Sunday, March 13, 2011

Are buses the wrong technology for the Northeast Corridor?

In the past few years, most every budget-conscious (read: cheap) traveler in the northeast corridor has jumped on the bus. Fifteen years ago, Peter Pan owned the Boston-to-New York corridor, and with an almost-monopoly charged fares which were not much less than Amtrak. Since then, the industry has changed very significantly:

  1. The trains have gotten faster, better, and more expensive. 15 years ago, train travel still required an engine change in New Haven and barely cleared 100 mph north of there. Travel times were four and a half hours. Despite Acela's lack of actual high speed, travel times have been shaved by an hour (or, for the cheaper alternatives, half an hour). And the train has gone from competing to the bus to competing with the airlines, so fares have risen (as has ridership) significantly.
  2. Bus options have multiplied and fares have dropped. It was only in the late-1990s that the Chinatown Bus fad began. While Peter Pan would charge (and I'm going on memory here) $25 to $40 each way from Boston to New York, Fung Wah and its many competitors had fares of $10—often payable in cash to the driver. They had no overhead (bus stations), very low personnel costs and, with full buses running constantly, at high rates of speed, a profitable, if uncomfortable and traffic-prone service. But, $10! Almost instantly, fares were cut by 50-80%, and the bigger players, once they caught on, came up with copycat services for lower prices. Now there are as many as half a dozen buses running between Boston and New York each hour, most of them express service. It's the free market at work.
  3. Technology has made non-air service much more productive. Fifteen years ago, if you had a laptop, it was big, clunkly and slow. Sure, you could write up a report on it, but only with the information you had on hand. Otherwise, if you got on the train, you were in the dark for four hours. Same with cell phones: keeping a connection through the wilds of Connecticut and Rhode Island was an iffy proposition at best. Oh, and if your NiMH battery ran low, well, hopefully you'd packed a magazine. Airplanes had the same downfalls, but you were only in the air for 45 minutes. Now? Cell service is uninterrupted. Most buses and trains offer free wifi (it has a way to go, but you can generally send email at least). Laptops are light and powerful, most have long battery lives, and many buses and Amtrak offer 110V power outlets. Productivity is attainable, at least on the train where you're not packed in like sardines.
To boil it down, however, the allure of buses is their cheapness. The legroom of an airplane (if that) and the speed of a car (if that). If the bus and the train were priced similarly, would anyone take the bus?

But as cheap as buses are, they have several minor deficiencies which, when compounded, make for a transportation mode which lacks many safety features of air and train travel. It's not just a question of oversight of small, fly-by-night (or, um, drive-by-night) companies. It's an issue of buses using over-capacity infrastructure clogged with other large vehicles traveling at high speeds.

Buses are, in a sense, quite scalable, which is one of their selling points but also a cause of many problems. If you run out of room on one bus, you just add another bus (although buses have to run at or near capacity to attain the efficiency which makes them so cheap). One more driver, one more set of wheels—the only issue is that peak travel times tend to have more traffic, so companies often have to charter tour buses (known as wet leasing) at these times (which may not have the same amenities). However, this further segments the industry, and means that while airplane pilots and railroad engineers have stringent training and safety guidelines, bus drivers from tour operators may be driving routes for the first time (I heard a story recently of a bus which took the Merritt and somehow didn't hit any bridges before it was pulled over by the state troopers).

The bus companies afraid to ever have prices above a set maximum (since their product is based solely on low prices), so they vary pricing on the low end of the scale (Buy in advance for $1 tickets!). No company has started charging $40 or $50 for travel on Thanksgiving weekend even though the extra $20 would be pure profit. The fear is that higher prices, even when demand may call for it, might drive their customers to other lines or other modes. But it means that during times of high demand, wet leasing is almost a given.

The issue with scalability then becomes the terminal facilities, which are more scalable than airlines and railroads simply because there is an alternative: load the buses curbside on the street. (At least in New York; Boston effectively banned this a few years back by threatening to write tickets to Chinatown buses which would block streets for twenty minutes at a time loading and unloading passengers.) This makes it much easier for the overall bus network to add capacity, but it impedes street flow in several locations in Manhattan.

Buses also seem prone to rather catastrophic failure, as is the case with most mass transit. However, while train derailments and airline mishaps—despite the over-capacity infrastructure—are rare, bus issues are commonplace. Several years ago, after watching Chinatown buses roll along well above the speed limit and seemingly take corners on two wheels, my mother offered to pay the difference between them and a more traditional bus line (whose drivers' main concern didn't seem to be their next cigarette break). It's not to say that bus travel isn't quite safe: it is. Buses on city streets never get going too fast and drivers have rest at the end of their routes, and buses on rural highways don't have much other traffic to contend with. Which leaves buses on heavily-traveled highways, with drivers behind the wheel for four hours straight, or, with traffic or weather, much more.

In a most of the country, this is not as much of an issue as in the northeast. But in the northeast, there is very little highway which resembles rural interstate. Every conceivable route between Boston and New York is three lanes wide (save 95 or 395, which is narrower in portions but significantly longer than other routes). Exit ramps are often short and abrupt, speed limits change continually, and gridlock is frequent. Complicating the matter, south of Hartford, there are several automobile-only parkways, concentrating commercial traffic on I-84, I-684 and I-95. (And thank goodness that buses aren't trying to buses aren't vying for space on the raceway known as the Merritt.) (Update: This doesn't necessarily keep buses off of low-bridge roadways; a driver in Syracuse got lost and took a cars-only parkway, resulting in four deaths in 2012.)

Finally, buses are solely dependent on the vigilance of their drivers, who often drive long shifts under less-than-ideal conditions in traffic and weather. Airlines are heavily regulated and operate under the auspices of the air traffic control system as well as their own companies' dispatchers. Oh, and they have "operator redundancy" in the form of a copilot (if one pilot nods off there's another to fly the plane). While railroads can implement systems such as positive train control, speed limiting and, in the long run, exclusive right-of-way to separate their operations from other traffic, buses assuredly can not. There's no backup safety system: one minor slip-up by the driver can result in a major incident. There's also little oversight: bus drivers are not tracked by speed (some claim to speed limit their buses, but I'm pretty sure I've seen buses over 80 on the Mass Pike), leaving that up to state highway authorities, who may not be particularly vigilant in ticketing speeding or otherwise unsafe drivers.

These are all relatively minor issues, but they compound. Let's run them down:
  1. Bus scalability results in frequent wet leases, and drivers who are unfamiliar with roads, routes and traffic patterns
  2. Buses frequently speed, increasing the likelihood of an accident
  3. Buses, due to their profile, are prone to rolling and flipping
  4. Drivers are often poorly paid and work long shifts in excruciating traffic, leading to fatigue
  5. Roads between Boston and New York are confusing and often have short merges and sharp turns, and congestion, in addition to delaying buses and fatiguing drivers, creates more dangerous traffic conditions
  6. Many roads are car-only, so buses are squeezed on to roads with heavy truck traffic.
It is this last point, truck traffic, which was responsible for the recent bus catastrophe in New York. No one knows if the bus was actually clipped by a tractor trailer or was attempting to avoid it, but it is clear that an incursion by a truck's trailer played a part in the accident (as did driver fatigue and the geometry of the roadway). And another driver cites trucks as a major problem:

“Tractor-trailers are our biggest problem,” Mr. Ha said. “When the rear of the truck slides toward you, you have to stay calm because if you steer too hard to avoid it, you might flip.”
Drivers know that trucks are a problem. And accidents—truck-related or not—are frequent. While there haven't been any accidents of this magnitude yet, the bus service in the northeast has been a powder keg with a lit fuse, and the frequent breakdowns, fires and rollovers have had remarkably few deaths. Until now. It will be interesting to see if this accident, which seems more related to the structural operation of buses over busy highways with fatigued drivers rather than glaring driver error, changes the demand curves for transportation in the NEC.

In any case, it's time to look at our regional transportation structure and decide whether the low end of our transportation structure should be road based or should be modernized for safety, speed and reliability. Amtrak's antiquated Northeast Corridor is maxed out, New York's airports are as well, and the roads are congested and not particularly safe. Perhaps Amtrak's $100b+ proposal for the Northeast Corridor, with the potential to have capacity to move most traffic off the road, is a safety issue.

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