Plans, Preparation and the S-Word: The U.S. Bus Industry’s Failure as an Evacuation Tool

My Boy Scout experience taught me, above all else, to “be prepared.” My childhood in the Cold War Fifties exposed me to air raid drills and a well-organized civil defense system. My experience as an Air Force ROTC cadet taught me that strategies are generally more effective then tactics. My former career as a jazz musician and songwriter taught me that one can generally compose better melodies than one can improvise. My three decades of experience in paratransit operations taught me, “do not dispatch trips you can schedule.” And my experience as a forensic expert in nearly 200 public transportation-related lawsuits taught me that one is generally held liable for failing to properly respond to what is reasonably foreseeable. This past late August and early September, Americans witnessed nothing remotely like what any of these lessons would convey. Perhaps the transportation industry’s “S” word is neither ‘safety’ nor ‘security.’ Perhaps it is ‘slumber.’

With no serious damage to either of my homes, I feel truly blessed to have survived both the 1993 Northridge Earthquake (I resided seven miles from the epicenter) and September 11th (I reside only about 1500 feet from what was the North Tower). But experiencing both disasters, and witnessing a mix of heroism, bungling and corruption, affords me an unusual perspective for understanding the genuine essence of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and the chaos of their aftermaths. So too does my background as an urban planner, and my career in the bus business.

Buses, Buses Everywhere but Not a Seat to Sit

In the words of 18th Century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Rime of the Ancient Mariner):

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Among the immediate post-Katrina discoveries was a fleet of several hundred submerged school buses parked neatly side-by-side in downtown New Orleans. But this fleet was a pittance compared to the nearly 500,000 school buses parked around the country a week before the U.S. school year even began – not to mention tens of thousands of transit buses and motorcoaches, not to mention many of the Deep South’s motorcoaches lolling around during the charter and tour business’ “off-season.” At the end of August, the major story of the year was weather. Within a week, the story was buses. Not enough, not getting there when they should have. Too few, too late.

Plans and Nothingness

Even without global warming exacerbating it, weather happens. At its worst, bad weather devastates places that should not have been allowed to become population centers in the first place – places like Los Angeles, Amsterdam and New Orleans. Late-night comedians have often quipped that Los Angeles has four seasons: Earthquake, Drought, Fire and Mudslides.

In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration was soundly criticized for its failure to respond. Valid or not, such criticism completely misses the point: The point is that the response was ineffective because there was no intelligent plan to base it on. Using only my blue crayon, here is a plan – including many elements that already exist:

  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.

Perhaps this is not much of a plan. But it is far more of a plan than we saw implemented in New Orleans. Especially with 500,000 school buses not even providing pupil transportation in late August, such a plan could have ringed the high ground surrounding New Orleans with clean, dry, mobile, emergency housing, along with luggage space for some clean clothing and prized possessions, hours before the storm even began. Once the rain stopped, these units could have transported their inhabitants (sleeping preferably on either school bus bench seats or, better yet, in reclining motorcoach seats) to places that could have accommodated them – places that could have been identified while the storm was still raging, much less shortly thereafter.

If the levee had not broken, many or most of these passengers could simply have returned to their homes. But given the not-entirely-unforeseeable catastrophe the broken levee presented, most of the City’s residents would have already been housed, temporarily, before it unleashed its torrent. One bus-load at a time, these individuals could then have been transported to any number of accommodations through the country – instead of piling up hoards of them in close-by venues like the Houston Astrodome, a stop-gap measure needed because, by then, many of these individuals were near death. While the population was housed in buses, rescue teams and supplies could have been targeted to the staging areas. On their way to the staging areas, the buses could have transported food, water, medical supplies, cots and tents. It is not as though we do not have four branches of a military establishment accustomed to accomplishing such feats – as many of their predecessor organizations have done for thousands of years.

This plan obviously does not solve all the problems – like the “feeder system” of vans, trucks, boats and helicopters needed to get rescuees to the staging areas. It does not solve the problem of inducing the victims to follow the plan – although pulling the funding trigger identified in step #1 would probably have coaxed a considerable degree of cooperation. The plan does not guarantee that everyone would evacuate early, or even later. But as an interim measure in a best-case scenario, it is hard to imagine that most residents would not have availed themselves of such resources. The plan does not address the need for individual search and rescue operations – although the task left to those subsequently engaged in these efforts could have been greatly simplified if the volume of residents still stranded had been significantly thinned, much less specific individuals accounted for, by neighborhood or sector, via the now-house-buses’ two-way communications with dispatchers. And the plan might not deter a spectrum of residents who might remain in town to loot it – although the line between looting and retrieving emergency supplies in New Orleans was often blurry. More than likely, a lot of looter/survivalists would have gladly traded in their scavenging-in-the-sewerage adventures for a few cozy nights on a cool, dry bus – much less a few weeks (or even months) in a run-down motel with a telephone and a TV set. Regardless, such a plan would have thinned out the crowds which the absence of a plan left unattended, and would have greatly simplified the task facing law enforcement and military personnel deployed to safeguard them and protect their property. In simple terms, the vast majority of New Orleans’ residents could have been sitting, eating and sleeping on a clean, safe, dry bus within a single day after the rains stopped. Many of them could have reached these sanctuaries before the storm even struck.

Levees and Levites

Such a plan hardly mirrors the challenges faced by Noah. Instead, the armada, fueling stations and staging areas envisioned above would already exist, and further, would lie within reach. Most individuals needing them would hardly need herding. If there is any doubt about the plan’s feasibility, do the math: Traveling at 50 mph, a vehicle can traverse the entire United States, from coast to coast, in two and a half days. So, Alaska and Hawaii excluded (their own bio-sensitive concerns deserving of a similar plan), most points within the continental United States lie fewer than a single day’s drive for at least 100,000 buses or coaches.

Assuming each bus or coach could accommodate 20 passengers (leaving ample space for possessions and sleep, and not overpowering the restrooms that much of the motorcoach contingent would provide), such a fleet could house four times the population of New Orleans a single day after the mandate for it was launched – assuming, again, that the local community had developed its emergency feeder system. Similarly, a fleet of 10,000 motorcoaches filled to capacity could house such a City’s entire population. Buses and vans could provide shuttle service from sub-staging areas (since there would not likely be enough room to park each personal occupant vehicle at the primary staging areas).\C2 Supplementing large trucks and buses, a feeder system of small- and medium-duty trucks, vans and SUVS could also shuttle food, clothing and medical supplies, initially shipped to nearby freight rail terminals, among the various staging areas.

Lest one argue that no one could have predicted the New Orleans levee breaking (a specious claim: When one melts down billions of gallons of ice, where does one think the water will go?), little harm would have been done had the fleet identified above been deployed simply as a precaution. (Never mind its value during the storm.) Once the storm had subsided, those individuals whose houses remained habitable could simply have returned to them, the remaining passengers could have been consolidated into fewer vehicles, and the lion’s share of these vehicles could have returned to where they came from. Thus, even if the fleet did not provide any transportation, it could have provided temporary housing, dry space for valuables, restrooms, beds, and a centralized delivery point for the distribution of food and medical supplies. Even with this limited use, such logistics would hardly have constituted an extravagance.

Particularly because of their restrooms, luggage capacity, high floors, fuel capacity, air conditioning (if only for brief, battery-draining moments to provide intermittent relief) and, increasingly, wheelchair lifts (which would also facilitate the loading of food and the unloading of garbage), motorcoaches would presumably comprise the premium component of this fleet. Unfortunately, we may not have enough of them nearby to fully address the need. So, even though hundreds of thousands of other buses might be able to supplement them, the size of the nation’s motorcoach fleet is problematic. Because a larger fleet is needed for other reasons, this component of the plan justifies serious examination.

Roots and Origins

During my years as an urban planning graduate student, the corporate dynamics triggering the suburbanization of America were only bar talk. Since that politically-correct era, the havoc wreaked on this country by the carefully-orchestrated Defense Highway Act of 1954 and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Insurance Act have worked their way into the mainstream curriculum. The replacement of a thick nationwide network of motorcoach services with AMTRAK branch lines is only frosting.

It is possible that no one foresaw the vulnerability these changes would bring in the aftermath of events like Hurricane Katrina. But before the swirling waters even began to subside, the lack of public transportation vehicles for evacuation purposes became the core problem. (It is now simply a core “issue.”) Perhaps such a fleet would exist if, as in Europe, buses and coaches were considered part of the mainstream infrastructure used by every fabric of society, not simply a last resort of the transit-dependent. But it is also true that the sparcity of our fleet contributes to this very sensibility. Were it not for events like Hurricane Katrina and a class of disasters (including terrorist attacks) likely to create similar needs, one might argue that the notion of “build it and they will come” would be extravagant. Hurricane Katrina rendered such a response far less appropriate.

Fleets and Flexibility

As a member of the U.S. transit community, I feel strongly that a healthy passenger rail network is vital. But only where it makes more sense than alternative modes. In the Northeast Corridor, for example, the freeway and major arterial networks could not accommodate a flotilla of buses providing a capacity equivalent to that provided by passenger rail services. Further, within this corridor, passenger rail services operate somewhat efficiently: Compared to subsidies of hundreds of dollars per rider on many of the system’s segments, the loss per passenger trip on the Metroliner is only $28; it is only $24 on the Acela Express. In contrast, it would make sound economic sense to dismantle the lesser-used segments of the U.S. passenger rail network bearing almost obscene subsidies – those segments known largely as “branch lines.” This truncation would not mean removing the infrastructure: The roadbeds are still needed for freight rail operations. (Frankly, to these self-supporting and more justifiable rail usages, passenger rail operations are often disruptive.) Instead, the density of intercity motorcoach demand in these service areas is so thin that, recently, hundreds of lines were removed from our network of unsubsidized motorcoach services. Thus, depending on where one lives, he or she can either ride a near-empty train, or can walk. The logic of this dichotomy is faulty.

Were one able to instantly melt down its tracks and reconfigure the passenger rail system to meet the dramatic increases in demand triggered by national disasters, such a restructuring might not be needed – at least not for disaster-related reasons. But obviously this infrastructure cannot be melted down. The enormous carrying capacity of the rail system that comprises its strength as a strategic matter renders it of marginal value as a tactical matter. In contrast, a network of buses would provide the optimal mix of both capacity and flexibility.

It is high time for a national dialog about restructuring the U.S. transportation network.. As an important element of this dialog, it is also time for a national dialog about revitalizing the motorcoach industry. Particularly with gasoline prices nearing European levels, this is an idea who time has long since come, and which is long overdue. If we must experience European-like fuel prices, then we need a European-like transportation system. To mix metaphors, Hurricane Katrina merely provided a footnote of blood, sweat, pestilence and death to the argument.

Funding the Cure

Like the pre-subsidized transit industry forced almost to the brink of extinction by the aforementioned legislation (plus a few other corporate plums like the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad in 1968), there may be no way to revitalize the motorcoach industry without another S word: ‘Subsidy.’ Yet toy-train-buff American legislators have no trouble pouring funds into the branch lines of AMTRAK.

I will not argue that a national passenger railroad system is a bad thing. But it is no match for a nationwide motorcoach fleet when it comes to responding to natural disasters. It is also no match for such a fleet when it comes to cost-effectively serving low-density areas. Whatever subsidies might be needed to maintain a network of 47- and 55-passenger vehicles in these areas would be a pittance compared to the subsidies required to deploy strings of 120-seat, 200,000-lb. passenger rail cars within the same service areas.

Perhaps the S word is ‘safety.’ Perhaps it is ‘security.’ Perhaps it is even ‘subsidy.’ But it is certainly ‘shame.’ It is one thing to funnel trillions of dollars into the hands of a miniscule percentage of the U.S. population while hundreds of millions of the planet’s other inhabitants starve and drown. The reasons for this, including the obviously and necessarily-fragmented agendas of more than 200 individual nations, are too numerous and complex to cite here. Nor do they constitute the central issue. Instead, and in sharp contrast, the inability to mobilize a single nation’s resources to accomplish a far less demanding challenge within our own borders is inexcusable. While we recently, and appropriately, helped rescue a handful of submerged Russian seamen, New Orleans became our own submarine, if not another historical albatross. We did a woeful job of surfacing its passengers.

Planning Outside the Box

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one will no doubt find thousands of stories of ingenuity, sacrifice, Samaritans and downright heroism. But the deficiencies of our mobile passenger transportation infrastructure was a handicap that compounded the ineptitude of our failure to use the elements of this system that at least exist and lay at our fingertips. Particularly with the number of old, ill and disabled individuals whose lives were threatened by the Hurricane, the increasing inclusion of wheelchair lifts on motorcoaches (much less their common inclusion on school buses and their near ubiquity on transit buses) rendered the lack of an adequate motorcoach fleet all the more tragic. Similarly tragic was the failure to effectively use the enormous volume of small- and medium-duty trucks and SUVS that traverse the personal occupant vehicle landscape. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this resource, deployed largely informally and uncoordinated, provided a considerable amount of improvised feeder service. The problem was that there was no intelligent infrastructure to feed. One can only speculate about the degree to which its existence might have facilitated coordination, if only intuitively, if only as magnets.

As an urban planner by education, much less as at admitted bus advocate, I have made countless comments over the years about restructuring the U.S. intercity passenger transportation network. When I was not scoffed at, I was told there was no serious interest in such an undertaking, and that it was nothing but a pipe dream. But the smoke we are now seeing is not evidence of marijuana. It is smoke from crematorium chimneys.

One cannot roll back the tape of Hurricane Katrina and undo the damage. But it is not too late to begin a responsible, justified and urgently-needed dialog about reformatting the U.S. public transportation landscape. Even apart from the need to respond to natural disasters, the goals of such a reconfiguration are obvious: Better mobility, especially for the increasing volume of Americans below the poverty line. Greater decentralization of targets of terrorism. Less dependence on fossil fuels (as a thicker public transportation network would provide more and better alternatives to automobile use). More jobs at the operating level (jobs that obviously could not be transferred off-shore). Fewer subsidy dollars poured down the rat hole of underutilized passenger rail systems. Less air pollution (and warmer and less dense oceans with lower water levels). Fewer deaths and serious injuries (not to mention lower hospital costs). Fewer law suits and pay-outs. And less need to invade, oppress and control other nations as a means of exploiting their petroleum resources.

If these reasons are not sufficient to provoke a serious dialog about restructuring the U.S. transportation network, perhaps planning for the next natural or unnatural disaster might tip the scales. It is bad enough that unstable population centers have been permitted to bloom and explode. It is worse that short-term solutions – like decades of the Army Corps of Engineers dredging the Mississippi Delta – have further bastardized the risks already presented by nature. It is worse still that these failures compound the consequences of melting the polar caps. But if we cannot control these excesses of capitalism, we can at least mitigate their fallout by undertaking some reasonable planning efforts.

If this sounds like the dream of planners, you will have to excuse me for being one. If this sounds too overdramatic, you will have to excuse me for living and working three blocks from what is now known in my neighborhood as The Big Hole. For me, perhaps, the S word is also ‘survival.’

Solutions and Costs

A presumably-more-detailed variation of the simple plan outlined above would not require decision-makers to commandeer every last public transportation vehicle. Local ambulances, vans providing transportation to dialysis treatment centers, and those providing other critical services, need not be involved. Nor would most of the entire fleet of any type of vehicles be needed, since we have more than enough vehicles to mitigate the most serious consequences of any particular disaster in most regions – with the exception of the most versatile flagships of the network: Motorcoaches. Otherwise, some of the nation’s school bus riders could spend a few weeks attending school at slightly-modified hours as their transportation systems were truncated. Similarly, many transit commuters could stagger their work hours, transferring peak-hour trips to off-peak hours where more excess system capacity exists. Motorcoach-traveling slot machine addicts could certainly postpone their outings to Atlantic City, Foxwoods, Las Vegas and Biloxi. Such hardships are trivial compared to those suffered by the residents of New Orleans, and surrounding communities in several states. In a historical perspective, such hardships are mere inconveniences: During World War II, we stopped manufacturing automobiles for several years.

Because the plan outlined above is so rudimentary and so obvious, one has to wonder why no remote variation of it exists. One compelling theory is that, had such a solution existed, someone would have had to pay for its implementation. Unless the burden of these costs could be shifted onto the shoulders of future generations of taxpayers, these costs would likely have cut into the savings and investments a small, rich elite. But future medical costs notwithstanding, it is clear that funding the raggedy relief effort Hurricane Katrina victims are experiencing – including tens of thousands of individuals sleeping on cots in outdoor stadiums – was far cheaper than a better-orchestrated response, particularly one that would likely have involved changes and investments in the passenger transportation infrastructure. Perhaps the S word is ‘suspicious.’ It is almost certainly ‘selfish.’ But it is certainly not ‘solution.’

Images, Visions and Messages

In what many consider to be an overly litigious society, one can only imagine the lawsuits likely to emerge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In Federal and most state courts, a finding of reckless disregard triggers a finding of punitive damages. Many Americans may think they saw the floodgates open with the collapse of the New Orleans levee. In the words of Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” High-intensity hurricanes are multiplying so fast that we are in danger of running out of recognizable first names with which to identify them.

A common media and press image involved massive crowds stranded at sites where they had “not seen a bus for the last several hours.” Any frequent domestic flier, as I am, knows that the only major U.S. airport with even a remotely intelligent taxi configuration is Las Vegas. So it is hardly a surprise that a disparate fleet of buses and coaches from hundreds of large and small transit agencies, school districts and motorcoach companies – and their obviously different radio crystals and cell-phone networks – could not be coordinated. Perhaps America’s new message should be, “Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Only do not send very many of them at one time. We cannot handle the crowds.” Perhaps the S word is ‘stupid.’

I have a vision of a much stronger, safer, smarter, more secure, more prosperous, more flexible and better-coordinated public transportation system. It is about time we began to at least discuss it. This dialog may come too late for many of our nation’s residents in the Deep South. But it must not arrive too late to help the rest of us.

Publications: National Bus Trader.