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New Small Cutaway Low-Floor Kneeling Bus Market Is Making Life Easier, One Stop at a Time
By: Ken Becker

The low-floor bus is certainly not a new concept. In fact, it has been around for quite a while. They can be commonly seen mostly in the public transportation sector in larger cities all around the world.

Although the majority of today's wheelchair accessible buses still incorporate the traditional wheelchair lift, with an overall increased demand for public transportation and rise in mobility ridership for the disabled and elderly community, now more than ever, the demand for the low-floor bus is in full stride. This increased demand has been heard loud and clear!

The small to mid-size cutaway commercial bus product has been around since the early 80s. Several of the smaller bodied commercial bus manufacturers have risen (or lowered) to this challenge and answering to the market demand by recently developing and introducing a new low-floor bus model to their line-up. The market for small commercial cutaway buses typically range from 12,000 to 15,000 new buses produced annually. The growing market demand for the smaller low-floor bus is expect to reach 20% of total small commercial transit and retail bus sales by 2015.

One of the most significant motivators in the U.S. for the low-floor bus design that utilizes a ramp for wheelchair passengers was the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) implemented in 1990. As it specifically relates to the fixed route bus transportation, SEC. 221. DEFINITIONS. 42 USC 1214. (3). The term fixed route system means a system of providing designated public transportation on which a vehicle is operated along a prescribed route according to a fixed schedule.

For a large part of our history, public transportation was considered out of the question for people with disabilities. Buses were simply not equipped to transport people with challenging disabilities or required the use of a wheelchair. After the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed, it was possible for people with disabilities and other physical or mental challenges to leave their house and lead productive and exciting lives now with the help of public transportation.

What Is A Low-Floor Bus?
A low-floor bus is a type of bus that does not require steps to enter or exit the passenger area of the vehicle. The low-floor bus is typically designed with a kneeling style suspension in order to lower the interior passenger area floor height to be low enough to enable passengers to just step on board without having to navigate steps.

There are some major differences, however, in low-floor bus designs when comparing larger low-floor buses (approx. 35 to 40 feet long) to the new smaller low-floor buses (approx. 21 to 27 feet long). Typically, the larger low-floor buses incorporate what is termed as a "belly drop," where just the center portion of the bus body between the front and rear axle is built low enough to utilize a ramp that can be extended out for wheelchair passengers.

This consequently leaves just this center portion of the passenger area available for wheelchair passengers, while both the rear and front portions of the vehicle are usually stepped up higher and designated for the ambulatory walking passenger. This limitation is mainly due to the larger style low-floor bus having a rear mounted engine with rear wheel drive along with large front and rear axles with heavier suspension. The kneeling capability is possible with an air-suspension that can either add or remove air from the air-bag suspension system.

Not All Low-Floors Are Created Equal
Designing a smaller sized low-floor kneeling cutaway bus was no small task. These smaller bus bodies are typically built using an existing Ford or Chevy OEM chassis that utilize a front mounted engine with power delivered to the rear wheels. This means that there is a drive-shaft, exhaust pipes and other drive-train equipment that make the belly drop design impossible.

With these design challenges in mind, it was very apparent at this year's new commercial bus expositions that each bus body manufacturer had a unique approach with their new low-floor bus designs, most of which were being displayed for the first time as a proto-type and expected to be available sometime later this year or early 2013. A couple of the bus body companies, however, had already hit the market with their new model and were even in the process of completing federally mandated durability and strength testing.

There are several things to consider when researching the purchase of one of these new small low-floor kneeling buses. One question to ask is if that particular model offers true "random access" seating for all wheelchair positions. This simply means that any wheelchair passenger can utilize any one of the available designated wheelchair positions. Chairs can be loaded and unloaded using any of the positions without other riders having to change seats or even have to be temporarily removed from the bus for the wheelchair rider to exit or enter. Not all new low-floors can claim this!

Something else to consider is that ADA specifies that the wheelchair ramp slope can not be steeper than a 1:4 slope, which means for every 1" rise, there must be a minimum of 4" of ramp length. Some manufacturers decided to design their ramp entrance to be even less steep than what ADA requires and thus make life easier for all riders who would utilize the ramp.

To achieve this, however, was a real design challenge for all manufacturers. The easy thing to do would be to make the ramp extend out extra long to achieve the 1:4 minimum slope. An extra long ramp was definitely not the answer for several obvious reasons. Glaval Bus, for example, was able to design their low-floor bus to exceed the ADA minimum with a much less steep 1:6 ramp slope on gas versions by working with an outside reputable OEM chassis manufacture from Charlotte, Michigan, called Spartan Chassis. This "purpose built" structure is designed to integrate the new Spartan chassis frame rails into the lowered floor members and still maintain much of the Chevy OEM components, such as the drive-shaft and rear axle and brakes. Some of the other bus body manufacturers settled on just modifying the existing chassis frame rails to achieve a sloped entrance.

One last important design element to consider in choosing your low-floor bus is the interior passenger area floor slope. Most of the new small low-floors on the market now were designed with a pitched interior floor surface with the highest point in the rear of the passenger seating area. Some of the different body company's floor surfaces are pitched at a steeper grade than others so again, so it's important to look into this. Some models offer a level flooring surface for all wheelchair positions. This is certainly something that will be appreciated by all wheelchair riders.

The new small low-floor bus model is certainly exciting stuff. The time-saving aspect of loading and unloading wheelchair passengers can be reduced to minutes. Loading and unloading wheelchair passengers using the traditional wheelchair lift can easily take 10 minutes for each passenger to go through the entire process. Not to mention the complete loss of heat in the winter and the air-conditioning loss in the summer months. Wheelchair passengers and all passengers alike are sure to express their appreciation of the new small low-floor bus.

Ken Becker is product manager/marketing for Glaval Bus, a division of Forest River Inc., www.glavalbus.com.

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