The Rear Door Problem With Muni’s New Hybrid Buses

3433763690_074a44bcd6.jpgPhoto by Tony Vi

If you've ridden any of Muni's new low-floor hybrids you've most likely encountered or witnessed the sometimes challenging task of opening the rear doors. The buses, from Orion Bus Industries, have a fault that prevents them from realizing the full benefits of the low-floor design.

What should be a seemingly simple task is hampered by the contact-less sensor system used to open the rear doors.  The sensors, called CLASS (contact-less acoustic sensor system PDF), are designed to detect someone attempting to exit, and keep the doors open as riders make they their way out.

With all the desperate pushing of the rear doors, the yelling of “back door!” and the occasional rider running to the front to exit, the system doesn’t seem to live up to the needs of Muni riders.

Some operators I interviewed said the doors are taking a beating from frustrated riders. But when the operators walk back and explain, riders are amazed at the simplicity. However, the directions to open the rear doors (“Touch here to open”) are just not doing the trick.

I conducted a research project (PDF) for Livable City in which I attempted to quantify the average amount of time it takes to open the rear doors, and if it adversely negates the benefits of the low-floor design.  The new low-floor buses allowed riders to disembark faster.  However, riders on the new buses took an average of nearly 1.5 seconds to open the rear doors versus the brisk 0.20 seconds with the traditional touch bars on the older high floor counterparts.  Combined together, riders required more time to open the rear doors and exit on the new buses than the old buses.  If Muni fixed the rear doors, the new buses would be more efficient, less confusing, and money well spent.   

I recommend a few simple actions the MTA should take to correct the rear doors: 

  • Have informational ads in multiple languages to inform the public on how to open the rear doors.
  • Ensure bus operators have the ability to open the rear door remotely.
  • Retrofit existing low-floor buses with traditional touch bars, replacing the contactless sensor systems.
  • Have touch bars open the door with the contactless sensors to keep the door open.

Tom Radulovich, the Livable City executive director, said every transit agency should be doing this type of research.

"Agencies too often make changes to their service or equipment without bothering to understand how the users like it. The rear door study also addresses the question of how to get Muni moving faster, a pressing concern raised by Muni's Transit Effectiveness Project. The study's findings that the low-floor vehicles reduce dwell time, but that the yellow strip to open doors is counter-intuitive and wastes time, will help Muni design future vehicles that are both friendlier to customers and reduce dwell times at transit stops."