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Buses & Vans
By: John Doswell

When it comes to making a purchase decision for church transportation requirements, many church leaders are in the dark. It's not a purchase that is made all that often, and, as such, it can be a tough one. You need to work your way through many issues and falling back on "what's been done in the past" can lead to some bad decisions and possibly result in the church ending up with the wrong product.

I spent some time talking with a few of our distributors about the church bus market and the various options available. As with most capital expenditures of this magnitude, there are many variables. Here are the top five questions asked by those trying to sort out the transportation equation.

1. Should we consider replacing our 15 passenger vans? 
Many churches operate standard 15 passenger vans for all of their congregational transportation requirements. While most look at these vans as familiar and easy to drive, they lack many features available in a bus that you should consider:

* No roll-over protection that is provided with a certified activity bus or school bus
* No easy-entry passenger door that is standard with a bus
* No center aisle
* No emergency rear door

The safety record for large passenger vans should definitely play into your decision. Unfortunately, most churches rely on general congregation members to drive the church vehicle.  This can be fine when the driver is experienced and the passenger load is less than full capacity.  However, combining an inexperienced driver and a fully loaded van can be a recipe for disaster.  The record shows that an over-loaded van (think mission trips) can be difficult to control, especially in an emergency situation. Regardless of the type of bus you consider, safety will be much better than what you get with a standard van.

2. What bus types are available?
Basically, buses are available in "activity bus" or "commercial bus" configurations. In the industry, an activity bus, also known as a Multi-Function School Activity Bus (MFSAB), is a bus built to the federal specification for school buses, with the exception of traffic influencing stop arms and warning lights. Otherwise, it's built with all the safety features of a school bus, to include joint strength requirements (ensuring against separation during a crash), roll-over protection through reinforced roof sections, fuel tank integrity (providing added protection against fuel tank rupture during a crash), compartmentalized seating to keep the passengers more secure during an accident, and other safety features like cross-over mirrors and reinforced side rails.

Commercial bus bodies are usually constructed of fiberglass and built to industry standards suitable for hotel or airport shuttle buses. The windows are typically larger and the seating options vary widely, with some coming with side facing benches. The fiberglass construction gives the bus a more stylized appearance, but most experts agree that commercial buses lack many of the safety features of a steel cage constructed activity bus with steel or aluminum exteriors.

Both types of buses offer easy access passenger doors with steps that make entry and exit a breeze. Many manufacturers offer electric doors that make operation of the door virtually effortless. Again, as opposed to vans, these buses have a center aisle that provides comfort that can't be matched in a van. All of the MFSAB styled buses and most of the commercial buses come with an emergency exit rear door, and both styles can be provided with wheelchair lifts and wheelchair restraint mechanisms for special needs requirements.

3. Dual Rear Wheel or Single Rear Wheel?
Small (or Type A) buses are built on chassis from two of the large OEM manufacturers, General Motors and Ford, and are available in various configurations, to include gas or diesel engines.  Also, some bus manufacturers are offering Green Technologies, such as hybrid-electric, propane, bio-diesel, or flex-fuel engine options. One of the major considerations with respect to the chassis is whether to purchase a single rear wheel unit (SRW) or a dual rear wheel (DRW) unit.  As with many choices, it depends on your needs. Without a doubt, the dual rear wheels offer more stability with respect to sway and control. The wider stance of the chassis allows the bus manufacturer to build a wider body with more capacity and seating options. The only drawback is that the overall size of the vehicle is larger/wider than most people's personal vehicles and it takes some getting used to. A single rear wheel unit more closely resembles a van or passenger car when it comes to handling the width of the vehicle. Another consideration may be the roads where you need to drive and the available space for parking the vehicle. Many parkways will not allow a dual rear wheeled bus on the road, making the SRW the logical choice.

4. What are our options with respect to head room and overall height?
Most commercial bus manufacturers offer a single headroom specification since most of the produced units go to the shuttle bus market. Some of the activity bus manufacturers offer two versions of headroom/clearance. High-top activity buses typically have between 5' 4" and 6' 2" of headroom, with some offering as much as 6' 4.5". For the manufacturers that offer a "low-top", these buses may have as little as 5' 5" headroom. While this low-headroom option may sound restrictive, many churches give full consideration to it for various reasons. The lower cabin has a comfortable, secure feeling that is more like a passenger car or van, and many drivers are more at ease when driving a vehicle like this. Additionally, the lower external clearance  allows the bus to be parked under structures that could not accommodate a taller bus.

5. What are my choices for seating?
Activity buses that meet the MFSAB specification will have school bus style seats or conforming activity seats that provide the required maximum hip to knee spacing along with the thick padding on the backs of the seats. The design of these seats meets the compartmentalization requirements of the MFSAB spec. Churches are not required to utilize these type seats, unless you intend to use the bus for transporting students in your church school. This opens up added seating options. High back activity seats with 3-point seatbelts can give you more room with respect to hip to knee spacing. This can significantly increase the comfort for adults and high school age kids. Further, since adding seatbelts can compensate for additional spacing, you may want to consider purchasing a longer bus body and giving your passengers the most leg room possible. You won't get as many seats in the bus, but the added leg room can make those long church trips that much more tolerable. Additional options include "slider" seats that can move the inboard seat toward the aisle and give the passengers more side to side room. 

Make sure you consider special needs when selecting your seats. You may need to accommodate wheelchair positions, which will eliminate traditional seating capacity. Finally, you may want to consider optional overhead storage units and floor-mounted equipment cages.

John Doswell is vice president of sales and marketing for Collins Bus Corporation, www.collinsbus.com.

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