New Opportunities for Increased Motorcoach Usage in Transit Service

Just as the bottom was about to drop out of the transit industry – ridership so low that a few systems abandoned fares altogether – new opportunities for increases in ridership are opening up. I am certain that the dysfunctional transit sector will squander the major opportunity. But it still interesting table talk.

The opportunity is derived mostly by the substantial number of riders and potential riders working remotely – either totally or, more recently, on a hybrid basis. In either case, the roadways of many cities should thin out meaningfully (despite the dynamic known as “latent demand”), making transit move faster (in the same traffic stream as automobiles) than it has for decades, despite still serving multiple stops – which oddly enough provide more opportunities than they do constraints.

Missing Pieces and Missing Opportunities

This reality is likely true even while so many pieces of a coherent transit system have been reduced or eliminated – while also never fully developed. I identified the major pieces in previous National Bus Trader installments. These components include feeder service, which disappeared almost altogether (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-3-feeder-service/), park-and-ride lots — great decreased and many now too costly to be added to the system (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-2-park-and-ride-lots/), ridesharing, which was stupidly designed to compete with transit rather than to supplement it (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-5-ridesharing/), and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which have been reduced as a political reality (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-6-high-occupancy-vehicle-lanes/). The use of alternative work schedules never “took off” in this country (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-1-alternative-work-schedules/). And improvements in the design of fixed route transit systems are so scarce that the could not fill a commercial airline’s barf bag (see https://transalt.com/article/making-public-transportation-work-part-4-system-design-and-networks/).

The reduction in traffic from otherwise riders working remotely, or traveling to work only a day or two a week, has reduced what limited interest there was in adding the missing pieces. Yet the increase in “hybrid” workers could mean lighter loads, fewer stops, faster service and a severe reduction (or elimination completely) of standees – at least in commuter/express service, an underappreciated component of the system since its greater use would unclog the freeways. The growth in transit ridership could have a heyday – if only we could add the essential missing pieces of a true, operable transit system to it, and improve the amenities that could easily be made available in the vehicles.

One obvious sign of this new opportunity is the reduction in traffic – at least in many places. A less obvious but more fascinating sign of this new opportunity is the reduction in many inner-city parking charges. In mid-town and downtown New York City, it used to cost about $75 to $90 a day to park one’s car for more than 90 minutes. In less than a year this costs appears to have slid to about $50 to $60/day. This trend is, of course, not helpful to transit – although the nature of this unregulated market renders it uncontrollable by many city governments. As I noted in an earlier installment of National Bus Trader, if regulations exists, and if they contained a modicum of thought, parking rates could be designed to penalize single-occupancy vehicles: In this modern, reduced-cost environment, it might cost single occupancy motorists $90/day, vehicles arriving with two occupants $50/day, vehicles arriving with three occupants $30/day, and vehicles arriving with four or more occupants nothing. One consequence of such a structure would be to increase ridesharing – in competition with transit.

Yet I doubt many three- or four-passenger loads would materialize: Going to all this trouble, some if not many of these travelers would mode-split to transit – where unlike ridesharing participants, they would not be confined to rigid pickup and drop-off schedules to avoid inconveniencing other members of their carpool. With enough park-and-ride lots (most of which charge nothing), the cost of traveling to and from the inner city would be a pittance. And the flexibility to travel in both directions would be open-ended rather than strictly defined. These dynamics might give public transit a chance to serve as competition. Improvements in the amenities in these vehicles – like first-class compartments with fully reclining seats – would further draw riders to the mode.

This dynamic would produce a major boost to the motorcoach industry, as most commuter/express vehicles are motorcoaches – which could be packed with even more amenities, even with the relatively short trips involved. For example, using shopping centers as park-and-ride lots would allow commuters to shop and accomplish numerous other time-saving and convenience goals, ranging from grabbing a cup of coffee for the inbound trip to dropping off dry cleaning (and picking it up on the return trip). In general, combining more luxurious vehicles with opportunities to get other things done along the way would create a sea change in one’s perception of transit.

The Nature and Structure of Remote Working

The New York Times article titled, “Who Still Works From Home” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2024/03/08/business/economy/remote-work-home.html) was an eye-opener to even the casual reader. But it provides a terrific glimpse of the radical changes in commuter travel that opens up all kinds of opportunities to rebuild a transit system that was dying, by 10 percent a year during even the two years before COVID-19 struck. Now, particularly with wifi available on most motorcoaches (which enables laptop and tablet users to eliminate the otherwise annoying banter of fellow riders talking on cell-phones), and which provide the ability to get work done on the vehicle, the allure of travel by bus or motorcoach is even stronger – and makes those days when “hybrid” workers must travel to work more productive, and the work-day shorter – accomplishing a form of alternative work scheduling not envisioned before laptops came along.

A commuter with a long ride who makes good use of this amenity might only need to remain at work for six hours. And these six-hour days could be staggered to broaden both the AM and PM peak periods – lessening traffic during both, and increasing travel speeds in the process. Or this amenity could translate into a four-day work week – allowing even full-time workers who must attend work physically to enjoy, to a great degree, the benefits that those working hybrid work-weeks do.

Most discussions of those Americans working remotely or partly-remotely (i.e., “hybrids”) are dominated by socio-economic consideration focusing largely on education. As an example, of those working from home all the time or part of the time:
• Nine percent have a high school degree or less
• 17 percent have some college
• 44 percent have a bachelor’s degree
• 29 percent have a graduate degree

Some socio-economic factors are often considered. For example, those working remotely are more often White and Asian. Overall, about 80 percent of the workforce works fully in person, while 20 percent work fully or partly remotely.

These data, and most others, rarely if ever focus on what percentage within each sub-population typically travels by public transit. So to even speculate about this factor requires some imagination, and a considerable a margin of error. But it is important speculation. And it has a sound history: For decades, transit professionals noted that a large percentage of those riding transit (for all purposes) were “transit-dependent” They either did not have access to a personal occupancy vehicle (or “POV,” as a driver or a passenger) or if they did, they could not afford the expenses associated with using it to travel to work – fuel, maintenance, bridge and tunnel fees and, most daunting in most urban areas, parking costs. New York City’s soon-to-be-implemented congestion parking fees will factor significantly into these expenses, and will tilt the transit-dependency equation even more in favor of transit.

With the exception of ridesharing – a sorely misguided U.S. policy designed for motorists and their passengers to compete with their traveling by transit – one element of the costs cited are deliberately designed to guide, if not push, these individuals toward traveling to and from work by transit. This would not be a bad thing, or even a measure of discrimination, were transit services any good. But the fact that since the Pandemic, a solid 20 percent of all employees work totally or partly remotely softens this inequality because, for one, these remote workers open up more roadway space, lessen traffic and increase the travel speeds of buses and coaches as well as personal occupancy vehicles (POVs).

Changes and Opportunities

As noted above, while higher transit travel speeds are an important incentive, the missing pieces of a coherent transit system provide discouraging disincentives. While cause-and-effect are hard to prove, the disappearance of these “missing pieces” or the failure to develop or fully-develop them appear to be a major, direct cause of the transit industry’s disappointing severe decline in ridership and, along with it, the decline in the percentage of operating costs covered by riders.

As noted, the failure to study what percentage of each of the four sub-population groups above traveled to and from work by public transit impedes a better understanding of it. But it is obvious that income – which is largely dependent on education – is one of the primary factors, if not the most significant factor. Thinking about it in the simplest of terms, there are two variables that provide a glimpse of this relationship:
1. As a class, those who can work remotely earn more money, and are considerably less transit-dependent.
2. Those who earn less money increasingly work in jobs for which they have to show up in person.

This means that the non-college-educated segment of our population is clearly the most transit-dependent. What about transit ridership by those who are not transit-dependent? One interesting bump in the relationship between levels of education and remote workers in the fact that the increase in working remotely reverses at the top: Those workers with an advanced degree work remotely less often than those with a mere college degree. The simplest, most obvious explanation for this statistic is that these individuals are more likely to include owners, bosses and members of upper management, whose physical presence is more critical. In some case, like doctors, the need for their physical presence is just as important as it is for nurses. But few nurses are transit-dependent, and do not comprise a high percentage of transit riders.

The same is likely true or more highly paid “blue collar workers” such as policemen and firemen, as well as teachers. Regardless, as more and more American workers’ jobs become increasingly dependent on higher-level skills, things must be done to attract them to use public transit, even if they can afford the costs of travel by POV. With transit ridership at its lowest level ever – even below the point when the industry’s survival was rescued by capital and operating assistance (1964 and 1967, respectively) during the Johnson Administration – and operating ratios clearly at their lowest levels ever (and more and more dependent on Federal, state and local operating assistance) – transit cannot be expected to survive by transporting merely the transit-dependent.

The conclusion of all this is that providing the “missing pieces” is only part of the solution. The other part must be to improve the vehicles – an important part of the “travel experience.” Last year, in an effort to help identify a huge, potential new market for the motorcoach industry, I defined the characteristics of a motorcoach that could compete favorably with short-distance or medium-distance commercial air travel (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/) – if the industry could ever accomplish anything substantial (I am not convinced it can). But some of these easier-to-install features – particularly the creation of a first class compartment with some other cheap-and-easy amenities (a coat closet, a microwave, a coffee machine, etc.) – would make sense for commuter travel, just as some of the missing pieces could be skewed to provide amenities for some non-transit-dependents (e.g., one stop could be at a medium-sized shopping center).

The inescapability of this equation is the fact that part of the heart of this solution is motorcoaches – not buses. Without the amenities possible for improved motorcoaches operating in commuter/express mode (instead of a mix of buses and conventional motorcoaches), filling in the missing pieces will not be enough to make sense for the volume of total riders needed to keep transit alive. One may think the industry can shoehorn a broader section of the population into the transit-dependent class by creating more constraints to POV travel. like congestion pricing, or by further increasing bridge and tunnel costs. But as New York City has shown – and likely many others – as POV travel has declined, parking fees have decreased – offsetting the deterrent that congestion pricing will create.

The harsh reality is that one cannot force people to ride transit simply by making private occupancy vehicle alternatives more punitive, and erecting more and more barriers and hardships. These factors clearly have not worked. It is about time that we began doing things to make riding public transit more attractive. Filling in the missing pieces of the system, and creating better, high-end vehicles, must both be part of this equation. Neither alone will return enough former riders and attract new ones to make enough of a difference to ensure the continued survival of public transit. As noted, the expanded use of upgraded motorcoaches is not just a key part of this solution. It is doubtful that the solution can be achieved without them.