School Bus

North America

In the United States and Canada, school buses are primarily used to transport students. This service is almost always provided without charge to families. In the U.S., the term busing also refers to the transport of students to other than their closest local schools to increase racial integration. Modern school buses may be equipped with amenities lacking only a few years ago such as stereo systems, air conditioning and higher-headroom roofs although high-headroom school buses have been an option as early as the mid 1950s.

A typical North American school bus.

General Statistics

School buses provide an estimated 10 billion student trips each year in the U.S. Every school day, 475,000 school buses transport 25 million children to and from schools and school-related activities. School buses are purchased or leased by some school districts, while other school districts engage the service of school bus contractors to perform this function. Approximately 40% of school districts in the United States use contractors to handle student transportation; in Canada, contractors are used almost universally.[citation needed]


Canadian School Buses

Blue Bird conventional

Girardin mini bus

In certain parts of Canada, French-language markings are used on the bus.

“Ecoliers” is French for “schoolchildren  “Arrt” is French for “Stop”.

Canadian school buses are very similar to their U.S. counterparts both in terms of overall design and how school systems use them. The largest difference is the adaptation to Canada’s bilingual population. In French-speaking Quebec, the signage on the outside of the bus is in French; the front and rear legends read “Ecoliers” (French for “Schoolchildren”), and the stop sign legend may read “Arrt” (French for “Stop”).

Many Canadian-brand school buses are sold in the United States, and there are Canadian-manufactured school buses sold the United States. As of 2010, Canada’s only domestic school bus manufacturer is Girardin Minibus. The Corbeil designs made in Canada before the firm’s closure in 2008 are now manufactured and sold by Collins Industries in the United States. In Canada, the Blue Bird All American is rebadged as the Blue Bird TX3; in the past, it has also been named the All Canadian and the TC/3000.

The design of student transportation systems in Canada differs slightly than those in the United States; the usage of contractors for transportation operations is much higher among Canadian school districts. School districts rarely provide their own transportation.


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Early school buses (19th century-1930)

See also: Kid hack

A school bus from 1912.

Wayne Works, predecessor of Wayne Corporation, was founded in the United States of America in 1837. By 1886, and possibly earlier, it is known that the company was making horse-drawn school carriages which many people referred to as “school hacks”, “school cars”, “school trucks”, or “kid hacks”. (“hack” was a term for certain types of horse-drawn carriages.)

Early school buses primarily served rural areas where it was deemed impractical for the young students to walk the distances necessary to get back and forth from school on their own, and were sometimes no more than a truck with perhaps a tarpaulin stretched over the truck bed.

Wayne Works was one of the earliest school bus companies to offer glass in place of the standard canvas curtains in the passenger area long before many “school” bus companies did in the early 1930s[citation needed], although Gillig Bros had invented and patented the design long before. Known as the “California top”, the design featured a slightly curved reinforced metal roof, with windows separated by pillars at regular intervals, and each window was adjustable by the use of a latching mechanism.

Industry Standardization (1930-1945)

Early 1940s school bus

The 1930s were a decade where the school bus evolved from an adaptation of existing vehicles into a vehicle type of its own. The “California top” introduced by Gillig was quickly adopted industry-wide. As it was becoming popular in other places in the automotive industry, all-metal body construction became featured by manufacturers as the decade progressed. A 1939 conference organized by Dr. Frank W. Cyr would forever change the design of school buses. It resulted in a set of standards adopted by all manufacturers (interior dimensions, seating configuration). One of those standards was the development of school bus yellow as a standard school bus color; yellow was the easiest to see in dawn and dusk and constrasted well with black lettering. Today, yellow (officially National School Bus Glossy Yellow) is a shade associated with school buses worldwide.

Post-War Growth (1945-1980)

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Following World War II, there were movements in Canada and the U.S. to consolidate public schools, leading to an increase in demand for school buses. Rapid urban growth also outpaced school construction; coupled with the population expansion brought on by the baby boomers themselves having children, the need for busing within large urban centres in North America became acute.[citation needed]

To change from primarily a rural form of transportation to something used in both urban and suburban population centers, the school bus of the immediate post-war era was joined by two new variants. Transit-style school buses had increased capabilities (seating capacity, handling) over conventional-style school buses. Small school buses were developed for the transportation of special-needs students in addition routes where larger school buses could not be accomodated.

Transit-Style School Buses

A transit-style school bus.

In the 1930s, Wayne Works, Crown Coach, Gillig Bros., and other school bus body companies manufactured some transit-style school buses with a relatively flat front-end design; in present-day nomenclature, they are known as Type D school buses. The first transit-style buses were designed in the 1930s, but the design was popularized after World War II. A factor in the rapid rise of transit-style school bus sales in the 1950s (especially on the West Coast) was the Baby Boom generation. School districts were faced with a rapid rise in student counts and were forced to consolidate, buy larger school buses, or both. As a result, the use of the transit style school bus skyrocketed during the mid 1950s.

Crown Coach built the first heavy duty, high capacity, transit style school coach in 1932 and named it the “Supercoach”, as many California school districts operated in terrain requiring heavy duty vehicles. In 1959, Gillig Bros. introduced the rear-engine diesel-powered school bus. The C-180 Transit Coach soon afterwards became the most popular rear-engine transit-style school bus on the west coast.

In 1950, Albert L. Luce, founder of the Blue Bird Body Company, developed a transit style design which evolved into the company’s All-American, the longest-running Type D product line among current manufacturers. However, the conventional Type C design with a truck type hood and front end still continued to dominate U.S. school bus manufacturing into the 21st century.

Small School Buses

A short (Type A) school bus.

In the early 1960s, conventional-type school buses received greater capabilities as many of their donor chassis were switched from pickup-type chassis to medium-duty trucks. Although the heavier-duty components allowed for much larger buses, certain urban neighborhoods could not accomodate full-size buses. Initially, conversions of vans into minibuses filled the role of small school buses.

In 1967, the first dedicated small school bus was introduced by Collins Bus, followed by the Wayne Busette in 1973. Along with van-based vehicles (known as Type A school buses), the industry developed several products that used the chassis of a delivery van (these are known as Type B buses); the best known of these is the Blue Bird Mini Bird, produced from 1977-2005.

Although small school buses are also used for magnet school programs, transporting exceptionally talented and gifted students, and for many other special purposes where the volume of riders is low, they have become associated in some urban slang usage with riders who have mental disabilities; this association gives them derogatory nicknames like “the short bus”. For the transportation of special-needs students, they are often equipped with automated lifts for wheelchair-bound passengers unable to climb steps into the bus.

Other Changes

In 1977, the federal government brought into effect a number of safety regulations that changed how school buses are built. Most visibly, these standards mandated taller seats as well as thick seat padding on the front and back. Under the skin, school buses were required to be built stronger for improved crashworthiness.

As a result of the 1970s fuel shortages, steps were also taken to improve the fuel economy of school buses. In the 1980s, diesel engines (once only common in transit-style school buses) became options in conventional and small school buses.

Industry Contraction (1980-2005)

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2 school buses in the mid-1970s.

In 1980, there were six major school bus body companies building large school buses in the North America:

Blue Bird






The “Big Six” manufacturers produced bodies for chassis from four truck manufacturers (Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, and International Harvester) joined by two coach-type school bus builders on the West Coast (Crown and Gillig).

With the baby boom years ending, the school bus manufacturing industry faced over-capacity as companies vied and competed for lower volumes of purchases by school bus contractors, school districts, and several states which purchased their buses in quantity at the state level.

With the over-capacity in the industry, many firms struggled to survive. By the end of 2001, only 3 of the original “Big Six” had survived. Blue Bird, Thomas, and Ward (as IC Bus; the AmTran brand was dropped in 2002) are also the 3 current large school bus manufacturers today. Two of these manufacturers (Thomas and IC) are currently subsidiaries of truck manufacturers. AmTran, the predecessor of IC, was purchased by Navistar International in 1991 while Thomas Built Buses was purchased by Freightliner in 1998.

After Carpenter ceased production early in 2001, General Motors and Ford gradually were shut out of the large school bus industry. Ford built its last full-size school bus chassis in 2001; an agreement to supply Blue Bird with bus chassis fell through in 2002. General Motors produced its last full-size school bus chassis in 2003 after a supply agreement with Blue Bird expired and both remaining competitors (IC Corporation and Thomas) were owned wholly by competing truck manufacturers. Today, GM and Ford remain in the industry as the sole suppliers of chassis for Type A school buses.

New-Generation Designs (2005-present)

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In 2004, Thomas introduced the Saf-T-Liner C2, based on the Freightliner M2. At Blue Bird, the Vision conventional was introduced in 2004 on a Blue Bird chassis; with that, Blue Bird became the first American school bus manufacturer to produce both its Type C and Type D chassis in-house. In 2008, a redesigned All American was introduced as a 2010 model, showing the most extensive changes to the Blue Bird body design in over 45 years.

In the Type A school bus industry, the end of the 2000s was a period of major changes. Collins Bus Corporation, the largest independent manufacturer of Type A buses, purchased bankrupt Canadian manufacturer Corbeil. Corbeil joined Ohio-based manufacturer Mid Bus as a Collins subsidiary; manufacturing of all 3 product lines was consolidated at the Kansas factory owned by Collins, leaving Girardin Minibus as the lone Canadian bus manufacturer. In late 2009, Blue Bird Corporation and Girardin Minibus entered into a joint venture; to better focus on full-size buses, Blue Bird will phase out its Type A line (sold since 1975) in favor of Girardin-developed products built in Canada.


See also: List of school bus manufacturers

In the current North American school bus industry, there are seven active manufacturers. Two of them (Blue Bird and Thomas Built Buses) offer a full range of body configurations. Four (Collins, Girardin, Starcraft, and Trans Tech) specialize in small buses, while another (IC Bus) specializes exclusively in full-size buses. In most cases, school bus manufacturers are second stage manufacturers. However, a few school buses (typically those of Type D configuration) have both the body and chassis produced from a single manufacturer.

In November 2009, Starcraft announced a joint venture with Hino Motors to produce full-size school buses, marking the first time in over 20 years that a company has entered the full-size school bus market. The first prototype is scheduled to be available in mid-2010.

Of the manufacturers that no longer produce school buses, several are wholly defunct (Carpenter, Crown Coach, Wayne) while others have been absorbed into different manufacturers. IC Bus is the descendent of both AmTran and Ward; Collins owns and distributes Mid Bus and Corbeil products. Other manufacturers have moved into other enterprises; Gillig Corporation makes buses for mass-transit buyers, while Kenworth lives on as a manufacturer of Class 8 trucks.


The North American school bus industry produces buses in four different body configurations, listed alphabetically (along with trade name):

Type A (“cutaway van”) school buses are the smallest types of school buses. They are commonly referred to as “short buses”. These buses are also the basis for the Multi-Function School Activity Buses (MFSAB) that are replacing 15-passenger vans as a means of transporting students in non-route service.

Type A school bus

Design Characteristics

A bus body placed on a cutaway van chassis with a left-side driver’s door.

Single or dual rear wheels on drive axle.


At least 10 passengers; typical passenger capacity ranges from 16-36 passengers.

Type A buses are further classified into two sub-classes based on their gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).

Type A-1: GVWR under 10,000 pounds

Type A-2: GVWR over 10,000 pounds (category created in 2004); A-2 buses typically use a medium duty truck as a donor cab and chassis instead of a full-size van.

Type B (“integrated”) school buses are larger and heavier than Type A school buses while still smaller than Type C/D buses. Type B buses are less commonly produced today than in the past. Currently, only one model (the BE from IC Bus) is in production.

Type B school (activity) bus

Design Characteristics

A bus body mounted to either a stripped chassis or a cowled chassis (conventional).

The entrance door is mounted behind the front wheels.

In most versions (stripped-chassis models), the engine compartment is located partially inside the passenger compartment next to the driver.


GVWR: over 10,000 pounds.

Passengers: over 10; typically between 30-36.

Type C (“conventional”) school buses are the most common large school buses; as such, these have become the most synonymous with the depiction of large school bus in photography, film, and television.

Type C school bus

Design Characteristics

A bus body mounted to a cowled medium-duty truck chassis (usually supplied from another manufacturer).

The entrance door is mounted behind the front wheels.

The engine is mounted forward of the windshield


GVWR: over 10,000 pounds, typically between 23,000 and 29,500 pounds.

Length: maximum 40 feet

Passengers: over 10, typically between 36-78.

Type D (“transit”) school buses, as the trade name suggests, have origins in motorcoach and transit bus design. However, Type D buses are built to the same safety standards as any other school bus configuration.

Type D school bus

Design Characteristics

A bus body mounted to a separate chassis.

The entrance door mounted in front of the front wheels.

Single rear axle or (very rarely) tandem rear axles

The engine is mounted next to the driver inside the bus (front-engine/ “FE”), in the rear of the bus behind the rearmost seats (rear-engine/ “RE”), or in between the axles underneath the floor (“amidship” or “mid-engine”)

The last mid-engine Type D school buses were manufactured in 1991 when Crown Coach ceased operations.


GVWR: over 10,000 lbs, typically between 25,000 and 36,000 pounds.

Length: maximum 40 feet

Passengers: over 10, typically between 54-90.

Safety regulation

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Most of the changes made to the American school bus over the past 70 years have had to do with safety, in response to progressively more stringent regulations. Along with federal mandates, more advanced engineering has made school buses safer for drivers and passengers alike. Because of their size, school buses have many blind spots which can endanger passengers getting on or off the bus and people standing or walking near it. This safety challenge is addressed through the design and configuration of a bus’ windows, body panels, and mirrors. Controversy exists over the effectiveness of seat belts as a restraint system for school bus passengers.

School Bus Yellow

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