Means and Ends: Motorcoaches and Problems of Their Roadways

As a barometer of modern America, the use of buses and motorcoaches has gradually expanded – fortunately only marginally. As an example, the January 14th front page of the New York Times carried a story about the increasing conversion of trucks and buses to cheap-food restaurants (“The Vehicle of Street Food Gets an Overhaul”) – a Today’s economy expansion of what is commonly referred to as the roach coach. In contrast, as our Middle Class quietly, submissively and stupidly morphs into the Working Poor, the replacement of buildings serving food with buses and trucks doing so – increasingly with seating, and even tables – is becoming more common.

Less recent examples unevenly executed include the use of buses and motorcoaches for evacuation purposes – most notably those involved (or which should have been involved) in rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina and Rita. While the response to the Rita evacuation – on a far smaller scale and which turned out, thankfully, to be more precautionary than curative, notwithstanding the tragedy of 23 elderly individuals whose single-door coach was blown to smithereens when a raging fire began exploding the oxygen tanks of many whose evacuation was constrained not only by their high concentration of wheelchairs, but also by the single door/narrow center aisle configuration that obviously impeded rescuers from moving in both directions at the same time.

Mean and Ends

These bookends are an unusual way to begin an article about stop safety. But they are appropriate because they point out, increasingly, that buses and coaches are increasingly becoming more than a means to an end. They are becoming an end in themselves. Mirroring this expansion of bus and coach usage, we would be wise to expand our thinking about what a safe bus stop encompasses. Otherwise, the insurance industry’s view that a bus driver’s responsibility ends the moment his or her passengers’ feet touch the ground outside the bus is not far from the recent shake-up of the notion of fine print in lending and mortgage contracts – a shake-up that the banking industry fought with the Obama Administration over every paragraph, sentence, word and punctuation mark. Just like the banking community took a hit, the bus and coach insurance industry is increasingly taking hits because of its unrealistically narrow view of our industry’s responsibilities to our passengers. To acknowledge that our present economy is a poor time to cling to such limitations is a mere afterthought, if not also an irony.

As a liability matter, it is the defendant’s worst mistake to define its services role as providing mobility. The role of a bus or coach is not to provide mobility. Its role is to provide safe mobility. As a member of a National Academy of Science Committee at the outset of this century, I and other members learned that the traveling on a bus or coach is exponentially more safe than traveling by any other means. But as the school bus community has known and publicized for decades, far more bus- and coach-related fatalities and serious injuries occur when the passengers or would-be passenger are off the bus than when they are on it. A lot of this reality obviously has to do with the comparative mass of an Earthling compared to that of a bus or coach when that Earthling is struck by a fellow vehicle.

Not to insult the readers, but it is obvious that, with few exceptions, most buses and coaches do not physically enter either the origins or destinations of their passengers. Instead, they pick up and drop-off their passengers nearby, such that the passengers generally have to walk at least some distance to both meet the bus and to reach their destinations once the vehicle’s part of the journey ends. The key notion in this concept is the fact that\C2 while the vehicle almost always covers most of the journey, distancewise, it rarely covers all of it. As a consequence, part of the trip occurs off the bus or coach. As noted, it is on this very part of the trip where the majority of passengers are killed or injured.

For this reason, we need to accept the responsibility for those parts of a trip that occur off the bus. In other words, a safe bus stop can no longer comprise merely the patch of ground where the passenger plants his or her feet upon stepping off. It must include the area around the bus, the intersection or other area where the passengers board or alight, and a reasonable distance to or from most of the passengers’ origins and destinations. If we accept this responsibility, which frankly is simply consistent with the true nature and length of the trip, we will be able to sell a much greater degree of safety than simply guaranteeing the passengers’ wellbeing while on board. But of course, in order to do this, we must accept the responsibility of optimizing the safety of the non-bus-moving components of the trip. Reasonable and prudent bus and coach operators do this now. Those who are not do not, and as a consequence, often pay dearly for it in the courtroom. But much more is at stake in accepting and optimizing this responsibility than simply the cost of defending lawsuits and paying out damage awards.

Safety and Selling

I have grown nauseous by the redundancy of my arguments, in NBT article after NBT article – arguments often ignored by my fellow industry professionals, that safety could and should be the most productive selling point to bus and coach travel. “Leave the driving to us” may have been meant to convey comfort and convenience in the more innocent world when that slogan emerged – even in the days when buses were full of cigarette smoke. But it is far more important now when travel by bus and coach have become increasingly important because of its dramatically lower costs to both passengers and non-passengers – the latter because of environmental and related considerations (like engaging in wars related to petroleum-based fuel supplies). But they are also increasingly important for other reasons, including the fact that many individuals who might otherwise be able to drive present hazards to fellow motorists and pedestrians alike when they do. I am not speaking only of intoxicated or drug users here, although they likely represent the largest member of this class of individuals. But this class also includes older drivers, sicker drivers, younger and inexperienced drivers, and others, particularly those with deteriorating eyesight, hearing, memory and/or judgment. And increasingly, it will begin to encompass owners of personal vehicles whose crashworthiness has declined – either because of vehicle age, and/or because the funds to properly maintain them will continue to diminish.

For decades, the roughly 60 percent of motorcoach drivers who were elderly was largely a reflection of the leisure and vacation/recreational funds available. Particularly as our jobs – banking, insurance and healthcare industries excepted – are being automated out of existence or shipped overseas, the retirement age of those fortunate enough to remain employed is increasing, while the income those who are not is shrinking. Neither of these bodes well for the future of the bus or motorcoach industries, and we have seen considerable evidence of this for at least a decade now in the school bus community, and more recently in the elimination of routes in the transit sector. At the same time, fuel costs will continue to escalate – the shenanigans of political cycles notwithstanding – and while we cannot hope to afford the dense, two-dimensional rail infrastructure of our European cousins, we at least possess the infrastructure to support an increase in public transportation services – even if this infrastructure continues to crumble. This is because the process of its crumbling will likely take decades, and in the meantime, so much of it is still excellent that we need simply to provide the rolling stock to use it – although we are obviously having great difficulty doing even this. But make no mistake about this. Our nation may currently possess 50 million more automobiles than drivers. But this trend will not continue. The American multi-car family will disappear just as fast as twenty- and thirty-something individuals move back into their parents’ basements, as they are now doing in droves. The innovative motorcoach operators responsible for new concepts like Megabus travel with graduated rate structure, or the increasing deployment of double-decker buses on long, scheduled service/intercity routes, are as far ahead of their time as our recalcitrant paratransit sector computer geeks are behind it. But the dysfunctional and imbalanced economics of the “Automobile Age” cannot go on forever, and an increasing\C2 mode split to public transportation is an inevitable reality, despite the kicking, screaming and sacrifices it will entail.

Fragmentation and Impotence

With my highly unusual career having planted all eight or so of my feet into the transit, paratransit, motorcoach, school bus, special education, taxi, shuttle and non-emergency medical transportation communities, I have never ceased to be astonished by the passivity with which the non-transit sectors tolerate and observe the transit sector’s routine receipt of billions upon billions of subsidy dollars every year while the rest of the public transportation communities – particularly the school bus community with roughly 450,000 vehicles in service 180 days a year – receive virtually nothing. As a member of the transit community, particularly since the hardships imposed upon it by the unfunded mandate of complementary paratransit service for which we, as a nation, should be extremely proud and grateful, I can understand why this community would not want to reach out to fellow communities. Since they own the only pie in town, why risk splitting it? But it is not my opinion that they should. My opinion is that we should all have our own pies, and that creating them is quintessential to the restructuring of our economy on which our survival as a nation will depend.

This is especially true where our system of government seems to imbue the majority of voters with the constant glee of ensuring that two percent of the population controls roughly four-fifths of the nation’s wealth, and further, that this sector not only pays taxes at an abominably lower rate than the lingerers of our rapidly-diminishing middle class (wealthy taxpayers are paid mostly in dividends, which are currently taxed at 15 percent). But for a reason that frightens me to accept, the more obvious this reality becomes, the more deeply it becomes entrenched.

Just as the continuation of this major dynamic will translate into the end of what was once the greatest nation this planet has ever known, it cannot go on forever. It will either change, or we will descend into the third-world country that so many of us are already living in. I am not just talking about civilians here: Several years ago, a meaningful study revealed that when he or she loses his job as a motorcoach driver, he or she runs completely out of money in three weeks. So I am not merely speaking about Americans in general. I am speaking about us.

Banding Together

Just as the steelworkers’ union and teachers union have become a forceful voting bloc, the public transportation industry could be as well if we would only realize our collective strengths and select leaders willing and capable of working together for the common good of both our industry and our nation. This will not require a complete Europeanization of our country – a transformation that is so unaffordable that it is not even worth discussing. But what is possible is a explosion of grown in the bus and coach sector – including the dreaded “S” word: Subsidies.

At the operating level, we must increasingly do our part to expand the value of our services, not only in the sense of increased mobility and increased affordability, but in the sense of enhanced safety and reduced exposure. But more globally, we must come together as an industry to make an unavoidable and critically-needed change to the structure of our society and how we move around in it. In these, we have made five and a half decades of blunders, stemming back to the Defense Highway Act of 1953 and the Home Loan Mortgage Insurance Act of 1954 – both the result of a conspiracy among the automobile, steel, tire and related industries to transform our urban form into one that was, frankly, idiotic, and which as we are now learning, is unsustainable. Within this form, we have also made countless blunders, like “new starts” (i.e., single or limited light or medium-duty rail systems in small urban areas where it would have been cheaper to buy every rail passenger a new Mercedes than to create and support a rail structure hopelessly below the critical mass of scale required to support it). But when milk is spilt, it is not always easy to mop it up. So now that we have committed to this folly, we can at least mitigate the damage by increasing the critical mass by creating a thicker, more usable and seamless transportation system around it. In simple terms that we can at least afford (if we effect intelligent priorities), this transformation means more buses and coaches.

Finally, do not make the mistake of treating these realities simply as a viewpoint. Time stands still for no one. It never has. It works in favor of only those who make intelligent decisions, even when they are costly and painful. But the window of opportunity for such change will not remain open forever. As things are now going, it may not be many more years before it too late.

There is a reason Cuba has the best automobile mechanics in the World: They have not received an American car for 51 years. And despite the benefits that we so desperately need to sell them some, we remain to politically entrenched in utter obsolete stupidity that such considerations fail to even enter the larger debate. But driving 20-, 30-, 40- and 50-year old cars around is not just a Cuban thing. If we cannot pull our industry together, it will soon begin to become an American thing. Personally, and selfishly, I am not that concerned. I am 63 years old, and about the time that future becomes our reality I will likely be drooling in a nursing home. But I would hate to face this future were I merely 40, or particularly if I had young children.

The population growth and family size of Europe is so low that by the year 2050, Europe will need to import 50,000,000 immigrants. Educated Americans, particular with college degrees, will soon have the World at their doorsteps. But you better run out and purchase a Swedish-language version of the Rosetta Stone and hope that your Microsoft technology does not self-destruct before you master it. Otherwise, if you plan to remain here, you need to start accomplishing some very different things. If not, perhaps it would be a wise idea to learn all you can about repairing old cars, and hoarding gasoline. Because if you do not, your future will be even more dim that this vision for the vast majority of Americans.

I would love to participate in the enormous wave of change needed to reinvent our industry, and our country. But I cannot do it alone. If we are lucky, a handful of energetic, far-thinking and hard-working readers will pick up the gauntlet and begin to demand the changes needed. If not, I hope you all enjoy your memories of public transportation.

Publications: National Bus Trader.