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MTA New York City Transit Research Shows What Customers Want in Low Floor Buses

by Bruce Schaller, Dana Lowell and Kenneth R. Stuart, Ph.D.

Mass Transit, May/June 1998.

The research reported in this paper was conducted while the authors were in New York City Transit's Marketing Research and Analysis Division and Buses Division.

With two manufacturers rolling out new low floor bus models this year, virtually every North American producer of 40' transit buses now offers a low floor option. One bus manufacturer estimates that low floor sales accounted for 15-20% of total bus sales in 1996 and predicts that the low floor market share will rise to 70-80% by the year 2000. An industry analyst has counted 3,200 low floor buses in service or on order today.

Obviously, the transit industry is interested in low floor buses, due to the many perceived benefits that they offer. But do customers share this enthusiasm? Over the last year MTA New York City Transit set out to find the answer using customer research.

The answer is "yes-if." As long as safety and seating concerns are addressed, a large majority of bus riders favor low floor buses over the standard floor buses with which they are familiar. Thus, properly-designed low floor buses promise to be a hit with bus riders, while designs which do not address customer concerns could have serious problems in terms of customer acceptance.

In addition to this overall conclusion, the customer research yielded a wealth of information about how to design buses to maximize customer satisfaction and ultimately, bus ridership. Much of this information is applicable to standard floor buses as well as low floor designs.


Customer needs and preferences were obtained using a three-part research design.

Phase I focused on understanding how bus design choices affect customers. How do changes in bus layouts and features alter passengers' bus-riding experience? What criteria do customers use to judge that a given bus design is good or bad? As a new area of customer research for NYC Transit, it was important to see design issues through riders' eyes rather than impose an engineering, operational or planning framework on the research.

Qualitative research (focus groups) was utilized to achieve this first objective. Groups of 8 to 12 customers were shown a standard floor and a low floor bus (either the two-step bus or full low floor bus; see box for descriptions). Research included wheelchair users and blind/visually-impaired customers. After seeing the buses, each group engaged in an in-depth focus group discussion of their likes and dislikes of each bus and preferences for entrances, seating, windows and other features. Participants were also asked for suggestions on how to improve the design of the buses they saw.

Phase II: Results of the focus groups were used to draft survey questions for the quantitative phase involving 232 bus riders from throughout New York City. Participants were taken on simulated in-service test rides. During the test rides respondents completed a written survey on their impressions of each bus overall and on various design features.

Groups of approximately 40 participants rode each bus for about 20 minutes, exiting and reboarding at bus stops along the way. Participants thus experienced how the bus felt under conditions very similar to their daily bus riding experience. Each participant rode in four different buses-the three low floor buses (see box) and a NYC Transit standard floor bus.

Phase III: The two-step low floor bus was operated for three months on three Manhattan bus routes. A short survey was distributed and collected during normal revenue service on each route. This phase served to validate findings from the second phase, showing that test rides accurately simulated everyday conditions.


Four bus models were used in this research:

All current NYC Transit buses, including the one used in the research, are fully wheelchair accessible via a wheel chair lift in the rear door. All low floor buses used in the research provided wheelchair access via ramps, located in the front door, the rear door, or both.


For the most part, New York City bus riders feel that the physical design and layout of the current standard floor buses that they ride every day is satisfactory. Non-disabled focus group participants said that the current design is "not broken." The quantitative research confirmed the focus group results; 8 in 10 customers on the simulated test rides rated the current bus as satisfactory, while only 3 percent said it is unacceptable and 17 percent rated it excellent.

If the current design is not broken, what is there to fix? To answer this question, one must understand how bus design can affect bus service. Customers had plenty to say about bus service in general, indicating that their biggest concerns are waiting times, speed of travel, and crowding. They also equated good or bad service with other factors such as bus operator skill and traffic conditions. Once customers were given the opportunity to see how design can affect some of these service attributes, however, they expressed intense interest in the alternate designs we showed them.

How customers assess design options can be summarized into three service-related criteria. Is the design safe? How does the design affect the comfort of my trip? How will it affect reliability of service?


A threshold concern for any type of transportation, safety is particularly important to bus riders in New York City, many of whom choose to take the bus instead of the subway due to personal security concerns. Under the watchful eye of the Bus Operator, customers feel a greater sense of personal security on the bus. On a 0 to 10 rating scale, NYC Transit customers give buses a 7.9 rating for personal security versus a 6.9 rating for the subway (third quarter 1997 citywide telephone survey). Cocooned above the dangers posed by cabs, trucks and cars, customers also feel safer from accidents on a bus than they do in other types of surface vehicles.

In the minds of customers, low floor buses generate two potential safety concerns. First, with passengers sitting much lower to the ground, some customers worry that a car or truck crashing into the side of a low floor bus would cause injury to passengers' vital body parts rather than to their legs, as on a standard floor bus. A vocal minority of focus group participants expressed this fear.

Results from the quantitative phase confirmed this concern, but also showed that these fears are eased by designs that have a raised rear section, which offers customers the option of sitting above the traffic as they do in current buses. Thus, 29% rated the full low floor bus as unacceptable on "safety in an accident", compared with 17% for current buses, and 14% for the two-step bus with a higher rear section. In addition, after riding a two-step low floor bus in actual revenue service, only 10% of customers rated it unacceptable on "safety in an accident".

While the low floor bus with the raised rear section alleviates some passengers' concerns about safety in an accident, it also introduces the second safety issue. Customers worry about tripping and falling on the steps that lead to this raised platform. Focus group participants expressed this concern very strongly. These respondents, who walked through a stationary bus, imagined being thrown down the steps as the bus accelerates or stops, or missing the steps as they begin to exit. Actual experience on a moving bus largely but not entirely alleviated these fears. One in five respondents on both the test rides and in-service test rated the aisle steps as "unacceptable", but an even larger number rated them as "excellent" (30% on the test rides and 40% during the in-service test) . In addition, it should be noted that in three months of revenue service there were no reported incidents of trips or falls on the rear steps. While this issue merits concern it is not a show-stopper.

Overall, while low floor buses present some safety concerns to passengers, which should be closely monitored as buses are put into service, these issues appear to be manageable.


Comfort is a broad term that involves a range of bus features. The size and location of doors, the number of seats and their orientation, and the position of the wheelchair entrance all affect riders' ease of moving into, through and off of the bus, their physical comfort while seated or standing, and their sense of personal space.

The biggest advantage of low floor buses is how much easier they are to enter and exit than a bus with a standard height floor. This advantage was immediately appreciated by focus group participants, particularly seniors, disabled persons, and the parents who indicated that they often travel with young children. These groups comprise a significant slice of bus ridership. Customer appreciation of this advantage was confirmed in the quantitative research, where 61% of participants rated "overall ease of entry" as excellent for low floor buses compared with only 29% for the standard floor bus. Once inside the bus, customers' main concern is finding a seat. Seating is the trickiest aspect of low floor bus design. The very lowness of the bus that improves boarding also produces wheel pockets that protrude to waist level, eliminating space for seating.

Dealing effectively with the space reduction created by wheel pockets is critical because the number of seats was the number one determinate of how well customers liked the low floor bus designs they were shown. The two-step bus, which had the most seats (39) of any of the low floor buses used in the research, was the most popular bus in the quantitative phase. Customers preferred this bus over standard floor buses by a three to one margin, and also preferred it to each of the other low floor buses. In another measure of satisfaction and potential ridership payoff, one-third of test-ride participants said that with the two-step bus in service, they would ride buses more, while only 9% said they would ride buses less.

Conversely, the full low-floor bus-with only 28 seats- was the least-liked low floor model. Respondents preferred the current bus over this design by a two to one margin. More customers said they would ride buses less with this bus in service (20%) than would ride more (14%).

Thus, adequate seating is a make-or-break issue for low floor buses. But the number of seats is only one aspect of bus interior design. Seating orientation and aisle space are also critical elements that can affect the success of any bus model, including low floor designs.

In general, bus designers can fit more side-facing seats than single forward-facing seats into a bus. However, customers strongly prefer forward-facing seats because they are more comfortable when the bus stops quickly (customers don't like to slide sideways). They also provide better sight lines out the windows to see the bus' location, and they help customers avoid disconcerting eye contact with strangers sitting across the aisle.

Seat orientation is so important that customers will trade off a few seats overall to obtain more forward-facing seats. (These groups of customers did not see any buses with rear-facing seats.) Asked to choose between two interior layouts of a standard floor bus, customers preferred the current configuration of 22 forward-facing and 18 side-facing seats (total of 40 seats) to a configuration with only 17 forward-facing seats and 25 side-facing seats (total of 42 seats).

The other tradeoff is between seating and aisle space. In this case, customers come down on the side of seating. In preferring the low floor bus with the most seats, customers seemed not to mind the loss of aisle space. They rated "feeling of enough space" and "ease of moving through the bus to find a seat" identically whether the bus had 2x1 seating (two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other side) or 2x2 seating between the front and rear doors. This result must be viewed cautiously, however, since the test rides given to survey respondents didn't truly simulate peak traveling conditions in New York City. Virtually all of NYC Transit's routes experience high standee loads during some part of the day. Under these conditions, the extra aisle space provided by 2x1 seating between the doors is critical to ensure that passengers can move quickly and easily through the bus.

Loss of aisle space is of less concern behind the rear doors. And in fact, customers overwhelmingly preferred 2x2 over 2x1 seating in the rear raised section of the "two-step" bus, both during the test rides and during the in-service test.

The final comfort-related issue is the placement of the rear door. Should it be in the middle of the bus, slightly back from the middle, or in the far rear of the bus? Customers expressed a clear preference for placing the rear door near the middle of the bus where it can be reached more easily. Customers said that they would be more likely to exit out of a rear door located in the middle of the bus than one located further back. Customers disliked buses with a rear door in the far rear of the bus behind the rear axle, particularly because the two examples used in the research featured narrow aisles leading to the rear door.

In sum, customers share the feeling that low floor buses provide distinct advantages in the realm of comfort. The seating layout of the bus must be carefully designed, however, to achieve adequate seating capacity while maximizing forward-facing seats, maintaining adequate flow through the bus, and placing the back door near the middle of the bus.

Service reliability

Many transit planners feel, or at least hope, that low floor buses will improve bus service by reducing dwell times at bus stops. They hope that the one-step entrance, wider doors and quicker wheelchair boardings will speed passenger boarding and exiting. Quicker and more reliable dwell times help maintain even spacing between buses and reduce total run time, producing less bus bunching and better service.

Customers are not so sure that these claims are valid, but seem willing to be convinced. Overwhelmingly, customers attribute unreliable bus service to traffic congestion, accidents and the baffling phenomenon of bus bunching. Customers tended not to expect that they would board a low floor bus more quickly than current buses. Those who do expect quicker boardings, however, overwhelmingly expect that reliability will improve as a result. Therefore it can be expected that if customers actually experience faster boardings on low floor buses, they will ultimately feel that low floor buses contribute to more reliable service.

All customer groups immediately liked the wheelchair ramp used on low floor buses. Both wheelchair users and others felt that the ramp would be faster and easier to use and less likely to break down than the wheelchair lifts used on current buses. Most customers in New York City have experienced delays while the wheelchair lift was used and welcome anything that will speed wheelchair boardings and alightings. Many wheelchair users vividly recount being stuck on a bus with a nonfunctioning lift, or worse, being perched on a lift that fails in operation. They ardently welcome a more reliable device.

Any design solution incorporates a balance between competing demands, both functional and technical. Developing a low floor bus design means balancing competing customer needs-for example space for seats versus space for standing and circulation-within the constraints imposed by the technology-namely the space needs of wheel pockets. The central finding of this research is that New Yorkers see substantial benefits from low floor buses but they are not willing to give up too many seats to get these benefits. Customers reacted very favorably to low floor bus designs with 37 or more seats (compared to 40 in NYC Transit's current buses). Low floor buses with significantly fewer seats got generally unfavorable ratings. Therefore, low floor designs should incorporate as close to 40 seats as possible while maximizing the number of forward-facing seats and maintaining adequate aisle space. A low floor bus model which does so will be preferred to current buses by a majority of New York City bus riders.

Customers also preferred having one rear door, near the middle of the bus; a wheelchair ramp in the rear door; wide doors, and large windows that slide open (see box).


 For each pair, which item would you prefer?
Forward-facing seats 80%
Side-facing seats 17%
Large Window Size 68%
Conventional Window Size 30%
Windows that slide open 72%
Windows that flip down at top 25%
Wheel chair ramp 75%
Wheel chair lift 22%
Wheel chair ramp in rear door 63%
Wheel chair ramp in front door 33%
1 rear door near middle of bus 83%
1 rear door at very back of bus 15%


Based on this research, NYC Transit is cautiously optimistic about the future of low floor buses in New York City. Obviously, our customers agree that these buses have a role to play in our service, and NYC Transit recently awarded a contract for 190 low floor buses powered by compressed natural gas as part of our normal fleet replacement cycle.

However, we remain concerned about the loss of seating and overall capacity with low floor buses. For our current buses, we specify only 2x1 forward-facing or perimeter seating; this results in a 40 seat bus that also has a wide aisle to accommodate standees during peak loading. For our low floor buses, we will make a slight compromise by specifying 2x1 seating between the front and rear doors, but allowing 2x2 seating behind the rear door. The acceptability of this compromise is supported by the results of this research. As in our current buses, we will also specify that as many seats as possible be forward-facing. This will result in a 36 seat bus, at least in low floor models with a raised rear platform.

In the long run, we will encourage bus manufacturers to find creative ways to increase the capacity of their low floor models. The ultimate goal, of course, is a 40 seat model that equals the capacity of our current buses.


Several lessons for conducting customer research can be gleaned from this experience:

1. It is vitally important to see bus design issues through customers' eyes. A host of engineering, cost and operating issues must be accommodated in the design process and it is easy to lose track of whether a given design choice meets customers' needs. Research with customers vividly shows what those needs are. Research also shows that customers are realistic in making choices, shrewdly taking into consideration the real world stresses that buses must endure.

2. A full and accurate understanding of customer needs requires more than one research method. The combination of focus groups and survey work, simulated test rides and in-service tests served well to define and quantify customer views. Using focus groups alone can be misleading; some concerns expressed strongly in the groups turned out to be exaggerated based on the test ride and in-service survey results. Yet the focus groups were a vital first step which allowed us to design better follow-on research phases.

3. It is important to show customers practical alternatives so they can realistically consider the tradeoffs. Design is inherently about tradeoffs-more seats means less standing space, etc. Customers readily understand the tradeoffs and can express their preferences if they see the alternatives. Without seeing actual designs, however, customers have difficulty realistically visualizing their likely experience.

4. It is important to simulate the actual experience. Reaction to the test rides corresponded very closely to results of the in-service test, while customers in focus group walk-throughs tended to exaggerate certain concerns.

Following these guidelines, it is definitely possible--and worthwhile--to enlist customers in the effort to build a better bus.

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