Responding to Adversity by Abandoning Support
Unusual for a writer in a motorcoach magazine, I have often illustrated problems which surfaced in other modes. And I have discussed how operators, agencies and other parties associated with those modes have succeeded or failed to address them.
These lessons are far more important now because of the impact of COVID-19 on motorcoach ridership, vehicle production, and the successes or failures of the industry as a whole to cope with these problems. An example of a partial success was discussed in the November, 2020 edition of NATIONAL BUS TRADER: “Small Efforts and Big Differences.” An example of the depth of failure and corruption (not in the motorcoach field) was covered in the January, 2020 issue: “Making Money by Compromising Health.”
Roots and Routs
I have often written that many problems of the motorcoach industry lie beyond the control of anyone within it. Mirroring this reality, the roots of the public transportation industry’s problems from COVID-19 were established decades ago by political decisions with widespread socio-economic consequences. These failures left us grossly unprepared to stop the Pandemic.
Other roots of our problems lay in our failures to protect, and stem the declining efficiency and effectiveness of, those transportation modes which already existed. We allowed transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft to decimate our taxi industry (see seven installments titled “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses” in NATIONAL BUS TRADER from June through August, 2015 and October, 2015 through January, 2016). But TNCs did not merely disrupt the taxi industry: They contributed significantly to the roughly 10 percent decline in fixed route ridership in 2018 and 2019 – before anyone had heard of COVID-pick-a-number. Our fragmented funding for various modes hardly helped. Some modes (motorcoaches, taxis, limousines) receive no funding assistance. These modes’ are further fragmented by different regulatory agencies governing their operations – often at different levels of government. Some, like transportation network companies, are governed by barely any regulations at any level. Our failure to coordinate policies and regulations for this uncoordinated network of services in the best of times – much less placing many in competition with one another – has only made this network more vulnerable when COVID-19 struck.
Missed Opportunities and Meltdowns
Beyond the roots of this broad problem, the motorcoach industry was routed by its failure to adapt to COVID-19 by redirecting its fleet to meet glaring needs for which these versatile vehicles could not be more perfectly-suited. Many of these options were covered in previous NATIONAL BUS TRADER articles: “Motorcoach Survival in the Age of COVID-19, Part 1: Roles and Responsibilities” (May, 2020), “Motorcoach Survival in the Age of COVID-19, Part 2: On the Road Again” (June, 2020), and particularly in NATIONAL BUS TRADER’S reprinting of “Getting Students Back to School During COVID-19” (October, 2020) – simultaneously published by School Transportation News. Similar mistakes were certainly made by other modes.
New York City deployed 11,000 of its remaining taxis to deliver food, medicine and other goods, when an enormous fleet of trucks and other vehicles could have performed this task just as well or better. Instead, taxis could have helped thin out transit ridership – at least in the early months of the virus, when trains and buses were spreading COVID like forest fires. And like Amtrak’s priorities for profitmaking at the expense of public health (see “COVID-19, Shenanigans and Liability, Part 2: Making Money by Compromising Health.” NATIONAL BUS TRADER (January, 2020), transit was deeply entrenched in its share of super-spreading, particularly as levels of service were peeled back to dramatically reduce the deficits of services only recovering a tiny fraction of their operating costs from farebox revenue before COVID-19 – and packing passengers closer together in the trains and buses that remained.
In an industry like motorcoach service which emphasizes customer service, one cannot respond to a catastrophé by degrading the quality of service. Yet this is precisely what the taxi industry has done in response to being crushed by robots and apps: Using more of them. Several weeks ago, stranded in suburban Atlanta, I tried calling six taxi companies before reaching one – a single, owner-operator surviving by his wits, knowledge of the service area and, mostly, his cellphone. But even with no fleet density, he will last longer and make more profits-per-vehicle than his competitors simply because he gets the phone.
Recently wishing to explore traveling by motorcoach (instead of flights) for 1000-mile trips (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 2 – The Nature of Modern Travel.” NATIONAL BUS TRADER September, 2019), I ran into the same phenomenon: Motorcoach company robots getting the phone. Well, if I have to outsmart a series of robots which cannot possibly answer my questions, I may as well get to wherever I am headed more quickly (while air fares are at a historic low), and live with the consequences (overcrowding, being stranded as flight are consolidated, etc.). I suspect many otherwise-would-be motorcoach customers are making the same choice.
My point is that if core customer service dies, motorcoach service will soon rot in it grave. One does not recover from such problems. The cliché “Old Habits Die Hard” is clearly true about job replacement issues – outsourcing, automation, websites, social media, artificial intelligence and their offspring. Once customers have found telephone calls useless, they are not likely to return to the practice. Instead, one will live and die with his or her app. Try competing against the Uber or Lyft app. Before COVID-19 actually helped many transit agencies reduce their deficits, they began selling bus passes through the Uber app. No surprise that ridership declined by 10 percent, nationwide, during the two years preceding COVID-19. Is there no lesson here?
An Army of None
I clearly remember a lesson I learned from my late father, a WWII glider pilot. Every pilot knew that in a dogfight, five planes (with good pilots) would always beat four (with good pilots). I actually know a few motorcoach owner-operators whom I trust. But in general, I have always been against the concept – one of the many consequences of deregulation. Frankly, no matter how good he or she may be, an “Army of One” will never beat a team. Even apart from obviously having no fleet density whatsoever, a driver with no dispatcher and no other management is at a serious disadvantage. When some of his or her customers learn this lesson, that operator’s density will become even thinner. We do not need armies of one. We need fleets. And we need fleets managed by live Earthlings. But even these teams will not beat the Army of One who gets the phone.
A greater concern is that our army of one will morph into an army of none. Anyone who thinks that the near-simultaneous emergence of autonomous vehicles and TNCs is a coincidence should hop back onto the turnip truck. When interviewed by Vanity Fair in late 2015 (see “Autonomous and Inevitable, Part 1: What is to Come, and What is Already Here” NATIONAL BUS TRADER, October, 2016), former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was asked about Uber’s “driver problem.” He responded by noting that “drivers were only a temporary nuisance.” The disappearance of customer service is a slippery slope to the disappearance of public transportation as we know it. The vulnerable, unsubsidized motorcoach industry, with its failure to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, will be among the first to go.
Seeing the Trees
Another well-worn cliché is the failure to see the forest through the trees. What has been happening to the motorcoach industry and its fellow-modes has been a failure to see the tree through the bark. One view into this abyss is the gradual disappearance of hard copy trade magazines. There are important lessons here. While Amazon effectively wiped out most of the nation’s bookstores (the largest, Barnes & Noble, survives largely through on-line sales), people still prefer to read real books. While hardly anyone frequents a bookstore anymore, 97 percent of those who read books still read hard copies of them. They do not read them on Kindle or any of its competitors’ technologies. The same is true of magazines.
Like any publications or subscriptions (including cable television or “live-streaming” services), access must be purchased. But just as fares cover only a tiny portion of transit operating revenue, subscriptions only cover a tiny portion of magazine production costs, analog and/or digital. The vast majority of these costs must be covered by advertising. Yet mirroring other cost savings in response to COVID-19, advertisers are closing their wallets. Little else may be as shortsighted. Because when all magazines go online, fewer people will read them. Just as with real books compared to Kindle, one will be loath to click-and-scroll through page after page with a touchpad (or swipe through them on his or her phone), much less carry the device from the living room to the bedroom to the bathroom – as one could easily do instead and effortlessly leaf through the pages of a hard copy.
More naive and ominous, if one must get his or her information about purchasing vehicles (or anything else) from an online source, he or she may as well just Google it. So instead of getting advice from a career editor/publisher with a team of writers and a worldwide, interdisciplinary network of professionals, one will effectively get his or her advice from whatever surfaces on page one when he or she enters a keyword – like “best motorcoach” – into Google. What pops up will be the result of the best website developer, the best coder and the best expert at “search engine optimization” (SEO), not remotely an expert in any subject matter, much less buses or coaches, or their equipment or features. From such sources, one cannot possibly geta true sense of anything’s value.
Reaping and Weeping
People have short memories. If a vehicle manufacturer and supplier drops out of sight as Google’s robots begin to govern purchasing decisions, I strongly suggest terminating your advertising departments and filching the best coders and SEO experts you can find from Silicon Valley. They will not come cheap. And page one of any Google search only contains the top 15 or so competitors for any keyword phrase entered – often far fewer than 15. (If you Google “Expert Witness, Boarding and Alighting,” my firm will likely appear as #1, #2, #3, #5 and #6. If you Google “Expert Witness, Catastrophic Motorcoach Accidents,” my firm will appear as #5 – the four above me are there only because they “paid off” Google for their ranking). In most searches, those at the top appear there because they purchased “AdWords” – effectively “paying off” Google to rank them higher than they would be ranked on their merits. For now, Google actually indicates which competitors’ rankings were affected by purchasing AdWords (the term “Ad” appears to the left of the competitor). How much longer do you think this monopoly’s temporary burp of ethics will last? I predict the “over-under” is six months. Anyone willing to bet on the “over,” contact me at [email protected] and let us arrange the bet.
If this is how you wish to compete as a producer, your wish will soon be Google’s profit-optimization priorities goosed through its robots’ algorithms. Disney character Jiminy Cricket once crooned, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” But that was true before home computers, websites and social media took over – where, and another song phrase goes, “truth is but a dream.” Without input from editors and their support teams, your information will soon be the result of pay-offs. As every economy has always proven, those with the most bucks have the most clout. Another difference is, of course, that press and media production costs rise slowly, reflecting their costs. Costs for paying off a monopoly for a handful of positions in an all-or-nothing sales environment will climb as quickly as the customers become desperate. All but a few in any category will become losers – just like most of our nation’s former stores have (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 6: The Starting Five” in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, January, 2020).
Advertising is only one aspect of support. I cite it as an example largely because an error in this area represents a mistake that may be hard to recover from. In general, if you wish to remain a part of an industry, you must support it. This often means investing in it. If you fail to do this in any number of small and large ways – like dropping out of organizations, failing to attend conferences (even if only by Zoom), cutting service to increase your profits by placing your riders at risk (again, see “COVID-19, Shenanigans and Liability, Part 2: Making Money by Compromising Health.” NATIONAL BUS TRADER (January, 2020) – the industry of which you are a part will slowly crumble beneath your feet. When it gets to a certain point, you will find yourself with nothing in which to advertise – and nothing about which to advertise. To stand a platitude on its head, what you fail to sow you will fail to reap.
You can keep your industry alive by investing in aspects of it over which your designers, engineers and marketing staff exercise control. Or you can turn it over to your new SEO crew and cross your fingers. If you do the latter, you will watch your business float away on the next robot’s breathe. If you expect your business to survive by outsmarting Google’s robots, you are a dreamer. While dreams may be fun, it is foolish to stake one’s livelihood on them. There are other things one can do. They include investing and borrowing. But these are both long-term strategics. If you base your business’ future on a tactic rather than a strategy, you may win the battle. But you will lose the war.
An old songwriter, Harry Warren, composed, “I Had the Craziest Dream.” Yours would be to stop supporting motorcoach service when its down for the count. As Yogi Berra famously said: “You can observe a lot by watching.” If the motorcoach industry is not careful, what you watch will be the history of your company and the history of the industry of which it was a part.
The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NATIONAL BUS TRADER, Inc. or its staff and management.