Can buses enter the transportation race?

Flickr photo by Frederick Dennstedt.

Electric cars have been a symbol of transportation’s future for a while now, but the buzzword nowadays is “high-speed rail.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail. (Applause) This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it’ll be faster than flying, without the pat-down.

For President Obama to mention high-speed rail twice in his 2011 State of the Union address is a big deal, but for now, California is the only state with one in the works.

That’s because Republican state governors aren’t having it. The governors of Wisconsin and Ohio have already said no to federal rail funds, and last week the governor of Florida added his name to the list.

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits.

Rick Scott and other Republicans worry that building these trains is too much money for too little payoff. But even they agree that we need to find new ways to move people around.

JOHN MICA: We gotta do a major transportation build. Get as many good ideas in and your contributions – both sides of the aisle. You’ve got something that can do a better job, do it faster, better, quicker, more efficiently…

That’s House Transportation Committee Chair, John Mica.  While the debate about high-speed rail has been raging, new bus services like Bolt Bus and Megabus have taken off. They pick up and drop off in city downtowns. They’re cheap, they’re no hassle, and you don’t need a lot of money – or new infrastructure – to get them going. They might not replace high-speed rail, but they might be something to ride while we wait. Here to tell us more is KALW’s transportation reporter, Casey Miner.

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TREFNY: So, why are people now looking at buses as the future of long-distance travel?

MINER: Well, I know it’s a bit counterintuitive, because buses don’t exactly have a great reputation. People think they’re dirty, they’re crowded, they’re generally a pretty terrible experience. Something you’d really only do if you had to. A friend of mine recently took one of these bus services that runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco – there’s actually only a few of them – and here’s what she had to say about it.

CHLOE BASS: So we made a stop, and we pulled into probably the saddest-looking rest stop area ever I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And I noticed that the bus smelled funny, but I thought it was because bathroom was broken.

MINER: So this is my friend, Chloe Bass. She lives in New York, where you can take what people call “Chinatown buses” – they go from, say, New York’s Chinatown to Boston’s. They’re a very cheap alternative to flying – tickets cost maybe $20, tops. And they’re usually pretty fast, if not super-cushy. So she tried to do the same thing when she came out here. Let’s hear a little from her about her experience.

BASS: The only thing at the rest stop was a Burger King. And also, when I got out of the bus, I realized that the reason that the bus smelled so funny was that we had stopped in the middle of the biggest dead cow field I have ever experienced in my life.

Now, I could not see any dead cows, but I could smell dead cows. That’s all it smelled like, it smelled like really terrible, like, fertilizer stench and cow poop stench, and rotting meat. And the smell was permeating everything. I feel like when I was there, even standing outside, it got under my skin, it was all over the Burger King. If you ever wanted to eat Burger King, which I don’t ever, but if you ever did want to, this would be enough to not want to. And the fact that there was a Burger King in the middle of a dead cow field rest stop was probably the most ironic rest stop I’ve been to as well.

TREFNY: I’ve been to that rest stop before, it’s not very nice..

MINER: It sounds pretty bad, right? And like something that not many people would brave. I asked Chloe if she though this would be a good option for her in the future, or say, her family. And here’s what she said.

BASS: I don’t think my mom or dad could be convinced to take that bus if you paid them.

MINER: So that’s a problem, right? If you really want buses to really be competitive with airlines, you need them to be something that people’s parents are willing to take.

TREFNY: Sure, I mean parents are going to want some creature comforts, or at least bathrooms.

MINER: Right. And that’s actually what’s starting to happen. You don’t see it so much in California, but especially on the East Coast and in the Midwest, all these companies started cropping up offering fast, clean, efficient bus service. And this isn’t your standard ride. They’ve got Wifi on board, sometimes they’ve got snacks, they’re very cheap, and they leave right from city downtowns, usually every hour. So they’re more efficient than flying and more convenient than driving.

TREFNY: That’s definitely plenty of creature comforts. But what makes this more convenient than driving?

MINER: So, this is interesting. Some researchers At DePaul University in Minnesota have been studying people’s travel habits, and what they do to occupy themselves while in transit. And they found that nearly half of people riding buses are using some kind of electronic device – iPods, laptops, whatever. Maybe that’s not too surprising, but it really makes a difference when you’re thinking about what kinds of transportation people are going to use in the future. People don’t want to be stuck for hours and hours without access to the Internet. So if you give them a bus, maybe it takes a little longer, but if it’s cheap and offers those amenities, they’re going to want to ride it. The researchers at DePaul found that these buses are actually the country’s fastest-growing mode of transportation right now.

TREFNY: For now, but high-speed rail’s on the rise. So where does that fit into all this?

MINER: We’re at sort of an interesting place with high-speed rail right now. You’ve got all these governors screaming about how expensive it is, and even here in California, where we have a government that does want it, it’s taking a while to build. And the problems it’s supposed to solve – congestion, pollution, things like that – those are only getting worse. So I don’t think it’s an either-or situation exactly, but there’s an interesting question about what role these bus services might play in relation to high-speed rail, maybe filling some gaps while they’re building it, or providing an alternative in places where politics stop the train projects. I called Joe Schweiterman, who’s one of the authors of the bus study to talk about this. 

JOE SCHWEITERMAN: Most studies for high-speed rail were done before there was this low-cost, feisty competitor. When you look at most high-speed rail assessments compare air travel to high-speed rail, what fares to get people to take the train, and it’s, you know, reasonably high fares. But now there’s a situation where high-speed rail might operate where a bus charging one-fourth the price of leaving from two blocks away, and they leave every 60 minutes.

TREFNY: Casey, it seems like these bus lines are potentially a big competitor for high-speed rail on the East Coast. But will something like that even work in California? I thought the appeal of high-speed rail here was that it would get you from here to LA in basically the same amount of time as flying?

MINER: Well, right. California’s a big state. I’m from New England, and there’s a reason that those Chinatown buses work so well. You can drive through all six states in the time it takes to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s not that you couldn’t have a nice bus here in California, more that you’d be on it for a really long time – much longer than the trip would eventually take on high-speed rail.

TREFNY: So what are the chances of these bus services coming to California?

MINER: Some of the companies out on the East Coast actually were here, but they closed up shop a few years ago because they felt like this just wasn’t a good enough market. But if this trend continues, it’s not impossible that they could start back up. We’ll have our rail system, eventually. But it will be interesting to see what sprouts up to meet that need in the meantime.

Casey Miner is KALW’s transportation reporter.