Tuesday, September 5

take the bus

For most of history, there's been one way to get around: walk. At some point, thousands of years ago, people started sailing boats, riding horses, and training pigeons to fly around with little notes tied to their legs. Until relatively recently, those developments (along with the wheel) were humankind's biggest innovations in transportation.

Thus it's difficult to wrap one's mind around the scale of the changes which have been taking place in transportation over the last 200 years ago. Since the invention of the steam engine, circa 1800, a remarkable number of new transportation modes have appeared. Let's review briefly:

1000 BC to 1800 AD (2,800 years): bigger boats, faster horses, rounder wheels
1800 AD to 2006 AD (206 years): trains, cars, helicopters, 18-wheelers, jumbo jets, space shuttles, nuclear submarines, etc

One transit mode poised for a huge comeback is the bus. While perhaps lacking the charm of a trolley or the class of a limo, buses are remarkably efficient people movers and can often get you from point A to B for cheaper than anything else.

Buses are hardly new. The first 'omnibuses' (From the Latin: 'for all people') were introduced in European and American cities in the mid-19th century. The horse-drawn carts were soon replaced by streetcars -- iron-wheeled vehicles of a similar design which were towed on rails. With the introduction of overhead wiring and electric motors, the world had its first form of mass transit: the trolley. (Cable cars are actually a different early mass-transit technology that didn't really catch on outside of San Francisco.)

The Trolley Stop has tons of information and great pictures of trolleys.

To make a long story very short, electric streetcars and passenger rail evolved into subways and elevated trains while the high costs of trolley operation (and a conspiracy...?) led to their replacement by diesel buses and private cars. (The economics of this shift were greatly influenced by the 1956 Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act.)

Buses haven't changed much since the end of the streetcar era in in the 1950s. You've still got your yellow school buses, your lurching local buses, and your regional coach buses. There are a few changes afoot in the world of buses, however, which could set the bus up for a huge comeback.

Much as it took a bare-bones airline (Southwest) to shake up the aviation business, it's taken the 'Chinatown Bus' companies operating on the Northeastern corridor to change the economics of regional transit. (Does anyone have experience with Chinatown buses in California or elsewhere? I'd be curious to hear what it's like.)

On a particularly boring Bonanza bus ride to New York several years ago, I listened in on a conversation wherein a bus driver explained how various companies -- Greyhound, Peter Pan, Trailways, etc -- had divided up regional routes amongst themselves so as to maintain pseudo-monopolies on specific corridors. I'm not sure where this chap was getting his information, but when I looked into it, there were a lot of one-bus-company towns. (So there was nothing to stop them from jacking up the price.) You can see how the Chinatown bus, which gets me to DC for $20 (about 42% less than Greyhound), is screwing up this system.

BRT: The Future of Urban Transit

The other way buses are making a breakthrough is BRT. Bus Rapid Transit is so simple it's stupid. There are two big steps.
  1. Designate lanes specifically for bus use. Ambulances and emergency vehicles can also use these lanes -- but the big deal is there's never any traffic.
  2. Set up stations where passengers can pay before boarding.
Follow these two steps and BAM! you've got a system which can transport almost as many people per hour as a subway for a fraction of the cost. Most cities already have the buses and the roads -- it's just an issue of modifying how they're used. Furthermore, buses can travel on local connector routes before joining the dedicated lanes, reducing the need for transfers and hub stations.

The ease of creating BRTs hasn't escaped the notice of municipalities with limited funds for transit, and cities across the world are developing BRT sytems right now. Some of the buses used in these systems won't resemble traditional buses very much. They'll be articulated, powered by hybrid or alternative fuel systems, and quiet.

The bus is back, baby.

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