How Long Do Buses and Other Transit Vehicles Last?

Public transit buses
Philadelphia transit vehicles.

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Considering how much buses cost to purchase and operate, and considering how much effort goes into selecting the kind of bus to purchase, it makes sense that transit agencies would desire to hold onto their buses as long as possible. How long is that? The answer depends on what kind of bus you purchase and what country you are in.

The United States

In general, most American transit systems expect their buses to have a useful life of 12 years and 250,000 miles. This time frame is due to the fact that, after their buses have been around for 12 years, they are eligible to receive replacement bus funding from the federal government. After twelve years, the "used up" buses are auctioned off for as little as $2,500 and frequently used for many more years by private operators.

Anyone who has ever taken the Hollywood Bowl shuttle in Los Angeles may have noticed that all the vehicles used by the private operating company had previously seen service on local bus routes. The fleet of buses used by Disneyland to transport visitors back and forth to the Goofy lot was formerly used by the Orange County Transportation Authority, perhaps on routes that the minimum-wage Disney "cast members" took to work.

Occasionally, federal regulations work to increase bus turnover. A good example is the Americans With Disabilities Act, which required that all buses built after 1990 be accessible to people in wheelchairs and encouraged operators to replace their non-accessible buses that were built before 1990.

Other Countries

In contrast to the United States, other countries keep their buses quite a bit longer than 12 years. Probably the main reason for this is that government funding for bus replacement has traditionally been more difficult in other industrialized countries. Sydney, Australia, has a fleet plan that counts on a bus life expectancy of 23 years. Of course, buses are used for even longer in developing countries. In those countries, as long as the bus has not collapsed in a heap of metal, it is kept in service.

Smaller Buses Can Have Useful Lives for as Little as Seven Years

The above discussion refers to buses built on a bus or heavy truck chassis. Many smaller buses are built on sport utility vehicle (SUV) or light truck chassis like the E-350 or the E-450. Although these vehicles are significantly cheaper, the fact that they are built on less durable platforms means that their useful life is not nearly as long, as little as seven years. The shortened life span can make the capital cost for little buses nearly the same as for bigger buses.

Operating costs for a smaller bus are virtually the same as they would be for a bigger bus as well. The largest driver of operating cost is the driver's salary, which is usually the same despite bus size.

This means the constant refrain from transit critics that the transit agency should switch to smaller buses to save money is clearly not correct. Smaller buses may be a better fit for the neighborhood, but they are still going to cost the transit agency as much money to purchase and operate.

Rail Vehicles

Rail vehicles, such as subway cars and light rail cars, have much longer life spans than buses, which is one argument made in their favor in the bus versus light rail debate. The original bay area rapid transit (BART) cars in the San Francisco area, built in 1968, are still in operation, and Toronto continues to use streetcars originally built in the 1970s. Of course, this does not include Philadelphia's Route 15, which uses Presidents' Conference Committee (PCC) cars dating from World War II, and San Francisco's Route F Historic Market/Embarcadero streetcar line, which uses some vehicles that date from 1900.

Conclusion

The funding crunch experienced by American public transit systems over the past several years, while mainly affecting operating funding, has affected capital funding as well. Because capital funding has declined, most transit agencies are operating their buses for longer than their standard useful life of 12 years. In a way, this development is a blessing in disguise because more and more transit systems are discovering that maintenance costs do not go through the roof just because their bus is 13 years old. Depending on how well the agency maintains its buses, transit systems may discover, as other countries have, that maintenance costs for existing buses may be lower than capital costs for a new bus until the bus surpasses 20 years of age.

Consider a transit agency that has 1000 buses. If they keep their buses for 12 years, then they can be expected to purchase (1000/12) 83 new buses every year. If they keep their buses for 20 years, however, they would only need to acquire (1000/20) 50 new buses every year. If a bus costs $500,000, then they have saved their capital budget ($500,000*33) $16,500,000 a year. In an era of transit budget starvation, that is truly significant savings.

These savings will be even more useful if the federal government relaxes its arbitrary requirements that funding dedicated to the capital budget must only be spent on the capital budget. But even in the absence of a change, the capital savings will be of great assistance to cities that have a large backlog in their capital program, such as New York, which needs to spend a lot of money rehabilitating its ancient subway system.

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