In the three countries with the longest and traditionally largest HSR networks –
Japan, Germany, and France – there is no large intercity bus network, with government regulations against the development of one. The US and Canada are in somewhat of the opposite situation – intercity buses are legal, but intercity trains are subject to a variety of regulations and operating practices raising operating costs so much that outside the thickest corridors they might as well be illegal. The best situation is in South Korea, which has well-developed networks of both buses and trains; the result is that on the Seoul-Daegu and Seoul-Busan city pairs, buses have 7-8% of the market and trains 67%.
On top of that, the express buses in North America do not get very high mode share. I’ve seen no reliable numbers, but when I looked at Megabus and Bolt schedules on the largest city pairs, the two carriers combined were about even with Amtrak, whose mode share on the entire NEC is 6% according to the Vision.
So why is Cap’n Transit suddenly telling us to love the bus (though he rejects the loaded term “love the bus”) and advocate for more investment into bus stations at various locations around the metro area? Doctrinaire libertarians have the excuse that the kind of regulations they are used to thinking of are the French regulations against domestic competition with rail and not the FRA’s safety rules. But the Cap’n of course knows exactly how pernicious FRA rules are. Since he thinks in terms of activist energy as the primary resource to manage, and not the government’s budget, this could be taken as a desperation at any attempt to reform Amtrak and the FRA.
But more likely, this comes from the fact that many intercity bus supporters fought (and lost) regulations against curbside pickups, which are the way Megabus, Bolt, and others could serve New York without paying for space at Port Authority, imitating the practices of the older Chinatown buses.
The immediate trigger for thinking where to place bus stops then is the impending loss of curbside space. Since buses are in many ways intermediate between cars and trains in terms of capacity and the point-to-point versus hub-and-spoke tradeoff, a bus expansion then has to mean finding more and more places to pick up. A legacy train station will run out of running line capacity long before it runs out of station track capacity, but a curbside bus stop uses valuable urban space and a bus station can and does run out of space.
And this is where buses stop being too useful. Frequency is freedom. Because the bus operators compete with one another, passengers need to be ticketed on a specific company, and that already cuts into frequency. On top of that, unlike trains, buses have a very large stop penalty, since they need to get off the highway and into the city. New York-Washington trains make intermediate stops in Philadelphia; express buses don’t. Even with dominant CBD stations, the frequency on the buses in the Northeast isn’t great: from New York, Bolt offers half-hourly service from to Philadelphia, hourly service to Boston, and less than hourly service to each of Baltimore and Washington, and all four city pairs have one dominant stop pair; Megabus frequency is hourly to Boston and hourly with a half-hourly peak to the other three.
Adding more stops means diluting this less-than-great frequency even further. It would work if bus stops were consolidated and people could buy one ticket good on any company, but the business model that has reduced ticket prices is probably not compatible with such cooperation. It would also work if the market share were 67%, but it isn’t and never will be.
The other problem is that people have not just origins but also destinations – and those destinations cluster in the CBDs, and the more the passenger is willing to pay, the likelier it is they’ll be traveling to the CBD. A train run from Woodside or Newark to New York will be full in one direction and empty in the other; the reason those trains can make money (they don’t in New York, but do in Tokyo, which is as CBD-dominant) is that they’re so full in the peak direction it makes up for lower reverse-peak occupancy. For intercity travel, this is harder. High-speed rail can make a profit on these asymmetric intercity runs because it’s so fast that it can cut costs that depend on travel time and not distance, such as operator wages, dispatcher wages, and some train maintenance. Buses don’t have that luxury, and need to be full in both directions, which favors CBD-to-CBD runs, or runs between neighborhoods that are likely to be destinations as well as origins (such as Chinatown-to-Chinatown runs).
Trains are unique among common-carrier transportation modes in that service uses corridors and not points. They are similar to cars this way: I-95 and the Northeast Corridor serve many overlapping city pairs. Bus services do not have this advantage, because the nature of an expressway network is such that they have to deviate to make a station stop, and in the largest cities this deviation is considerable; it can take an hour for a bus to navigate New York’s streets. This makes them more point-to-point, like planes, and on a corridor with four large cities on one line, this is much less efficient.
In general, I think a lot of the pro-bus attitude among liberals and general transit activists (as opposed to libertarians, who I will address in a future post) amounts to defeatism. We will never be able to improve government to the point that trains have high mode share, so let’s downgrade service. We will never be like France or Germany or Switzerland or Japan, so let’s import practices from China and Scotland.
Transit activists for the most part have not only political but also personal preferences for travel by transit. When I visited Buffalo, I took the Empire Service instead of flying. This creates a skewed impression for what’s good; to me, the Empire Service is a semi-useful service, even as to the average traveler it might as well not be there. If the existing service is straightforwardly a worse version of good service – such as a commuter train that should run faster and more frequently, or an intercity train that should be HSR – this is not a problem. But if it is different – such as a bus where a train is more appropriate, a light rail or dedicated subway line where an S-Bahn is appropriate, or even a rapid transit line in the wrong type of neighborhood – then the activism can be in a wrong direction.
The problem is that the 80-90% of travelers who drive are not currently agitating for the mode of transit most likely to get them to switch. Like transit users, they have at least to some extent made their peace with their current mode’s deficiency, and if anything they will demand more highway expansions even on corridors where transit is much more useful for the same cost. But we can take a step back and look at case studies from peer first-world countries and see that buses have mode shares in the single digits while trains can dominate corridors in the Northeast Corridor distance range.