Making More Money: Part 8: The Evacuation Bus

Those of us not yet senile all remember Hurricane Katrina. And apart from the obscene property damage, we all remember the death toll and the suffering toll – both of which could have been avoided had we had taken advantage of a moderate slice of our motorcoach fleet lying within perhaps a six- to 12-hour radius of New Orleans.

We always seem to learn our lessons one catastrophe too late. Indeed, the evolution of U.S. school bus vehicles reflects this very theme, catastrophe by catastrophe. Even then, as the Hurricane Rita tragedy illustrated two years after Hurricane Katrina, we do not always learn our lessons well. As an expert witness to one of that catastrophe’s defendants sued by the estates of the 23 elderly individuals blown to smithereens in the incident, I am bound to not divulge any information about what happened. But that is spilt milk. Yet it is spilt milk from which we can learn a great deal from. So we shall.

Vehicle Selection and Configuration

While the age of the motorcoach involved in the Hurricane Rita fiasco was considerable, and its condition marginable, neither was the core reason for the disaster. However, the principal reason the disaster had the consequences it did stemmed largely from the fact that the vehicle was a single-front-door motorcoach that seemed to take forever to evacuate, given that it was full of elderly/disabled passengers, many of whom were attached to oxygen tanks. This fact, combined with the coach’s narrow passenger aisle, reduced the evacuation efficiency to a fraction of what it would have been had the coach been “accessible.” Now that every new motorcoach must have a wheelchair lift, we are only a decade or two away from having a nationwide fleet of coaches much more valuable for evacuation purposes (even if by speeding up boarding and alighting in a non-catastrophic scenario).

Why would this single feature matter so much? Simple: With two doors, a handful of rescue workers could board, and via the lift door, simply hand down the passengers to a handful of fellow-rescue workers waiting at the street level below the open lift door – while a handful of passengers could simultaneously be carried, albeit less efficiently, down the front stepwell. Or perhaps even more efficiently, the lift platform could be lowered halfway to the ground, and ambulatory and reasonably fit passengers could simply step down, two steps to the ground. The riser heights might be challenging (perhaps 21 inches each) for some passengers. But even these passengers’ hop-steps to the ground could be eased by the presence of a “helper” on each side of the lift platform. Once most passengers have been alighted, even the last handful of wheelchair users unable to safely be removed from their chairs could be lowered down on the lift, since un-securing their three-point securement belts and chairs could be done quickly by a handful of rescue workers already on board.

In simple terms, with a modern accessible motorcoach, the 23 victims of the Hurricane Rita disaster would have been alighted long before the coach exploded and pitched the shrapnel of their exploded oxygen tanks toward and through them at tremendous force. And with far-quicker evacuation, even those passengers who may have died earlier simply from smoke inhalation would also have been removed far earlier in the evacuation sequence.

Frankly, while it might prove marginally useful, one need not even study how quickly this task could be performed for various mixes of passengers. As we all know, or should know, the students of almost every school bus in the country undergo an evacuation drill at least once a year, and even full-size, lift-equipped special education buses with eight or more wheelchair users can be evacuated relatively quickly when most of the occupants are simply removed from their chairs and carried off. Like a modern motorcoach, a school bus has both a narrow center-aisle (13 inches) and a “passive” lift in the rear. So this modes evacuation procedures could quickly be modified to fit the needs of motorcoach passengers, including elderly and disabled ones.

Density and Celerity

Two important questions remain, of course: How many motorcoaches would be needed, and how quickly could they get there? Like the questions, there are really two answers. This is because the answer would be extraordinarily different if the funds proposed for the obscenely-wasteful $48.5B nationwide high-speed rail project proposed by our current administration were used to purchase motorcoaches – since these funds would purchase roughly 370,000 of them (a figure based on two 45-foot integral top-of-the-line coaches and one full-length body-on-chassis over-the-road coach per million dollars). But even without this leviathan fleet, our existing motorcoach fleet is not only large enough to evacuate any of even our largest urban/metropolitan areas, but large enough for the number of vehicles we would need to reach it in a matter of hours. With 50 passengers per vehicle (leaving a few bench seats for water, medical supplies, food and blankets), it would require 20 coaches per thousand. So to evacuate a million individuals, we would need 20,000 coaches. Keep in mind that a large number of evacuees would likely flee by automobile. So a million left over would likely be far more than would require the motorcoach community’s services. Still, even with that large a number of passengers, we could easily get most of the vehicles we would need to almost any large urban area in the country in less than half a day, the most distant of the four corners being Seattle, San Diego, Miami and Boston. It would clearly take longer to get this many coaches to northern Maine or Southern Texas. But obviously we would not need as many vehicles in such places since their population bases are so much smaller, and their highway capacity so much greater. Similarly, our largest cities – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. – are saturated with a thick network of motorcoaches close by. So a large segment of the evacuation could begin within hours.

Coordination and Missing Pieces

It would be an understatement of considerable ignorance to point out how poorly-coordinated our often-duplicative layers of passenger transportation services are, despite the rhetoric of a “seamless transportation system” that periodically vomits forth from the mouths of transit system officials and their funding agencies and lobbying organizations. In truth, enlightened “feeder services” are rare:

  • I designed one of the best (the Carson Circuit Transit System) decades ago; it has rarely been replicated
  • And few members of any sector of the passenger transportation field remember that the first paratransit system – the Haddonfield Dial-A-Ride – was created, in 1969 (as an UMTA demonstration project) as a feeder system to the Lindenwold Rail Line serving Philadelphia from a southern New Jersey suburb.

Regardless, to facilitate a huge-scale motorcoach evacuation, the would-be evacuees would have to be assembled, at clearly-identified and easily-accessible points, into 50-person groups.

Such an effort would likely involve the identification of “staging areas” (preferably near freeway entrances) with ample ample room for parking, and room for stacking up the other, mostly smaller, passenger transportation vehicles – shuttles, taxies, limousines, paratransit and NEMT vehicles (the latter two to transport the disabled would-be evacuees) and even transit buses and school buses – although some of these latter vehicles might be needed to supplement the sparseness of motorcoaches that might materialize under worst-case situations — either in more-isolated relatively-large cities like Minneapolis/St. Paul, Phoenix, Denver or Salt Lake City, or where the need for evacuation is more urgent (e.g., with the threat of a nuclear explosion via terrorist attack or nuclear facility meltdown, or a Tsunami headed toward a coastal city).

Amenities and Optimization

As I have argued elsewhere in this series of installments (i.e., “Making More Money”), and several times earlier in NBT articles, motorcoaches are the passenger transportation’s most adaptable, utilitarian vehicle. We are the chameleons. Most of our modern motorcoaches contain 57 reclining seats, heating, seat-specific lighting and air-conditioning modules, massive under-floor luggage compartments and interior package racks, and unique among non-rail vehicles — even restrooms. The floor height is sufficient to keep us (not necessarily our luggage) dry in flood conditions (although one presumes that the staging areas would be placed on high ground). And the huge engines, batteries and alternators could keep us cool in intense heat, and warm in intense cold. The modern motorcoach contains two roof hatches, four push-out passenger windows, a front door, and a wheelchair lift. Excusing the braggadocio, many even contain electrical outlets, wi-fi connections and, on tour and charter models, stereo and video systems with multiple screens.

With this array of features, these vehicles would not only provide sleeping quarters and restroom facilities, but on-board entertainment – allowing stranded passengers to maintain communications with the outside world, or keeping them occupied during what would likely be extended periods of fear and boredom in other temporary environments.

All these amenities are, of course, supplemented by the two-way radios and, increasingly, digital communication interface systems, like mobile data terminals, available to the drivers – supplemented further, these days, by the plethora of cell-phones and I-pads many passengers are likely to be carrying. Frankly, nothing anyone can think of that moves contains the mixture of survival and comfort features comparable to a modern motorcoach. And with the increase in wheelchair lifts, these features are available to virtually every and any segment of our population. While a handful of additional amenities might make things even cozier (a washer and dryer come to mind), one could frankly dry one’s clothes by placing them next to heating vents. During the hot months, wet clothing does not present such a serious health hazard (although, they also would not pose a severe problem, even during winter months, on a heated bus). Finally, the huge fuel tanks on these vehicles are designed for them to travel hundreds of miles without a fill-up, eliminating the need for a single stop-along-the-way for refueling. And this fuel capacity would provide significant enough range for these vehicles to “fan out” to a plethora of safe havens lying within a few hours of the evacuation site.

Organization and Effort

Clearly, organizing our nationwide fleet (including establishing priorities for which vehicles to use – e.g., tour and charter trips should be cancelled before commuter/express services are abandoned — is a chore to be sure, just as conducting the evacuation itself would be. But at the same time, the complexity of the task is surprisingly mundane. At both the design and implementation levels, coordinating modes and destinations is merely a large time-and-space puzzle – frankly, less daunting than the daily operation of a large city’s paratransit system.

Among the organization, of course, one must enlist and assign specific roles to a large number of individuals, and arrange them into an intelligible hierarchy. And to make this network of services effective, some training should probably be provided, and some materials created and disseminated – although the latter could exist “on-line” and be downloaded and printed out in a matter of minutes, time one would have at the outset of the evacuation effort, just as one would need to spend time packing and shuttering windows.

Stealing from the earlier NBT article noted above, organization really involves only a handful of basic steps:

  1. Pass legislation permitting the President to trigger the reimbursement of agencies, companies and individuals for their provision of reasonable transportation, food, clothing and shelter.
  2. Select optimally-accessible staging areas around every large population center (freeway interchanges, shopping malls and large parking lots would do fine)
  3. Ring these staging areas with sub-staging areas (for collection of “feeder” vehicles, and their connections with the primary staging areas)
  4. Inventory the nation’s combined bus fleets (already done by regulatory agencies, umbrella organizations, vehicle manufacturers and trade magazines)
  5. Identify and distribute information about the network of fueling and repair centers (these are known as gas stations and truck stops)
  6. Provide the President and governors with the right to commandeer vehicles for emergency purposes (most government entities already possess such powers).
  7. Suspend HOS requirements, licensing and fuel taxes, and tolls, and grant qualified transportation providers temporary immunity from liability.
  8. Select and deploy the vehicles to the staging areas, as needed.

Slack and Overflow

It would be impossible to argue that motorcoaches are the perfect vehicle to effect an evacuation on the scale alluded to above, given the fleet’s size and dispersion, particularly under the worst circumstances. But we must also recognize – particularly when the urgency is accelerated – that we can supplement this fleet with our enormous transit fleet, much less our 450,000 school buses (not counting the few thousand stationed in Alaska and Hawaii).

As far as Alaska and, particularly Hawaii go, a very different approach would be needed, and its development should be considered just as high a priority as evacuating “the Lower 48.” Frankly, such a plan would have come in handy a couple years ago when nearby Haiti was practically destroyed, with inconceivable carnage. If we want the World to love us again as it used to, the development of such a plan would not be a bad place to start. Otherwise, the availability of this “overflow” fleet would suggest that two basic plans should be developed – one based on motorcoaches providing all the “long haul” service, and another one relying partly on transit and school buses for this purpose.


Forgetting about the extraordinary flexibility, and endless benefits from an additional 370,000 motorcoaches, the Evacuation Bus only further illustrates the parody of spending $48.5B on a high-speed rail network, largely so that the taxpayers can pay several hundred dollars a trip to subsidize a southern Wyoming citizen’s speedy jaunt to northern Montana. And frankly, other than someone extremely poor, given the more-likely latitudinal and longitudinal rail configuration, how many travelers would likely select this mode of transportation for their trip between Tacoma and Key West, or from Bangor to Laredo?

Music aficionados attribute the phrase “Love is the Answer” to a Broadway tune named “Make Someone Happy” – although plenty of pop groups of the late Sixties pirated this phrase almost endlessly. But in the world of evacuation, love is not the answer. All the love in the world will simply translate into food for the homeless (if they needed food, we should call them The Foodless), the families or orphans of those who didn’t make it, or for rebuilding housing units. Otherwise, no amount of love will matter in an evacuation holocaust, other than perhaps a motorist with an empty seat picking up a hitch-hiker. The answer for a large scale evacuation is motorcoaches. Lots of them. And the organization to go with them.

Sure, there are other ways to go. But none of them makes as much sense, is as flexible and easy to organize, or costs as little with respect to how few lives would likely be lost. We are not the chameleons of passenger transportation for no reason. Clearly, 99-plus percent of our current trips are squeezed into four types of service: Tour, charter, intercity/regular route and commuter/express. But as we all know, the demand for these four types of service, even though they are likely to dominate forever, is finite. If we are to survive and prosper, we must expand our range of services, and we must take creative advantage of the characteristics of our vehicles and operating experiences. But make no mistake about it. In the world of passenger transportation, we are the chameleons. And there is no match for a veritable houseboat-on-wheels when the time comes to evacuate an impending disaster racing toward our doorsteps.

Publications: National Bus Trader.