Return of The Forgotten: Double-decker buses in NYC


The two-tiered buses are returnig to Big Apple! The new double-decker features 81 seats compared to the 57 on the MTA’s typical express bus. The double-decker bus will first run as part of a pilot program on the X17J express route between Staten Island and Manhattan, and then be rolled out into the rest of the city if it proves to be successful there. These new buses will run in tandem with a new MTA app that will allow passengers to check if there’s a seat available for them on the bus.

Double-decker buses in NYC
Double-decker buses in NYC

But did you know in the early to mid-20th century, double-decker buses were a common sight around Manhattan.

History of double-decker buses in NYC

Manufactured by the Fifth Avenue Bus Company, double-decker buses provided transportation along the length of Fifth Avenue. Like most other large twentieth century transit operators, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company was descended from an earlier horse-drawn stage operator. Fifth Avenue Bus Company provided transit service starting in 1896 until 1954, using both regular coaches and specialized double decker models. It was considered a “premium” service – where five cents bought a ticket on other bus company lines, it cost a “dime” to ride on the Fifth Avenue.

While the company had its own coachworks that assembled double deckers, in the 1920’s they began transitioning to buses from the Yellow Coach Corporation.

The Evolution of The Fifth Avenue Bus

The motor bus now used is a company product and represents the result of years of development in design and operation not only in New York but a study of motor bus operation the world over. As such it is not an outgrowth of the street car or automobile but represents an independent development of a transportation vehicle with distinctive and individual materials, design problems and auxiliary operating devices.

The standard motor bus of the Fifth Avenue Coach Company is not the universal motor bus but the one that suits the operating conditions on the routes in New York. It is a double-deck, open-top, fifty-one-seat vehicle that weighs about 17,000 lb. loaded and 10,000 lb. unloaded. The front and rear wheels are the same size and are of the hollow steel spoke and rim type and were developed by the company. The vehicle uses solid tires, a single 36 x 4 in. on the front and a double 36 x 5 in. on the rear wheels.

The bus is equipped with a special sleeve valve, Knight, four cylinder (4 in. bore x 6 in. stroke) motor with a nominal rating of 25 hp. and capable of developing 40 hp. The radiator is the boiler tube type with ample capacity. A magneto ignition system is used, a special non-adjustable carburetor with (hot) stove attachment and a storage battery supply for lights. A unique 300-watt generator system for supply of all lights and signal bells has just been developed, and is quickly replacing the storage battery system. A conventional selective gear transmission is installed and the bus has four speeds forward and one reverse, with a worm-driven rear axle ratio 6.8 to 1. The most modern equipment in the automotive industry is a constant-drive chain transmission which has just been completed after eight years of development work by the Fifth Avenue Coach Company. This will be standard equipment on all buses.

It is the final step for making the Fifth Avenue bus the quietest operating vehicle anywhere. There is silence from radiators to rear wheels with a silent sleeve engine, single plate clutch, chain transmission and worm-driven rear axle.

The chassis frame is made of the best alloy steels with forging and bracing to obtain rigidity and special construction to obtain light weight. The springs, which are patented by the company, are a special assembly whereby more leaves become engaged as the bus load increases. Roller bearings, one piece forged axle housings and heat treated steel castings are used.

The bus body is made from specially selected steel and seasoned ash. At certain points very thin sheet steel reinforcing flitch plates are employed. The total amount of steel used is extremely small. With the latest construction a special form of three-ply wood is replacing the aluminum or steel sheathing. The body follows a curved line design and has a cambered roof.

A push-button signal system is a feature of the bus which adds to the convenience of the passengers. The emergency brake lever pushes forward when it is desired to apply the brakes, which is the reverse of ordinary motor car practice and purposely designed so that it may be more readily accessible.

The standard vehicle is the result of a trial of over nineteen different types of chassis and twelve different types of bodies; of tests and trials of motors, axles, transmissions, tires, wheels, clutches, etc. It is the result of the combined effort of inventions, traffic trials, transportation demands and engineering skill. It is a vehicle suited to the specific needs and is manufactured by the company because experience has proved this to be the most economical process. G. A. Green, general manager of the company, states in his paper ‘Motor Bus Transportation,’ delivered in 1920 before the Society of Automotive Engineers, ‘In my opinion, the average truck chassis is unsuitable for passenger transportation because the weight is excessive, particularly the unsprung weight, the center of gravity is too high, the frames, springs and axle tracks are too narrow, the turning radius too wide, the steering too stiff, etc.

 March 1922 Bus Transportation


Double-decker buses were eventually taken off the roads due to a lack of competition in the United States to improve the design and mechanics of double decker buses. They were briefly reintruduced in 1976, when the MTA purchased eight buses from British company Leyland to be used in a pilot program. But like their predecessors, these buses experienced mechanical problems. Other problems cited were the cumbersome height of the double-deckers, causing them to bump into branches along Riverside Drive and to run into traffic lights. After a short two years, they were taken off the road once again.

Return of The Forgotten: Double-decker buses in NYC
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