In 2005, Sound Transit put buses manufactured by Motor Coach Industries (MCI) into service on routes serving Pierce County, replacing old Orion high-floor buses. The MCI bus, similar in style to a long-distance intercity coach, received positive ratings from riders for its quiet and smooth ride at highway speeds. Two years after the MCIs debuted, Community Transit began trialing a completely different kind of bus to replace its aging articulated commuter buses. It brought in a double decker bus from Alexander Dennis.
Dubbed the ‘Double Tall’, it is the first double decker transit bus to operate in the Puget Sound region. When time comes for Sound Transit to replace the MCIs sometime after 2017, with the procurement process beginning a few years before then, double decker buses should be considered as an option. Why? Because double decker buses are more versatile, more accessible, more capacious, and have a few operational advantages over the MCIs.
The consequence of the MCI’s very high floor design, results in a comfortable bus that is less friendly to seniors and people with disabilities. The MCI’s floor is at least a foot higher than standard high-floor buses, resulting in steeper and larger steps. The process of boarding a wheelchair user is more complicated than on a low-floor bus. Combine that with the MCI’s narrow aisle and single narrow door and you get a recipe for delays at downtown stops resulting from the design of the bus.
While I am not a regular rider on routes that use MCIs and my experience is purely anecdotal, I have seen enough cases of long delays that would frustrate any transit rider. I’ve seen a driver spend 10 minutes at the Federal Way Transit Center getting the lift to work on a 574 (shown in the photo above). In downtown Seattle while waiting to board a 578, it took 5 minutes total for the lift to let someone in a wheelchair exit the bus. That 5 minutes accounts for over 10% of the total travel time between downtown and Federal Way.
The driver has to exit the bus to operate the lift. Multiple seats must be folded up and moved around to make room for a wheelchair. It is a step backward in accessibility from not just low-floor buses but also standard high-floor buses. This is the biggest weakness of this kind of bus. The Double Tall bus does not have this issue and a few advantages over the MCIs.
The Double Talls do cost almost $300,000 more than an MCI at $830,000 per bus but consider their advantages, which I think make up for the additional cost. The Double Tall seats 77 passengers with standing room for 20 on the lower deck. That’s 20 more seats than the MCI and 17 more seats than the articulated buses it replaced, while taking up less road space. The Double Tall’s lower deck is essentially the same as a low-floor bus, with the standard ramp and securement positions (and possibility for passive restraint). It has two wide doors for quick boarding and deboarding. And unlike articulated buses, the Double Tall works well in snow and icy conditions. The great views from the upper deck are icing on the cake.
All these features make double decker buses more versatile than the long-distance commuter oriented MCI, having proven themselves in high traffic urban environments like London and Hong Kong and here in Seattle as suburban commuter buses. With Double Talls regularly running between Seattle and Marysville, the same distance as Seattle to Tacoma, there is no doubt they would work just as well or better than the MCIs.