Why OC Transpo added double-decker buses to its fleet

The time seemed right for the City of Ottawa in spring 2007 to take a chance on a new bus finally available for the North American transit market.

City higher-ups, who are no longer with the corporation today, told council back then that the double-decker buses could offer a better transit experience for customers and could even help increase OC Transpo’s ridership.

This was the start of Transpo’s buy-in to double-decker buses.

There were plenty of good reasons why the city thought that adding double-deckers to the roads was a no-brainer, based on reports produced for city council ahead of the first major purchase in Ottawa’s double-decker era.

The buses would be special additions to the Transpo fleet, giving people unique views of the streetscape from an upper level, with forward-facing seats directly overhead of the driver.

Most importantly, the buses would have more seats compared to the articulated buses, or “accordion” buses, used as high-capacity vehicles for public transit. While the accordion buses at the time had 54 seats, the double-deckers had 84 seats. It was a big deal, especially for customers making long transit commutes. Since the double-decker bus is shorter than an accordion bus, the double-decker would take up less room at bus stops, too.

Transpo was gaining momentum in the spring of 2007 to make a big policy decision to buy more double-decker buses based on a successful trial run of a single double-decker through the summer of 2006, followed by cold-weather testing during the subsequent winter.

What made the decision even easier for Transpo, and ultimately council, was that people seemed to really like the test double-decker in 2006-2007.

And, there was a viable supplier for the bus.

Alexander Dennis was producing a double-decker model for North America and the city noticed Victoria, B.C. was using the bus and that GO Transit in the Toronto area was placing an order.

Transpo liked the buses because they suited Ottawa’s vast coverage area for public transit. Plus, the fuel consumption was better than the articulated buses, which could deliver budget savings and help the city’s efforts to help the environment.

The winter tests, which put the double-decker in a climate chamber with temperatures dropping to -31 degrees Celsius, and a maintenance review was enough for the city to develop a scenario where the buses could be bought in large quantities, while, according to a June 2007 city report, “mitigating the risks associated with a very different bus type.”

When the city asked customers what they thought of the double-deckers, “view of outside” was the survey category that received the most favourable responses.

Council signed off on buying three of them for a pilot project and by 2011 the city deemed it financially smart to buy more double-deckers rather than buying more standard buses or accordion buses. Replacing old, low-capacity buses with double-deckers was poised to save Transpo $10 million annually.

The 2011 business case for expanding the double-decker fleet was also based on commissioned research asking transit customers and bus operators what they thought of the double-deckers.

The results weren’t necessarily a slam dunk in favour of double-deckers — 41 per cent of respondents preferred them over regular buses and 30 per cent preferred regular buses, with the rest indicating no preference — but most people generally agreed it was a better travelling experience than a regular bus.

Drivers, the business case said, reported that the double-deckers “are fun to drive.”

Soon after the city took possession of its first major batch of double-deckers, the bus union in early 2013 flagged concerns about the operations during high winds after two double-deckers were pushed off the road.

On Sept. 18, 2013, six people on a double-decker died when the bus collided with a Via Train at a level Transitway crossing in Barrhaven. The Transportation Safety Board identified 15 causes and contributed factors to the crash. One factor questioned if a “more robust front structure and crash energy management design” may have reduced damage to the bus, although no regulations required it.

The Ottawa police collision investigations unit is probing the cause of a double-decker colliding with the Westboro station Transitway infrastructure Friday afternoon. Three people died and 23 others were injured when the westbound bus struck a station shelter.

jwilling@postmedia.com
twitter.com/JonathanWilling


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