Why are wheelchair lifts so challenging on motorcoaches?

Making motorcoaches accessible to passengers using wheelchairs is important, but wheelchair lifts are challenging for many reasons beyond the cost.

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 made it against federal law to discriminate against people with disabilities. This groundbreaking civil rights law forced many industries, including our own, to rethink how we provide services so everyone can have equal access.

As a result, transit buses switched to low-floor buses so the passenger deck is flush with the height of most curbs and sidewalks to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs. 

But the solution wasn’t as simple for motorcoaches because they require an additional compartment that city transit buses are not built with: luggage space. Passenger decks on motorcoaches, for the most part, are built on top of the luggage base and sit four to six feet above the ground. 

A simple fold-out ramp for a wheelchair, like on a low-floor transit bus, just wouldn’t 

work on a motorcoach because it would be too steep for a wheelchair or electric motorized chair to roll up safely.

Complicated, expensive equipment

For most motorcoaches in the U.S., the boarding process of an ADA passenger is a complex procedure that requires a significant amount of additional training for the driver to ensure the safety of the passenger and the equipment. 

In order for a coach to be able to carry a passenger using a wheelchair, a wheelchair lift must first be installed along with an additional entryway, which must also be cut out of the side of the bus because there’s not enough room for the lift on the main entryway approach.

Here’s a big challenge for motorcoach operators: Unlike city buses, which are paid for with tax dollars, motorcoaches in the U.S. are almost always owned by private companies. A wheelchair lift costs around $40,000, and that doesn’t include the cost of cutting a giant hole on the side of your shiny new bus and mounting an additional service door. 

I want all of my buses to have wheelchair lifts! Peoria Charter will have around seven ADA lift-equipped motor coaches in our fleet by the end of the summer. Adding wheelchair lifts to all of our coaches would cost $2 million!

Susceptible to parts failure

Another challenge is maintenance. Wheelchair lifts are very complex. Depending on the make and model of the coach bus, some of these lifts are mounted midship – or in the middle of the coaches, where the luggage bay would normally be. As an alternative, some motorcoaches build these lifts on the rear of the coach. 

These lifts are hydraulically powered, with lots of computer chips and circuit boards that control the lifts. Over time, these lifts are subjected to a lot of vibration and temperature and climate variations, which can cause those sensitive computer chips to fail. 

From experience, I will say that the rear-mounted lifts deteriorate a lot faster than those that are mounted in the luggage compartment in the middle of the coach. Luggage bays are sealed a bit better and keep the lifts and electronics out of the elements compared to lifts in the rear compartment, which are exposed to salt, moisture, heat and freezing conditions all year round.

Another challenge: These lifts can be extremely quirky and cause a lot of problems if the lift is not on completely level ground. The bottom flap of the lift will just simply not lower, preventing the passenger using the wheelchair from rolling onto the platform. I understand the safety concept of building the lifts that way, but I’m talking about even a slight incline of an entryway of a parking lot or some of those street side dips for drainage. Considering that buses pick up their passengers along the street side 99% of the time, one would think that an engineer would take that into consideration. 

Other common glitches

A safety feature requires that when the lift is deployed and the ADA doors open, the bus will simply not go into gear. That’s a great safety feature. I totally agree with doing it that way. But when one of those sensors goes bad, even with the lift completely stowed and secured, the coach will simply not go to drive. Then you have a bunch of stranded passengers sitting there. 

Another challenge is that some of these lifts are built with a really high-pitch, ear-splitting beeping sound when in operation. Not only is it horrible for the passenger in the wheelchair, but the rest of the passengers on the coach as well. All of these factors put together can really make it look like the driver is not properly trained to operate the lift. In my opinion, it’s just an overengineered, overcomplicated system. 

You have probably picked up a bit of my frustration about wheelchair lifts on motorcoaches. From my own experience, they are too expensive, they don’t hold up very well, they cost a lot to fix, and they are way over-engineered, creating a lot of problems for the operator and the passengers that need them. 

I know I’m not the only one frustrated by this technology. Here’s what some of you had to share:

Brandon Hurley: During one of my first trips with GH, I had a wheelchair lift jam inside the bus in D.C.  The rear ramp that allowed a wheelchair to roll onto/off the bus was getting caught on the top of the storage bin, causing the lift to be unable to deploy.  It wouldn’t have been as bad if the wheelchair wasn’t already on the bus and needed to get off!  I ended up having to call a tech to come down to the station, and with the help of about four other guys, we had to lift the wheelchair (and person) out of the bus by hand.

Robert Finley: Great video, James. I learned a lot. In my driving days 1970-1990 the ADA law was non-existent, and when it was passed in 1990 the company had closed its doors. … I remember twice myself and the baggage handler carried passengers on board and put their wheelchairs under the bus. I can see a lot of bad problems for the driver if it breaks down on a trip. There should be some overrides in place. I have seen videos of European coaches with a ramp in the center at ground level, but they also lose some seats. Thanks for the video. It was educational.

Roland Handy: Thanks for this informative video.   As a wheelchair user, it is disconcerting using some of the high lifts. I prefer riding the Van Hool double-decker. However, their ramps break periodically, too.

Joseph Richardson: I’ve never driven coaches, but I did drive a transit bus. We had some of the same complaints as you guys about the lifts and ramps, especially that damn beeping when deploying the ramp/lift. I had a lift get stuck on me on a Gillig Phantom once. I got the passenger off but couldn’t stow the lift. Found out something bent inside the lift. When my boss and the mechanics got there, they gave me a spare bus and wound up having to disconnect the safety stuff and drive the bus back to the garage with the lift stuck out.

Bus & Motorcoach News contributor James Wang is co-owner of Peoria Charter Coach Company and a bus geek who shares his passion for the motorcoach industry on his two YouTube channels, J Wang and Motorcoach World

Read more James Wang’s columns here.

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