Over the years, I have predicted countless things in the pages of National Bus Trader. No reader will ever find me to have been wrong. Nor am I wrong about this: Some day, charter and tour service will come back stronger than ever. But that day is a long way off. The challenge is what to do in the meantime.
Particularly from the Pandemic, America is in far deeper collapse than most people would have thought possible. Recent estimates have suggested that renters (and their families) of 20 million households could be evicted after the short-term bans on evictions expire. Other interpretations point out that recent increases in employment merely represent the re-employment of a portion of the 40 million workers who had already lost their jobs. Still other predictions suggest that it will take a full decade for the U.S. to regain the levels of employment it had a year ago. In truth, it never will. We began formally eliminating jobs about 47 years before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. Now Americans are rediscovering the value of savings.
Even at their worse, these predictions do not equate to the end of the motorcoach industry. There are three fundamental reasons why:
- The entire industry only possesses 33,000 motorcoaches.
- Only a portion of these vehicles were deployed in tour and charter service.
- There are countless other things these same vehicles can do – many which they could do right now.
I recently devoted two installments (see Motorcoach Survival in the Age of Covid-19, Parts 1 and 2 in National Bus Trader, April and May, 2020) to both unconventional and conventional things that motorcoaches can not only do immediately, but which are sorely needed. Regrettably, we failed to reassign the public transportation industry’s most versatile vehicles to most of these roles. Perhaps the dots to connect were too small. So in this installment, I shall provide bigger dots.
Mighty Supply and Mini Demand
I know from reliable sources that the State of Rhode Island cannot figure out how to begin the September schoolyear because it does not have enough buses (see, for example, https://www.wpri.com/news/local-news/west-bay/warwick-does-not-have-enough-buses-to-safely-transport-students-come-fall-school-committee-says/). With offense intended for its Department of Education, how stupid can a public agency be? The entire state has only about a million residents, 32 school districts, 23 charter schools (or small charter school networks) and nine other state or regional districts. Regardless of provider type (public agency or contractor), the entire state deployed only 2270 schoolbuses in 2018.
To assemble this armada, Rhode Island school districts rely on both their own schoolbuses and a tiny network of mostly regional contractors (like Connecticut-based DATTCO), mega-contractors (First Student [sometimes branded as FirstGroup America, Inc.] and National Express [still branded as Durham in Rhode Island]), and a handful of smaller, local contractors. Many of these contractors also operate motorcoach service. Some even provide transit service.
More than a footnote, both school districts and contractors have at their disposal the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FEDEX, land line telephones, VOIP phones, faxes and cell-phones. The latter can be used for both phone calls and contact via a growing network of texts and social media. Plus, in a largely-rectangular state of only 1212 square miles, the longest travel distance from one corner to the other might be 40 miles (as the crow flies). A physically fit adult can walk this distance in 10 hours. Matching this demand with this supply would seem childlike.
As a fascinating asterisk, Rhode Island (to its credit) is the only state in the country where every K-8 schoolbus must contain an attendant to cross every boarding and alighting student. So the presence of flashers and stop arms, and a schoolbus’ “taxicab-yellow” conspicuity, would hardly seem to offset the safety- and comfort-related benefits of integrally-constructed motorcoaches with pneumatic suspension systems, plush form-fitted bucket seats with individual lighting and A/C units, electrical sockets and WiFi connections, interior package racks and huge underfloor luggage compartments, fold-down trays and, since 2001, wheelchair lifts and securement systems (and unlike our nation’s schoolbus fleet, on every vehicle). Like schoolbuses, every motorcoach contains push-out windows and roof escape hatches. Further still, almost every motorcoach produced since 2011 contains a three-point occupant restraint system – a system which only eight states (not including Rhode Island) require for full-size schoolbuses. Many motorcoaches even contain compartmentalized seats. Insofar as the Pandemic, most motorcoaches also contain restrooms. Adding a few hundred of these rolling safety fortresses to a small state’s schoolbus fleet is hardly a safety compromise. Frankly, it is an upgrade.
It is only a footnote that many schoolchildren in most countries travel to and from school in motorcoaches. It is another tiny dot that many schoolchildren in America travel to and from school in transit buses and subway cars, with side-facing plastic seats, filled with adults. Many of these adult must travel to work via transit, infected or not – if or when they can even find out. As a smaller dot yet, in 2004 (the last year this statistic was tabulated), the U.S. experienced 52,400 non-family abductions. Refusing to deploy a few hundred motorcoaches for pupil transportation makes no sense.
Dozy Dots and Mega Dots
This concept is not to be confused with, “Mares eat oats and does eat oats (and little lambs eat ivy.)” But the disconnect in public transportation beckons the question of how big a dot must be to be noticed. While the Chinese likely bumped into North American in 1421, other ships with large sails (the Nina, Pinta and Santa Marie) also bumped into it in 1492 on Christopher Columbus’ circuitous trip to India. Along the way, North America was a hard dot to miss even with a crew dozing off.
This journey also illustrates another big dot: Far lower-level species apparently knew about the concept of wind almost forever. For eons, countless species have adapted to it. The most obvious example is birds. Roughly 3400 years ago, the Egyptians appear to have figured out how to move large sailing ships around, using this free energy source, far less-exhausting (and far cheaper) than rowing. So one might think when the Pandemic began that it should have been obvious that air in motion can move about and disperse more freely outdoors. Why we failed to apply this concept to reorient and center the schoolyear around the Summer months is a mystery.
This solution had its limitations, even 50 years ago, when family-owned farms required children to help out during the planting and harvesting seasons. But most of those farms are long-gone, replaced largely by huge, industrial leviathans. But even the small ones are heavily-industrialized. Particularly with Zoom (and its cousins Skype, etc.), one wonders why the schoolyear could not begin in March (with Zoom classes in the northern states) and end with Zoom classes in November. Zoom classes should not be needed at all in many states, and school could be held outdoors year-round. For those who still cannot see the dots, we had indoor schools for thousands of years before we had air conditioning. But we had outdoor schools of some sort tens of thousands of years before then.
The most frustrating conclusion one can derive from these observations is that there are not enough motorcoaches to go around. This hardship should not have stopped Rhode Island. But it also points out the inexcusable folly of thousands of motorcoaches lying around simply because they can no longer provider charter and tour service.
Now and Later
These factors raise the question, “How big must a dot be to be noticed?” Must it be the size of a continent? Can ideas emerge without one bumping into enormous land masses? If they could, tour and charter services would merely comprise postponements.
There is a famous line from the Broadway play “Fidler on the Roof” where a villager informs the Rebbe (the “head rabbi” for those unfamiliar with the term) that they can’t leave because they have to wait for the Messiah. The Rebbe responded, “We will just have to wait for him somewhere else.” Similarly, we will have to do something else with our magnificent vehicles until the market for charter and tour service returns. Fortunately, there are more opportunities than there are vehicles.
The Notion of Savings
I learned how to multiply in third grade. As a fourth grader in 1956, the U.S. educational establishment built upon this skill to teach us valuable lessons about life. Every Wednesday morning, we brought our “bank books” to school, along with a dollar. One by one, we handed the teacher the dollar, and she (in my case) stamped $1.00 into each of our bank books. Somehow unbeknownst to me, the teacher turned this money over to the bank. Almost all students, rich, middle class and poor alike, participated in this exercise.
This exercise was often followed by a lecture about the value of savings, and how compound interest worked. Even while interest rates were low in the 1950s, we learned that each year’s balance was calculated not merely by summing the deposits. It was calculated on the sum of deposits plus interest on previous deposits. Over the decades, we were taught, those savings would grow far beyond the mere sum of our deposits. This was our culture. This was our plan for the future. Essentially it was the American way of life. But it was not simply a means to saving for luxuries about which we fantasized. It was out plan for coping with a rainy day.
Now that reality is setting in, the importance of savings is returning to the forefront. Visiting exotic places – even domestic venues relatively cheap to travel to – will be on the back burner for some time. Coupled with the diminished seating capacity necessitated by social distancing, we will not likely see charter and tour service reach its formal levels for a good decade. Frankly, we may never see it return to this level, particularly after the hit our economy is now taking, and the excuse the Pandemic has given to public and private sector entities alike to eliminate even more jobs. Particularly in the era of cable TV, the internet, movies, social media and free music (a personal gripe), less travel is not a horrible sacrifice. But it is a certain reality.
Working our Way Back
As we recover, a small number of passengers may be able to afford charter and tour fares of the Old Abnormal. Some may be able to afford more, given the significantly higher costs of the shortest airline trips. Introducing first class seating – a bus and train phenomenon found worldwide and on even most domestic airlines – would allow the “Swells” to cross-subsidize the “Prols.” With minor adjustments, the tour and charter sectors could limp back to the New Abnormal, alongside our control of the Pandemic that helps all vehicles return to their normal seating capacities.
In the meantime, I know no one longing to buy a new shirt – while I have a string of friends having trouble giving them away. Saving and giving will remain major themes in the New Abnormal. These two trends do not fare well for haberdashers, beauticians and scores of basic professionals whose services are likely be viewed, by many, as extravagances more than necessities. Bad haircuts are not a serious hardship. In contrast, restructuring and redesigning an economy to keep tens of millions from starving to death is a huge challenge. Filling our vehicles with our choice of passengers and taking them to places we (or they) would like to go are relics of the recent past. Whether or not we adapt to the reality will determine our industry’s demise or survival.
Subsidies and Survival
In the Old Abnormal, as the Middle Class shrank, I felt strongly that the motorcoach industry needed and deserved some subsidies, especially to operate in sparsely-populated areas long-abandoned (and appropriately so) by passenger rail service. But I find the notion of subsidizing the motorcoach industry for its loss of charter and tour service antithetical to the innovation that, until recently, made this nation a major international force and an admired culture. Were motorcoaches put to better use now, they might require moderate subsidies. Particularly during these times, such subsidies would make even more sense. They clearly make sense given the array of businesses we are learning which recently received them.
In 1975, with 26 million survivors (after more than two million were killed), tiny North Vietnam vanquished the most powerful military force ever assembled. Today, a consolidated, post-war Vietnam with more than 97,000,000 people has not yet experienced a single death from the coronavirus Pandemic. Our nation, a bit more than three times that size, has lost roughly 150,000. Both these debacles suggest that we have become increasingly poor at connecting dots.
We cannot repair our entire country in one swoop. There is no guarantee we can ever return it to what it once was. Many are beginning to notice that we lost our edge decades ago. But we can certainly pull our tiny slice of the public transportation industry together – even if other parts of it (transit, paratransit, taxis, schoolbus and non-emergency medical transportation service) are in deep trouble. Perhaps by pulling out sector together, we can help other sectors climb or crawl out.
The last decade has been filled with ugly clichés and more ugly realities: Banks too big to fail. Monopolies to big to stop. Companies which have crushed entire sectors of our economy. By comparison, ideas for resurrecting the motorcoach industry are as complex as a toy. If we are willing to make some adjustments downright trivial in the context of what is going on and what we need, we will be on the road to good health in short time. We will just have to let go of the delusion that we can only provide traditional types of service to which we have grown accustomed. But if that is all we must do with our superior vehicles, given everything at stake, failure is truly what we deserve. The effortlessness of doing otherwise makes this failure all the more tragic and shameful.