Despite rising fuel prices, agonizing congestion, and depressingly large portions of lives wasted in commutes, public transit is typically not viewed as a desirable choice in the United States. And most cities transit systems are woefully incapable of handling a significant increase in demand anyway.
The present situation presents a challenge and an opportunity for North American cities and society in general.
Most transit systems are crowded as well as uncomfortable for long commutes and frequently much slower than driving.
What if all that changed? Would more people take transit?
What if people with longer commutes could sit in a luxury coach, fully stocked with amenities, including:
- Wireless internet (like the google bus in San Francisco)
- A personal TV with a variety of programs (as on many airlines, especially in business or first class)
- A comfortable tray table for your lap top, with a plug in
- A cup holder for your morning latte
- Free newspapers and magazines
- Maybe even a bathroom
Imagine, you could check your e-mail and get some work done. Or, you could catch up on last night’s Letterman or Colbert Report, or a BBC news cast or world business report. This wouldn’t be wasted time, necessarily, unlike sitting in traffic in your own car.
What if for shorter commutes people could choose a ride in a comfortable smaller vehicle with a guaranteed seat but perhaps fewer amenities?
What if for all commutes people had a choice of services, as they do with air travel.
I think more people would get out of their SUVs for this than for what is currently offered.
But, these more comfortable transit options would not be cheap. The only way a private sector corporation could offer them would be if everyone had to pay the costs of building and maintaining the roads. The government would have to offer a level playing field and not subsidize single-occupant vehicle commuters.
If tax payers generally did not subsidize them to the same level as today, it could open up space for some creativity and entrepreneurial spirit (which the USA is famous for).
If driving 40 miles on a freeway cost a solo driver $20, each way ($40), plus gasoline (say $20), plus parking at the destination (say $15), then paying $20 each way for a seat on the luxury coach might be a more viable option.
Of course, transit system monopolies (sometimes attached to government-union agreements) would also have to end to bring this in.
But, look at the potential. Here are a few more ideas:
- With mobile and internet technology, you could buy your ticket 10 minutes before heading out the door once you know you’ll be ready and confirm there is a seat for you.
- Or you could advance book tickets, catching the 7 AM bus every day.
- What if these luxury coaches departed from certain Starbucks (or equivalent) locations in the suburbs?
- You could buy a latte and have a clean, safe place to wait. A bus company rep might even be in there with a mobile device to check you in.
- As some suburban areas become higher density, this Starbucks might be at a Lifestyle Centre near peoples homes (walking distance or a park-and-ride situation).
- What if some downtown workers who lived in suburbia could make extra money driving a nice coach into town. Presumably, there will be a need for some buses to drive in and stay until the end of the work day. An enterprising person could get his or her bus driver license and earn an extra $50 per day (and not have to pay their own commuting costs).
- On shorter commutes perhaps different companies’ buses would be en route and you could check availability by mobile device and book a seat, catching it at a designated location. From the same mobile devices the driver would know whether to stop or not.
- With competition among several commuting providers in a given metro area, service would be good. Creativity would be essential. Someone might offer regular customers Friday afternoon TGIF happy hour, for example.
- One company might offer “business class” seating and “economy class” seating, similar to the airplanes.
If only some creativity could be unleashed.
Consider: Almost everyone takes commercial airline flights, even many people who can afford their own private jet. Airlines offer first class options, private lounges, complementary beverages, better food, etc. at a higher price. And there is considerable competition between airlines to offer these services. In wealthier Latin American countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, competing companies offering luxury Mercedes Benz bus service for inter-city travel attract numerous people who could afford to drive their own vehicles. But with toll roads and higher gas prices, along with the comfortable bus service, they don’t drive themselves. The cost-benefit assessment weighs toward taking the bus.
Addendum: Marco’s comment reminded me of another point. More people will take metros or trains, the latter often offering a nicer class of service. But building train and metro infrastructure if it isn’t there is very costly. By contrast, a premium bus service can use the existing roads.