D. Dowd Muska


The Transportation Revolution Elites Ignore

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.

“Intercity 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, and Baltimore. Under the new model, most buses are nonstop, with separate buses serving the New York-Philadelphia, New York-Wilmington, New York-Baltimore, and New York-Washington markets.”

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 tables.”

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 University’s Chaddick 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.”

So with 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.

O’Toole 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.”

First telecommuting, 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.”

Buses, near 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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