Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Could a MTA bus be the next cool thing?

Forget bikeshare, Uber and Lyft or even electric scooters. The next cool thing could be the bus! Yes, that's right: A transit bus, of all things! The Atlantic's CityLab and the Wall Street Journal agree on it, so there must be something to it. The former wrote a whole series of articles about the future of the bus, the latter gushed on Tuesday this week about the good old bus under the headline Meet the Future of Urban Transportation: the Bus. Pair this with recent pronouncements of Baltimore  MTA that their real time bus information finally works reliably on the Transit App (as far as I can tell, it is true) and, maybe most remarkably, a positive tweet by local councilman Ryan Dorsey:
Bus, the new darling of urban transportation? (WSJ article)
I’ve been taking the 54 or 154 downtown pretty frequently lately. I’ve taken it repeatedly at different times of the morning, from 7:00-noon, and my experience is that it’s reliable, frequent, and at least as fast as driving, and I never have to park. (Ryan Dorsey on Twitter, July 2, 18)
Transportation Secretary Rahn must be rubbing his eyes, he and his boss who side by side snubbed rail transit and called Baltimore "a bus town". Could it be they accidentally hit on something?
Bus on Transit App: real time

For anybody who hasn't ridden a bus in a decade or so, a few pleasant surprises are obvious: The windows are large, boarding is almost level, the ride is as smooth as Baltimore's terrible streets allow and the interior design is clean, modern and pleasant. The front destination display is bright and so large that one can, indeed, read it from a block away. There are about a dozen cameras on board and automated announcements about keeping your smart phone safe are also a relatively new feature. The lastest buses even have a LED screen that could theoretically show the location of the bus and the next three upcoming stops, but for now they just show vintage buses to remind riders, how far bus design has come.
Councilman Dorsey praises his transit ride (Twitter)

But aside from those new touches, the truth is, MTA's transit buses today are pretty much like those yesterday and the day before, as far as the bus as a vehicle goes.  It is diesel powered (Hogan-Rahn actually discontinued the purchase of diesel-electric hybrids favored under O'Malley for being too expensive) and, in spite of low sulfur diesel and filters and uric acid injection, they still spew a fair amount of  particulates and nitrogen oxides just like those VW diesels that got the world's largest automaker into so much trouble.  On a code red day the 700 or so MTA buses plying Baltimore's Streets contribute quite a bit to the smog cooking over the city.

So the cool new thing about the bus that even corporate types who read the WSJ would want to read about is clean electric propulsion. At least according to Jason Bordoff, who wrote the WSJ article and whose credentials include to have been Obama's energy adviser. A clean purely electric bus which would quick-charge through induction pads at major bus stops is Bordoffs dream, much more than a Tesla 3. Why? Because buses matter more. He says even today the world's electric buses have already reduced fossil fuel use six times more than all the world's electric cars combined. He says that from 2015 to 2017 the number of electric buses has doubled. Unfortunately, almost all those clean buses run in, yes, you guessed it: China, a country in which the air is often nearly as thick as that of London in 1952 when the "Great Smog" killed 4,000 people directly and many more indirectly and caused the  British to enact world's first comprehensive clean air act of 1954.
British "Bobby" during the 152 London smog

US transit agencies today run only 1% of their buses electric. But they are also ambitious: LA has vowed to run an all-electric fleet by 2030, New York's MTA by 2040 and Seattle's Sound Transit, WMATA and  CMTA in Chicago have already ordered electric buses. Lexington KY's Lextran ran an experiment with overhead induction charging. (See my previous blog article). Ok, an electric bus without a lurching transmission and the noisy engine in back would be nice. Quieter, cleaner, smoother and with faster acceleration. Provided the kinks get worked out. Baltimore's DOT, for once really innovative had purcheased all electric "Ecosaver" buses for the then brandnew Circulator bus service. Those buses had a small on-board gas powered  turbine for charging the electric propulsion. But the bus was a bust in Baltimore's summer heat. The experiment failed, the DesignLine manufacturer went bankrupt in 2013 and the City was stuck with buses that needed to be replaced with regular diesels, still dragging down the books.
Friendly interior: The modern bus (Photo: Philipsen)

What else could make the bus cool? The biggest deal, is the way it is deployed and what riders and the transit agency know its whereabouts. In other words, if staring down the road to see if the scheduled ride would actually show is replaced by a look at the smart phone where a bus symbol steadily moves closer to your location  just like that little black Uber car: That is cool, especially if it is reliable and the buses show up in roughly the scheduled intervals. (In the recent past those buses on the map often proved to be phantom buses, appeared and disappeared at random and estimated arrival times were far off due to an older GPS technology that has now been replaced.) If heading out the door isn't that great guessing game anymore, taking the bus isn't as much of a time waste any longer, compared to driving.
Chinese electric bus fleet: The green revolution

The reliability concern is still the biggest reservation riders have, especially those who don't have the  option to drive. While it seems that MTA has made progress in dispatching its buses more reliably and matching buses with drivers with greater success through lower operator absenteeism, a convincing set of data to prove this system-wide is till not available. But as it is with many things, incremental progress on operators showing up on time and better bus maintenance causing fewer breakdowns, for example, has a ripple effect that can quickly lead to a tipping point. Pair some of the mundane improvements with cash free payments to eliminate pesky delays by riders clogging up the front door while fingering for their coins, and all of a sudden riding the bus could actually be quite a pleasant thing. A bus that runs on time, in the scheduled interval and without too many unscheduled delays is also a bus that is less crowded and much more likely filled with riders in a good mood. Whether Quickbus is already a success or not, sure is that with the new shorter routes, the MTA has a much better foundation to tweak the system than with the convoluted system that had evloved in the decades before.
DOT's unfortunate foray into electric buses:
More Wienermobil than reliable transit

Lastly the bus could become really more like Uber Pool if its dispatch would be informed by actual demand. If potential riders could register their intent to ride on their smart phone and with an upfront cashless payment, a computer algorithm could optimize fleet and demand accordingly, similar to the new way on how elevators are dispatched in high-rises. Overcrowded buses failing to pick up riders could become a thing of the past. No longer would a bus have to ride out a late hour run all the way to the terminus and back once it was clear no riders would wait on those outposts.While such demand based service fluctuation would still not pick you up right at the door, it could do a lot to make bus service much better and way more efficient.

Less clear is, what the last but biggest innovation will do to the future of bus transit: autonomous vehicles. Will self driving cars and ride share vehicles kill transit as some fear based on current evidence that transportation network companies (TNC) such as Uber and Lyft siphon riders away from transit. Feared by the unions is another possible future: That driverless buses could become so much cheaper than current transit, where the operator is the largest expense, that transit companies could be early adopters of the technology which is fairly easy to implement on predictable well mapped routes that characterize transit. It is very conceivable that buses in various sizes could fan out across the metropolitan areas in larger numbers than today;  operators would be degraded to on-board transit ambassadors who would assist riders on busier routes. They would finally be able to chat with passengers, because the bus, it would drive itself.
Soon obsolete: The bus operator?

All of these technologies are readily available and already in use in many places, at least on an experimental basis. Even though all the talk is about Tesla and TNCs, it may in the end be the smart, electric self driving bus that is the cool new thing. Which wouldn't only be cool, but unlike Teslas and TNCs,  it would actually solve a transportation problem.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Expanded in the section about self driving buses

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