First, the not-so-great news: at slightly more than 36,000, school bus sales numbers are down a little over 20% from last year. This is no surprise, given how hard the COVID-19 pandemic hit student transportation with school closures. Add to that high unemployment numbers that are leading to lower tax revenues to support schools, which in turn shrink district budgets, making it tough for them to purchase new buses.
(It's also worth pointing out that school bus sales saw some sizable spikes in recent years, which may have made this year's decrease look a little more stark.)
In a development likely related to the pandemic, this year’s sales numbers include a particularly sharp decline (about 26%) in Type A (small) bus sales, for a total of 7,200. This could be due to the fact that sales of that bus type have been especially high for years coupled with the need many districts and school bus companies now have for more large school buses to better accommodate social distancing. In fact, one bright spot in our sales report is Type D (or transit-style) bus sales in Canada, which nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020.
While bus manufacturers did predict that Type D growth in our findings last year, the forecast that Type C (aka conventional) school bus sales would stay on par with 2019 and previous years, unfortunately, did not come to fruition this year. The total Type C bus units sold in North America was 25,980, which is a decrease of just over 18% from last year.
Now, the good news: sales have been down by this amount before and have come back.
While the pandemic is unprecedented, we have seen bus sales drop even further — although more gradually — during the Great Recession and recovery, and they bounced back. Looking at the total North American school bus sales numbers reported in 2006, just before that economic downturn, 47,614 units were sold. The following year we saw a drop of 15%, with a continued decrease through the next few years until 2011’s total of 29,060 bus sales, the lowest total in the last 15 years. After that, the numbers crept back up to last year’s total of over 45,000 units.
Another positive finding: electric bus sales continue to hold steady and interest in adding them to fleets is apparently increasing. In last year’s Fact Book, we noted that we were seeing for the first time electric school bus sales gain momentum in part due to Volkswagen (VW) settlement funding, and expected that upward trajectory to continue. That has been the case, even if ever so slightly: in 2019, electric school buses comprised just less than 1% of school buses purchased, and manufacturers reported the same number for 2020, once again outpacing compressed natural gas (CNG) sales.
We saw evidence of increasing enthusiasm for the alternative-powered vehicles this year with several electric bus deliveries nationwide (beyond California, where they have historically been the most popular) from Massachusetts to Indiana to Alabama to Texas to Washington state.
Meanwhile, Blue Bird announced in September that it was ramping up its electric bus production capacity to 1,000 units annually to meet anticipated growth in demand.
In addition, a significant expansion of school bus fleet electrification is evident with the partnership forged between Thomas Built Buses and Dominion Energy in Virginia in late 2019. This year, the school bus manufacturer began delivering 50 electric buses to 15 school divisions, reportedly the largest deployment of electric school buses in the U.S. The buses will be used in a pilot in which the power company and Thomas Built will help districts integrate the vehicles into their fleets and Dominion will explore the battery storage capabilities of electric school buses to provide services on the electric grid.
Looking ahead to 2021, manufacturers forecast modest sales that are in line with or slightly higher than this year’s numbers, and with the uncertainty around how schools will continue to navigate changes and operate safely as long as the pandemic continues, that certainly makes sense.
And we here at School Bus Fleet wish all our readers good health and a successful new year.