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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 01:15 pm

Bus-age wonders

Is the bus the future of short-haul intercity travel?

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Riders on Megabus gather outside Union Station on the east side of Canal Street in Chicago. Part of the reason ticket prices are low is because there are no terminals.
PHOTO BY PHIL MARTY/MCT

While I was coming of age in central Illinois in the 1960s, the motor vehicle that figured daily in my life was not a car – I didn’t have one – but the bus. I rode buses to school, I rode buses to visit friends away at college, I rode buses to and from an out-of-town summer job. It took me where the trains didn’t go at a price I could afford to pay. For a young person with lots of time and very little money, riding no-class aboard a Crown Transit bus was the way to go.

I thought of those days when I read about the crash the other day of a Megabus coach on I-55 near Litchfield. The vehicle – by all accounts well-maintained and capably driven – was filled with young people much like I was then. It, and they, left the road and careened into a bridge pillar after a tire blew. The accident killed one and injured more than 40, mainly because federal officials keen to protect the traveling public on airplanes against toiletries and footwear still allows those traveling by commercial motorcoaches to ride in vehicles not equipped with passenger seat belts.

I think they said something about not discouraging the jobs creators with excessive regulation.

Bus safety should be added to that very long list of Things They Ought To Do Something About because more and more people are riding double-decker intercity buses like those used by Megabus and its competitors such as BoltBus. These carriers provide city-to-city travel over distances of 200-300 miles that are inconvenient to drive but too much hassle to fly even if there is service. They’re fast because they run express service; the only way one will stop in Springfield, alas, is if it runs into something on its way somewhere else.

The AP reporter who covered the wreck on I-55 described Megabus simply and incompletely as “a low-fare bus service.” One might just as well describe American Airlines as a low-fare airplane service. Megabus uses the same yield-management dynamic pricing that airlines do. You can book cheap weekend seats if you buy in advance – not convenient for business travelers but fine for the vacationer or the student.

Is the Megabus – I henceforth use the term generically to refer to all such carriers – a viable competitor to trains for short-haul intercity travel? Better yet, a cheaper alternative to them? The bus offers at least one seat per trip for a buck (usually more than one are available) and average fares on trips around here are a fifth of the equivalent Amtrak fare. Riders also get the convenience of online ticketing, more flexible holiday service, free Wi-Fi where available and power outlets at every seat. The buses are no more unreliable than an airline, often faster than Amtrak over the same routes and several times more fuel efficient than either.

The Megabus is only one manifestation of a larger resurgence in bus use. Their main drawback has always been that they are motor vehicles that are slowed by traffic jams and construction. The solution is to run them on unfettered rights of way. Chicago Mayor Emanuel’s administration is exploring bus-only rapid transit service that would run on such lanes. In Seoul, commuter buses run in reserved busways in the medians of major roads into and out of the city center, an approach newly in use in such U.S. towns as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

And on longer routes? Since last November, Chicago’s suburban bus system has been running motorcoaches on rush-hour runs on the shoulder of the Stevenson Expressway. An efficient use of already paid-for asphalt, but busways this ain’t; buses aren’t allowed to travel faster than 35 mph. (It’s the bus equivalent of Amtrak.) The tollway bosses however are considering adding the infrastructure needed for express buses to run at highway speeds when they rebuild and widen the Jane Addams/Interstate 90 corridor between Chicago and Rockford.

The traffic potential up and down the whole length of I-55 would not justify the cost of adding lanes in each direction to I-55, even though that would probably be cheaper than building and maintaining a two-track high-speed-capable rail corridor from scratch. But only Congressional Republicans believe (based on the contents of their most recent federal transportation bill) that transportation will be the same in 2050 as it was in 1950. In the Netherlands those clever Dutch are testing a prototype 50-foot-long, 23-seat hybrid-powered Superbus theoretically capable of doing 155 mph safely, thanks to obstacle-detecting radars and other collision-avoidance technology being tested on driverless cars.

Bus-age wonder indeed.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.


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