn't need or want to go on its way to my home. I'd estimate the route to be about 50% longer, and the stops making up the rest of the wasted time. So, not only do you have to beat the efficiency of a Camaro (the commute then was mostly interstate for me, around 28 mpg in a v6 Camaro), you have to beat it by 33% because you are going 50% farther. That means you have to get at least 35mpg/passenger. Then, there's the bus driver and the support mechanics and the fleet of towtrucks and service vehicles, all of which consume fuel. The bus drivers and mechanics all drive to work or take the bus. I don't know what the numbers are on that. However, I do know that our society and economy is based almost entirely on energy. Energy use is such a high percentage of our cost that I assume a 90% proxy, meaning 90% of a given paycheck is expected to go to buy energy. Food is energy intensive. Manufacturing is energy intensive. Most of the energy in food is from Diesel, due to farming and transportation, although a lot comes from coal in the form of fertilizer and processing. Manufacturing is coal-intensive except in the cases of TVA and nuclear equipped areas. Transport is almost entirely diesel these days, with the trucks, trains and ships all running diesel. That being what it is, you can assume the payment of each individual as a proxy for energy, at least 70% of which is carbon-based in some form in the US. Now, consider that I drove in an hour and a half in my Camaro while the bus tied up that driver for three hours, spending his percentage of the energy he got paid transporting me, and you begin to understand the assertion that the fuel cost is really not an issue even now in terms of total energy consumption by a bus company. I bought a motorcycle. 65 mpg. Cut ten minutes or so on average off my commute due to easier traffic handling. End of discussion.

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