Drivers v. Robots, Part 4: Consolidation of Fixed Route Services

One does not need a crystal ball to see many things coming. By the end of 2014, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick noted that “drivers are a temporary nuisance” (Vanity Fair, December, 2014). Less than two years later (September, 2016), 80 driverless Volvos were introduced into the general traffic stream in Pittsburgh. Well before this current installment of National Bus Trader, Uber had decimated taxi systems across the country. With ridership declining, the New York City Transit Authority is selling bus and subway passes through the Uber app. The City’s proposal for a congestion pricing zone in Manhattan will fine motorcoach companies, whose drivers are forced to cruise through the street network from a lack of parking spaces. The schoolbus community’s costs have been thinned by a sea of oligopolies paying many or most drivers the minimum wage. Planning and system design are almost unheard of.

Passengers are scratching their heads. The fixed route services still operating are being stretched thinner and thinner. Poor on-time performance, traffic, overcrowding, lack of operating personnel, safety compromises and many other factors are “mode-splitting” fixed route passengers into other modes, mostly passenger cars and Uber. Former transit riders are pouring onto already crowded sidewalks and streets, further burdened with desperate and frightened food delivery bicycle messengers.

Fixed Route Bus Service

For those young or with short memories, fixed route transit service was whittled down to a skeleton by 1959.  It was brought back to life in 1964 by President Johnson’s creation of the Urban Mass Transit Administration (then part of HUD), which paid for 80 percent of the buses. The creation of the US Department of Transportation in 1967 added operating assistance.

Today, all or most schedules in  major city transit systems are dangerously too tight, and vehicles run increasingly behind schedule as the day goes by. Compromises of passenger, motorist and pedestrian safety are rampant. Transit ridership in many areas has dropped 10% I the past three years alone, while patronage of shiny sedans and SUVs operated by common motorists, as “side hustles,” is exploding.

These dynamics are not occurring simply from a lack of resources.  Several years ago, the Port Authority of New York (a joint venture with New Jersey Transit) spent $4B to needlessly renovate the World Trade Center PATH station. The 15,000 Ubers unleashed into NYC by 2015 (an estimated 40,000 now) represented $16.5B in revenue the City coffers would have had if the drivers had purchased taxi medallions, valued at $1.1M at the time. Few would have. Instead, they just waltzed in, now occupying former taxi turf.




The 1970’s fad of park-and-ride lots slimmed down to barely-noticeable exceptions. The interest in alternative work schedules vanished from the landscape. USDOT’s “seamless” hierarchy of modes is a crazy-quilt of overlapping fixed route and demand-responsive services. Slight bumps in this decline reflect shifts of services to private-sector contractors, largely to reduce overhead, thin management, gut drivers’ wages and indemnify the transit agencies from the safety compromises which inevitably result.  While robots have shaved costs, they have not increased ridership – even in dense urban areas. Frankly, transit riders are a “niche market.” Rural transit service is a far more costly per passenger than giving each rider a new car.

Schoolbus Service

General education schoolbus service will outlast other modes if only because of its quantitative edge: Nearly 500,000 vehicles. Otherwise, the waste is breathtaking. The lack of planning is legendary. Computerized routing and scheduling simply optimize the chaos. But these robots did this nearly as well in the early 1990s. The lack of thinking and planning will catch up with it. Otherwise, schoolbus service may last with its bottom-feeding wages only because so many other jobs are being eliminated.

It is important to remember that, decades ago, most schoolbus drivers were Moms with kids in school. Their husbands won the bread, and their wages paid for a house and a car. Most of the drivers had free time. Today, few do. But they also have far less money

The ability of the schoolbus sector to absorb other fixed route riders is often limited by policies: Many states prohibit adults from riding on schoolbuses even when no schoolchildren are onboard. This will likely change as quantum leaps in subsidies are increasingly needed to sustain fixed route transit.

Motorcoach Service

More and more, motorcoach service is being supported by transit agencies contracting out for commuter-express service. But private-sector schoolbus and transit oligopolies are too ruthless for motorcoach operators to compete with.

Motorcoach service is also strained by counterproductive public policy: Parking for motorcoaches is increasingly scarce in the major cities. Vehicles must often cruise around for hours. And they pay congestion pricing fees. So too do they pay bridge and tunnel fees. Add to this the lack of coordination, deregulation, competitive free-market service areas and Uber.  Motorcoach operators not thoughtful and lucky will increasingly starve to death. Once a few large operators sell to Uber, the rest are doomed (see taxis).



Passenger Rail

Passenger rail service survives to connect large and small urban areas despite its increasing cattle car nature. It  survives because of the monopolies which providers enjoy in their service areas. Other than during strikes or track repair, concepts like “shadow line” bus service have disappeared. Subway trains are overcrowded during off-peak periods.  Passengers are turned away during peak periods. Safety is frightening: Two years ago, an AMTRAK train derailed at 83 mph on a curve designed for 30 mph travel.  Pushing and shoving is at dangerous levels: In 2016, 48 subway passengers were killed in New York City, most pushed onto the tracks. Trains are derailing at slow speeds from track disrepair.

Fares cannot be raised endlessly. As riders become poorer and poorer, they will drop out. For all these reasons, the operating and subsidy costs of passenger rail are not sustainable. Passenger rail will soon shrink to the few corridors where it belongs in the first place. Elsewhere, other modes will take its place. Many will not be fixed route services of any kind.

Consolidation and Certainty

With no skill or interest in actually designing a transportation system, most modes are embarrassing in efficiency.  Many fixed routes have not been changed for decades. The default position being advocated is small vehicles driven with robots. Policy makers do not seem to care about the resulting traffic. Because we have no hierarchy of modes, any and all existing fixed route services are vulnerable.

Camouflaged by the repayment of war debt, visionary President Eisenhower enacted the Defense Highway Act of 1953, building 49,500 miles of freeways. Public transportation has seen nothing like it. Nor will it ever. With its faults, public transportation will not be able to compete, despite the traffic it lessens. More workers will simply operate remotely. Those with physical skills will either find local work or increasingly become homeless (see Los Angeles).

Fixed route transit service as we know it is not sustainable much longer under these conditions. It will either die, slim down to skeleton or be consolidated with other fixed route modes – most likely schoolbus service. Many fixed route riders will be siphoned off into Ubers, as they have already.

If you did not see Amazon and Google coming, wait ‘til you see what happens to your transportation company. Until we can “beam ourselves up,” one cannot move physically with an app. But apart from subsidies, one needs some density to stay afloat. NYC motorcoaches will soon be paying congestion pricing surcharges. Time to pay attention is long overdue. Now, weak action will mean no industry.