Official BusRide Field Test: MARTA pilots the vicinity

Partnered with Alliance Bus Group, MARTA is conducting an innovative program with the Vicinity bus by Grande West Transportation

By Richard Tackett

The MARTA team’s biggest takeaway from the analysis was that fleet and service diversification would be necessary to push Atlanta’s transit system into the future.

“We needed to move away from being a ‘one-size-fits-all’ organization,” says Rich Krisak, MARTA chief operations officer. “Although we had a small group of 35-foot buses, we had essentially put all of our eggs into one basket with 40-foot vehicles. Our comprehensive operations analysis showed that the city would be better served by assigning new vehicles of varying sizes to the applications they best fit.”

Identifying needs and solutions

The operations analysis pointed to two distinct needs: bigger buses for routes with heavier traffic, and the introduction of circulator shuttles to facilitate service to the city’s smaller, more narrow neighborhood routes.

To that end, MARTA embarked on a pilot program to fulfill both objectives. The agency procured 18 60-foot articulated buses for its heavier routes, and its planning department simultaneously began identifying new routes for circulator shuttles. The next step was selecting a vehicle best suited for the new service, branded “Local Motion.”

“Our planning group initially recommended a 28-foot cutaway bus, similar to MARTA’s vehicles currently in use for paratransit services,” Krisak says. “They’re fine buses, but they’re essentially five-year vehicles.”

The Vicinity is a heavy-duty vehicle with a similar build to full-sized transit buses.

Krisak and MARTA’s operational leadership wanted a heavier-duty vehicle; one with a 12-year lifecycle like a standard 40-foot transit bus. Ultimately, Krisak says the specs for a 30-foot bus won in a side-by-side comparison with the proposed 28-foot cutaway.

“In our neighborhood routes, we found that a 30-foot bus had a better turning radius than the more cumbersome cutaway,” he says.

The Vicinity delivers

MARTA opened their pilot program to several bus manufacturers with 30-foot models and began testing their vehicles on the new routes, and even put some in regular service to gauge reactions from passengers, drivers and the maintenance department reactions.

The Vicinity bus, by Canadian manufacturer Grande West Transportation, stood out among others to MARTA leadership.

“We really liked the Vicinity because it isn’t just a 40-foot model cut down by 10 feet,” Krisak says. “It’s a purpose-built 30-foot vehicle.”

The Vicinity is a heavy-duty vehicle with a similar build to full-sized transit buses, and much of the same componentry – with a galvanized steel monocoque structure, bonded windows, fiberglass body panels, full-size tires and 17.5-inch disc brakes.

In addition to being one of only a few purpose-built vehicles for MARTA’s needs, Grande West could deliver the Vicinity vehicles with an ease and efficiency unmatched by its competitors – because of a distribution and manufacturing partnership with Alliance Bus Group in the adjacent city of College Park, GA.

“MARTA has a lot of history with us, because we’re local and we have a longstanding business relationship,” says Doug Dunn, CEO of Alliance Bus Group. “As Grande West’s exclusive U.S. distributor and as a supplier of mobility buses for MARTA, Alliance Bus Group was a driving force to put this deal together with MARTA.”

MARTA had a very short window for the purchases and delivery of these buses in order to put them into service. It was very timely that Alliance Bus Group was in the process of receiving an order of 10 buses from Grande West. Alliance and MARTA worked very quickly to secure these vehicles for their needs, and Alliance then moved forward with the installation of all the additional equipment that MARTA needed to have the vehicles meet their specifications.

MARTA is currently running 10 Vicinity buses by Grande West in a pilot program.

Alliance Bus Group completed the delivery of all 10 buses over a one-week period for MARTA’s pilot program. From introductory exploration to final delivery, MARTA and Alliance were able to work through the entire process in less than four months.

“The delivery process was remarkable,” Dunn says. “We’ve never moved as fast with a major transit agency as we did with MARTA. MARTA gets things done. They run their agency very professionally and it’s paying big dividends for them.”

With the help of Grande West along with some of the sub-component vendors, Alliance demonstrated and trained all key personnel prior to delivery – and then held a two-week training period after delivery both at Alliance’s facility and on-site at MARTA’s facilities. Training covered all aspects of the vehicles’ operations including systems, sub-components, maintenance, parts, support, and warranty – in educational sessions as well as in the field.

MARTA’s maintenance team was an integral part of the delivery and implementation process. All parties held weekly update meetings prior to delivery in which they discussed maintenance issues and questions, so implementation would go as smoothly as possible.

In addition to the ongoing technical training and support, Alliance is currently working on another round of training to continue onboarding MARTA and provide additional detail on topics of interest. Dunn says this is to ensure the success of MARTA’s programs and be “along for the whole ride” for the lifecycle of the vehicle – from discovery to delivery, to continuing education and ongoing support while the vehicle is in operation.

MARTA’s drivers have praises the Grande West vehicles’ maneuverability and design.

Stakeholder feedback and moving forward

Passenger feedback has largely centered, positively, on the Local Motion rebranding, vehicle accessibility and quality of ride.

“Passengers love the Vicinity’s ride because it’s got air spring like a larger bus, as opposed to the spring-shock suspensions of cutaways,” Krisak says. “It’s much more comfortable.”

MARTA’s drivers, Krisak says, praise the Grande West vehicles’ maneuverability and design. They see the advantages of its transit-style design and heavy-duty construction.

“Since it’s the best-sized vehicle for routes it runs, we get tremendously valuable feedback on the Vicinity,” he says. “Overall, fleet diversification is working wonders for our community.”

Moving forward, Krisak says MARTA is looking to expand the Vicinity’s niche in its overall fleet and find more non-traditional circulator routes on which to put the buses.

For their part, Alliance plans to stick with MARTA throughout the pilot program and beyond – hopefully delivering even more Grande West vehicles in the future.

“At both Alliance and Grande West, we are very proud of the product that MARTA has received and are very excited about what the future holds for both companies,” Dunn says. “This program strengthens the already strong business relationship that we have with MARTA.”