July 07, 2011
Affordable. Convenient. Safe. Energy-efficient.
And ignored by politicians and transportation bureaucrats.
The bus business is booming, but you wouldn’t know it from elected
officials’ speeches and land-use planners’ “visionary” schemes.
Buses: The Forgotten Mode,” a new Cato Institute policy study by Randal O’Toole,
examines a “significant resurgence” that no one predicted.
In 1992, the
General Accounting Office reported
that the bus industry was dying. Ridership had plummeted from 160 million in
1960 to 40 million in 1990. But buses had a second act. O’Toole explains how a decade
ago, a revamped strategy reversed the long, brutal decline: “Under the old
model, buses typically made intermediate stops between major city endpoints.
For example, a bus from New York to Washington, D.C., might
stop in Philadelphia, Wilmington,
Under the new model, most buses are nonstop, with separate buses serving the
New York-Philadelphia, New York-Wilmington, New York-Baltimore, and New
Express service isn’t the only change made by nimble bus
startups and forced-to-adapt incumbents. Internet ticketing is the norm, fares
are set by yield-management
pricing, and riders tote their own bags. “Redevelopment” extravaganzas
notwithstanding, fewer Americans work and live it cities’ central cores. So
companies have wisely chosen to eschew government-run bus stations in decaying
downtowns. Curbside stops in the suburbs are common.
The “Chinatown buses” that sparked
the phenomenon in the Northeast, O’Toole notes, “typically are operated by
small bus companies that begin and end their routes in predominantly Asian
neighborhoods of major cities. These buses usually have the least legroom and
often do not have wireless Internet.” But if you’re willing to pay a little
more, Megabus and BoltBus “provide the next class up,
offering a little more legroom, leather seats, and free WiFi.” Vamoose Gold Bus is
ritzier, and at the top echelon, “LimoLiner
provides … 27-seat buses … featuring food service, on-board movies, and meeting
There have been some headline-grabbing
bus accidents in recent years, and the Federal Motor Carrier Administration
has increased inspections. However, O’Toole’s computation of safety stats found
little cause for worry: Between 1999 and 2008, intercity-bus fatalities were
just 0.3 per billion passenger miles. For urban-transit buses, the figure was 1.1.;
for Amtrak, 1.4; for urban driving, 5.0; for rural driving, 8.8. At 0.14
fatalities per billion passenger miles, only “airline travel … is safer.”
As for energy use,
in December, DePaul
Institute for Metropolitan Development updated its ongoing intercity-bus analysis.
Researchers concluded that motorcoaches are “reducing fuel consumption by about
11 million gallons annually … . This is the equivalent benefit of removing
23,818 vehicles from the road.” At “196 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel
burned,” buses are “about four times as fuel efficient as commercial airplanes
and private automobiles.”
obvious advantages and growing customer acceptance, why don’t we hear much about
buses from the White House, governors, state legislators, and
metropolitan-planning commissions? There’s a one-word answer: Trains. Pols and
transportation bureaucrats love choo-choos, and they’re not interested in anything
that undercuts their crusade to establish European- and Asian-style “high-speed
rail” in the U.S.
describes the folly of rail subsidization in one corridor: “Amtrak currently
offers four trains a day between Portland and Seattle, most of which
take 3 hours and 30 minutes, at a fare of $50. The [Obama] administration gave [Washington State] a grant of $590 million to
increase train speeds from 53.4 to 56.1 mph, reducing trip times by 10 minutes,
for a total travel time of 3 hours and 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Greyhound offers
one nonstop Portland-Seattle trip a day, which takes just 3 hours and 15
minutes, for a $35 fare. It probably would offer more nonstops if it did not
have to compete against the Amtrak trains, which received $14.3 million in
operating subsidies in 2010.”
now intercity motorcoaches. Market-oriented, voluntary decisionmaking that curtails
traffic congestion, air pollution, and demand for petroleum is overlooked.
Meanwhile, taxpayers are forced to fund hugely expensive, counterproductive rail systems
that reward consultants, unions, construction firms, and junk-science-spouting
environmentalists. O’Toole cites the grisly fact that the community-organizer-in-chief
“has handed out more than $10 billion worth of high-speed rail grants” to many regions
that not only “have intercity bus service,” but “new-model bus service
featuring low fares and onboard amenities such as wireless Internet.”
death just a few years ago, have been restored to a viable -- even attractive
-- city-to-city transportation option for tens of millions of Americans.
Too bad local,
state, and federal “leaders” can’t be bothered to notice.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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