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Getting People Back on the Buses

By Larry Plachno

By this time it has become obvious that the biggest challenge facing the bus industry is getting people comfortable about getting back into buses. Here are some thoughts on this subject.

            Those who have done historical research in transportation can tell you about early days when the railroads, electric interurban lines and buses all battled for passenger miles. The reality was that it was less of a battle between different modes of transportation than a battle between public transportation and the passenger car. Because of the pandemic, we are substantially in that same position today.

            Initially, ownership of a private auto was substantially limited to the rich. Not only were they expensive but there was a lack of roads outside of larger communities going any substantial distance. Henry Ford built his Model T from 1908 to 1927. Eventually, mass production reduced the price to where more people could afford to own one. But reliable long distance roads were a long time coming. Testing the roads, a military convoy rolled from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco along what became known as the Lincoln Highway in the summer of 1919. It took them two months. However, both roads and autos have improved since then, making them competition to public transportation.

            When the pandemic hit, the number of autos on the road declined because businesses were closed and some people could work from home. This hurt both public transportation as well as the auto industry – which already was faced with the ride-hailing startups as well as the movement towards electric and autonomous vehicles. However, as the situation eases, the experts are predicting that the pandemic will foster a substantial increase in the ownership and use of private passenger cars. People used to social distancing and concerned for the transmission of the virus will opt to travel alone in autos rather than join others on buses and trains.

            Increased use of private autos will be good for the auto industry. Expectations are that used cars will start selling again and new cars will move faster after a couple of months. But, this same situation is expected to cause major problems in bigger cities where the increased number of cars will exceed road and parking space. The experts are warning of forthcoming increases in commute and travel time because of this.

            This may or may not affect autonomous and electric vehicles. It has been noted that autonomous vehicles on public roadways have proven to be more challenging than expected. But, autonomous operations on farms and in industrial applications have shown success because of the absence of traffic lights and other vehicles while taking advantage of the lack of regulations on private property. Movement to electric vehicles could depend in part on fuel costs, which are expected to remain low for several months.

            As you can guess, this increased use of passenger cars will be harmful to ridership on buses and other forms of public transportation. There are two basic alternatives. One is to simply hold off until a vaccine and improved treatment is available. The second is to find ways to make buses more acceptable to passengers. There may not be one answer for all since state and local laws can vary from place to place. But there are a number of different things currently available and I am sure that more will be available as time goes on.

            Many of the bus manufacturers and suppliers have devices and products available to help isolate passengers. A couple of the bus manufacturers have shields and similar devices of several kinds that will isolate the driver from the aisle or serve to separate the passenger seats. Marco Polo from Brazil has even offered a three-row interior of individual seats separated by antimicrobial curtains. A few operators are using double deck buses because they provide more distancing between passengers because of the additional seats.

            You can also get a UV light kit that mounts in the ductwork of the bus that reduces bacteria, viruses and mold while being substantially unobtrusive to the passengers. Irizar has a device that checks the temperature of boarding passengers and whether they have a mask. There are several systems and products that clean the interior air in different ways.

            Getting people out of cars and back into buses will be the biggest challenge right now to getting the bus industry rolling again. Look around and see what options, products and systems are available to do this. You might also want to see if you can get help from municipalities that are swamped with an increased number of private cars and are willing to work with you in various ways.

            There may also be some other ideas that could help get buses moving again.

            Indications are that people are increasingly buying things online for delivery rather than going to a store. Can you somehow get into this? At one time Greyhound ran buses that had few passenger seats but were filled with package express. I once ran a scheduled route where the package express contributed a significant part of the income.

            There are areas that are expanding if you can figure out how to get involved. Both the vitamin and sports equipment industries have been booming. In addition, people are doing more cooking, baking and more people are maintaining a garden.

            Another area looking for help is “last mile delivery” of both people and products. With people, the train or bus station can leave them a significant walking distance from their destination or place of employment. With products, there are numerous items including food and merchandise that need to be moved from the restaurant or store to their destinations.

            What we need to do is to find ways to get people comfortable enough to leave their private autos and get back on the bus. Or, you might be able to find new and different ways to use your staff and vehicles.

            Good luck.

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