Survival and Prosperity, Part 4: Service Concepts

In Parts 1 of this series (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-1-magic-corridors/), I identified a significant, if not extraordinary, opportunity for tens of thousands of motorcoaches to survive and prosper by “mode-splitting” passengers away from short- and medium-distance commercial airline flights. In Part 2 (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-magic-coach/, I described the characteristics of the vehicle that could accomplish this task. In Part 3 (see https://transalt.com/article/survival-and-prosperity-part-2-the-gains-of-winning-the-cost-of-failure/), I provided the rationale for this opportunity, and concluded by summarizing the characteristics of the vehicle needed.

Yet one question remains: Once one has such a vehicle, what does one do with it? On a broad scale, Part 1 of this series answered this question: You deploy the vehicle between medium-size cities served and unserved by commercial airlines, deviating slightly to pick up and drop off some passengers at selected collection points along the way. But within this broad concept, there are a number of variations to thicken one’s ridership while increasing travel time for the majority of passengers only moderately, and in many cases, insignificantly.

Route Deviation
This concept has been employed in fixed route transit service for decades. Route deviation was a “hot” idea in the Seventies, but faded for a number of reasons. Among them, ridership has increasingly failed to cover transit operating costs even when service focused on major trip generators. So increasing travel time to pick up a handful of additional passengers produced diminishing returns: Each successive, out-of-the-way passenger costs more to transport than those served at stops along the route.

Compounding this problem, few fixed route bus systems are designed at all. Instead, their routes simply meander through various portions of the service area. To distinguish these routes from the “local” routes serving inner cities, and the commuter/express service often provided by motorcoaches, these convoluted routes are commonly referred to as “regional service.” With tiny changes from decade to decade, these routes simply evolve – and slowly. The redesign of a major transit system since its inception is almost unheard of.

In a few systems where route deviation is still employed, ridership levels are so thin that they comprise an embarrassing waste of taxpayers’ money. For example, some lines of a small system in southern New Jersey average less than one passenger per hour. Upon request, the vehicles may deviate one-tenth of a mile from the route – and then return to the same point on the route from which the vehicle departed. Yet in this system, hardly any passenger is picked up from, or dropped off at, any of its designated stops. Most riders simply flag the buses down along the route. Or wishing to alight, they simply “chime” the driver to stop where they want to get off. In either case, the driver chooses a safe place to stop – a dangerous practice in even the most rural of service areas. In contrast, stop selection should be a management decision – not the decision of a driver or stop selection software (see https://transalt.com/article/safety-compromises-part-1-introduction/).

Interestingly, if one applied this same concept to a motorcoach route between 250 and 750 miles long, where many passengers (especially on longer trips) slept on board, the deviations could exceed a tenth of a mile with little impact on overall running time. Yet a handful of deviations would add riders to the 42-passenger Magic Coach deployed on the route. The vast majority of riders would board and alight either at stops in medium-sized cities or small communities through which the vehicle passed, or at designated stops along the way. The handful picked up or dropped off apart from these points would add only a tiny portion of additional running time to a route of this length. Yet the addition of a handful of additional riders would both make the service more profitable and keep the fares low for everyone on board.

Finally, many of these deviations could occur during the “night” and “owl” periods of the longer of these routes. For such routes, on which many passengers would sleep on board, stretching an otherwise 11-hour trip into even a 12-hour trip would be harmless, and pose no significant hardships to almost any passengers picked up or dropped off at the designated stops.

Point Deviation
Point deviation – a slight variation of route deviation – was a short-lived fad in the 1970s. In point deviation, the vehicle must leave the route only at a designated stop, and then rejoin the route only at that particular stop. So no portion of the regular route would be skipped.. Like route deviation, this approach was not effective in fixed route transit. But, like route deviation, such an approach could be a valuable tool in motorcoach service – increasing the “coverage” of the route while consuming only small increments of additional running time.

Coordination
One important difference between transit and motorcoach service is that transit service operates as a system – even if poorly- or barely-designed, as most are. In contrast, most motorcoach services operate as a series of independent routes. There are some exceptions, particularly with large service providers (e.g., Greyhound), where the large fleet enables passengers to transfer from one route to another at designated transfer points – although these transfers are limited mostly to downtown terminals in major city centers. The typically short “layover times” are not often given much consideration compared to the concern for it that some commercial airlines factor in, particularly at major. But working together with the common goal of filling up their Magic Coaches (as well as conventional coaches), there is no reason why a multitude of separate companies cannot work together to improve a passenger’s ability to transfer from one company’s motorcoach to that of another. In suggesting this approach, it is important to recognize that the genuine competitor is not another motorcoach provider. It is the commercial airline industry.

Common Spares
Anyone who has ever experienced a serious delay in commercial air travel – which must include almost everyone who has ever flown – should recognize immediately that, unlike most ground transportation modes, commercial airlines have no spare vehicles. By comparison, almost every transit and paratransit service has a “spare ratio,” typically between seven to 15 percent of its total fleet. When one vehicle is out-of-service, or experiences a breakdown, another vehicle is quickly deployed to pick up the out-of-service vehicle’s passengers and continue them along on their journey. In worse-case situations, this procedure typically delays the passengers’ trip by 20 to 30 minutes. In motorcoach service, particularly employing coordination with fellow companies (cost-splitting would be child’s play), the delay might be a couple of hours at most.

This delay is very different than that of airline passengers being stranded overnight, often sleeping on the floor of the terminal (the bench seats of which all contain handles separating one seat from another – ostensibly to keep our growing homeless population from occupying them at night, when the terminals are otherwise empty). (See https://transalt.com/article/expanding-the-mode-split-dividing-line-part-1-exponential-airline-industry-corruption/.) Coordinating spares among all companies deploying motorcoaches in each corridor would also reduce each participating company’s spare ratio, reducing capital costs significantly in an industry with a thin profit margin.

Posting
Posting vehicles at strategic positions within the service area or corridor served is another way to reduce the delays from vehicles running behind schedule or having broken down. This approach is employed commonly by taxi companies. In addition to compensating for delays, it reduces response times between trip requests and the arrival of the available vehicle nearest to the requested pickup point. In sophisticated taxi companies, knowledgeable dispatchers often “reposition” vehicles after their drop-offs so that the unoccupied vehicles in the fleet as a whole are better positioned to more quickly respond to each successive trip request (most efficiently in systems where passengers request trips from dispatchers rather than wait for the next empty taxi to flag down as it cruises by). But even in “cruising cities” (e.g., NYC, Chicago, San Francisco), drivers are repositioned either by dispatchers or, often, by the knowledge of individual drivers who know how to station themselves closer to the next likely response. Some inequities occur when drivers make these choices, particularly when outlying parts of the service area experience a disproportionately lower density of vehicles, and especially in systems where drivers “cruise” – since they rarely cruise segments of the service area with a low density of demand.

Timed Transfers
In a timed-transfer “pulse” system, all or most vehicles converge at a central point in the service area at roughly the same time. The tighter the timing, the shorter the layover/transfer time. This is largely a transit concept – even while it is rare in a sector almost devoid of any meaningful planning. I myself designed such a system in 1983 (The Carson Circuit Transit System, in Los Angeles County – see https://transalt.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/carson_circuit_map_big.jpg). Every vehicle converged at a mall in the City’s center every 30 minutes (later extended to 40 minutes, in 1993, when, swollen with demand and as a result of other changes, the schedules became too tight for the vehicles’ 30-minute “clock-face” headways). (See https://transalt.com/article/tight-schedules-part-3-fixed-route-transit-service-2/).

A service area’s urban form has much to do with what is possible with such an approach. But the flexibility of this type of service in a long, moderately-wide, medium-distance corridor with scores of vehicles circulating within it offers ample opportunity to focus the arrival times of multiple vehicles on a few central points along the route. One can easily envision a 30-minute layover time (or less) between multiple routes – compared to the often hours-long layover time between connecting flights by commercial airlines, even at huge airline terminals with scores of flights arriving and departing every hour. Keep in mind that commercial airlines rarely coordinate transfers from one airline to another – a customer-unfriendly practice that greatly lengthens layover times for non-direct flights — which air travelers cannot help but notice have been increasing dramatically in the past several years as passenger convenience is increasingly sacrificed for great profits. (Again, see https://transalt.com/article/expanding-the-mode-split-dividing-line-part-1-exponential-airline-industry-corruption/.)

Floaters
Deploying “floaters” has limited application, as the same task can better be accommodated by feeder service (see discussion below). A “floater” would general involve a smaller vehicle designed to pick up and drop off passengers whose origins and destinations lie too far from the corridor’s principal stops by the motorcoaches employing any (or none) of the concepts above and below. Ridership would be low, even significant higher fares would not likely cover their costs, and the vehicles could not realistically contain the range of amenities which the Magic Coach easily could (assuming some OEM is willing to produce some). But a group of companies coordinating to serve a commercial-airline corridor, and making a considerable profit from it, could absorb the costs of a few floaters, if only as a marketing tool – offering a gesture of good will to those passengers unable to access the Magic Coaches operating in a particular corridor. In a rational nation’s transportation system, such vehicles would be eligible for subsidies – although the notion of providing a dime to a motorcoach carrier is anathema to a country where small (often rural) transit systems cover one or two percent of their costs from farebox revenues, and where even many major cities’ transit systems recover a pittance given their system’s mindless designs imposed on a service area with enormous density (e.g., Los Angeles County’s transit system recovers nine percent of its costs from farebox revenues; San Francisco’s MUNI recovers 13 percent – although to be fair, much of the waste can be attributed to their heavy rail systems).

Feeder Service
One of the most underutilized forms of transportation today is known as feeder service – most commonly employed in fixed route transit service. To some extent, many or most communities with heavy or light rail systems orient some bus routes to connect with them. Informally, taxi systems, private automobiles, limousine services and even TNCs serve both rail stations and almost any bus stop. Few cities formally organize any modes to serve in this capacity. (This is why airline passengers arriving at an airport in even the late evening encounter few or no taxis to pick them up, and must often wait in long lines for the next one to arrive.) Employing the other concepts identified above, or not, the Magic Coach fleet (coordinated among service providers or not) could use coordinated feeder service to fatten its ridership.

For those unaware of its history, our nation’s first paratransit service (“The Haddonfield Experiment”) – a USDOT “demonstration project,” and the nation’s first “Dial-A-Ride” system — did not provide door-to-door or curb-to-curb service to disabled individuals. It provided feeder service for residents in southern New Jersey to and from the Lindenwold rail line that mostly transported commuters to and from Philadelphia. Yet while this concept morphed into complementary paratransit service, the concept of deploying small vehicles in “demand-responsive” service to bus and rail lines has been grossly-underutilized, if not forgotten. To be fair to the transit or motorcoach sectors, much of this failure reflects the considerable degree of feeder service is provided informally, as noted. But it would be naive to think that formally organizing this mode would not fatten ridership on transit and motorcoach services even more.

Planning and System Design
These concepts comprise a core of mostly-conventional approaches to fatten up the ridership of bus, motorcoach and rail services, even while planning and system design are grossly-underutilized, and often non- or barely-existent. But these are only starting points for discussion. One’s knowledge, imagination and willingness to “bother” are the limiting factors. I suspect that, in a great many service areas with various arrangements of medium-sized cities and their various urban forms, all types of concepts are possible.

As an example, working on a National Academy of Science project designed to examine the integration of schoolbus and transit services (20-some years ago), I made a site visit to a Tri-County area in the Florida “panhandle” where, without the slightest reliance on any software, three Counties’ general public “dial-a-ride” systems were providing feeder service to motorcoaches traveling along the I-10 Corridor between Orlando and Biloxi – and making most transfers within a five-minute “window.” In fairness, this feat requires a handful of highly intelligent dispatchers (almost always grossly underpaid). But someone obviously thought about doing this (some official of the Tri-County Commission overseeing its paratransit programs, not anyone from the motorcoach sector). Just the same, this obscure example illustrates what is possible if and when one bothers to devote some thought to increasing ridership, profits and passenger convenience. The handful of five-minute delays endemic to this example had an unnoticeable impact on the otherwise 10-hour-long motorcoach trip between the two cities involved. If a paratransit vehicle were late to the drop-off, it would just lay over for a few minutes until the next motorcoach came along. At the return end of the trip, if the paratransit vehicle was not awaiting it, the passenger would be dropped off at a safe point slightly further along the route, where the late “retrieval” vehicle would know to pick up the passenger.

Planning and system design were once formal operating functions that virtually disappeared from the U.S. public transportation landscape. As I noted periodically in 22 years of National Bus Trader articles, the disappearance of these disciplines coincided with the emergence of routing, scheduling and stop selection software (see https://transalt.com/article/drivers-v-robots-part-7-betrayal-by-robots/). For those readers understanding the discussion above, it should be apparent that robots cannot develop “service concepts.” And the robots do not care whether or not your business makes any money (at least for now). They care only that your books balance. So if you wish to make money in the motorcoach business, you will have to do the thinking and bothering on your own. With or without it, National Bus Trader can only help you so much.