Little buses draw big praise from Metro official, who says they’re vast improvement for disabled passengers – Houston Chronicle

Metro’s plans to buy electric buses may have garnered most of the attention about its fleet in recent months, but it is a new breed of smaller buses that had board member Lex Frieden juiced up.

“I felt in that vehicle the same way that I did when I drove my own car for the first time,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and accessibility, who uses a motorized wheelchair to travel.

The vans, 40 of them for various community connector routes and five being tested as replacements for the conventional 25-foot MetroLift buses, were purchased by Metropolitan Transit Authority starting in July 2019, as part of three contracts valued at up to $14 million. Each of the buses costs about $160,000 depending on certain features: the buses used for paratransit have slightly different interiors to allow for more wheelchair movement, while those used for community circulators have bike racks installed on the front.

Metro is among the first transit agencies in the nation to test the low-floor shuttles for paratransit use, starting with five earlier this year. The first ones decked out for connector routes started rolling more than a year ago.

The vans debut as Metro is teeing up $7.5 billion in new major projects such as bus rapid transit, light rail extensions and new transit hubs, while also focusing on neighborhood-centric initiatives. As part of a $3.5 billion bond package voters approved in 2019, officials committed to improving Houston-area street and sidewalk conditions to make it less cumbersome to catch a bus. Those efforts include making the roughly 10,000 bus stops in the Metro area ADA-accessible and increasing the availability of service in some under-served communities and along high-demand routes.

Those efforts, meanwhile, rely on connecting some communities to transit hubs without the expense of running 40-foot conventional buses. In Acres Homes, Kashmere Gardens and Missouri City, officials have said community connectors that offer door-to-door service in a set zone that includes access to transit centers is an efficient option where the smaller 14-passenger buses can be used. The buses are used on the three co-called Curb2Curb routes, along with some MetroLift assignments, which can be anywhere in Metro’s sprawling coverage area.

The connectors draw far less use than typical routes. None of the connectors average more than 200 trips per day, with the Kashmere service — a late-night service launched in September 2020 during the pandemic — logging eight riders a day in October 2021, according to the most recent ridership report.

Officials, however, remain upbeat that Houston transit will thrive if smaller buses deliver service where larger buses are inefficient, by feeding those shuttles into transit hubs.

“I predict that kind of vehicle will be the future of mass public transit,” Frieden said.

The vans are a big step forward for riders such as Frieden, and potentially many others. Unlike the conventional 40-foot buses Metro operates, the suspensions on the vans lower the entire bus, making entering for someone who cannot manage steps much easier, said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

The buses have eight seats in the back and then six foldable seats closest to the entryway. The wide space allows for someone in a wheelchair to turn around, and has much more headroom than the current buses and MetroLift minivans.

“Nobody is going to hit their head on that,” Frieden said. “It just a comfortable large space thing.”

The current fleet of buses are gasoline powered, though Skabowski said the manufacturer, New England Wheels, is examining an electric version, built on the same RAM ProMaster chasis.

Also unlike the bigger buses, the ramps on the RAM vans are manually lowered and raised by the bus operator.

“We love them because there is nothing to break,” Skabowski said.

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