Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Intercity bus services are typically a gap in transportation planning

NotionsCapital reminded me of the recent coverage ("This Map Shows How To Get Anywhere You Want In America Without Taking A Plane," Fast Company) of the effort by Michael Buiting, operating as the "American Intercity Bus Riders Association," to create a map of the Continental United States showing most of the intercity bus line connections and how it intertwines with Amtrak (but not metropolitan railroad commuter systems), producing a map that shows "how to get around the US without taking a plan," and as importantly showing how to get around to small communities that lack airport or train service.

The map does look like an old style railroad map from 80-100 years ago, showing the various local passenger railroad services operating across the country.

Intercity buses are usually ignored by transportation planning.  While this map has been written up elsewhere already, it's important for us to take the opportunity to consider that inter-city bus service generally isn't actively addressed by transportation planning at national, multi-state, and regional scales, other than at the local level as a matter of regulation and siting.  

Local authorities address issues such as where the buses pick up and drop off passengers, charging fees for charter buses entering the city, making sure that they can be parked (DC DOT Tour Bus Parking webpage) in ways that don't create problems, vehicle safety, etc.--but generally don't take up  transit access and system issues.

I made that mistake too in my discussion of transportation planning here, "Second iteration, idealized national network for high speed rail passenger service,"where a commenter pointed out I left off intercity bus services.

The map also motivates me to separate out and add to the right sidebar a dedicated section of "Dr. Transit's Intercity Bus Links."

Station and stop accommodations are often substandard.  I have been meaning to write about this because last year the Post travel section had an important article, "The Navigator: Greyhound, leaving passengers out in the cold," about the dearth of standards for "station and stop accommodations" for intercity bus services.  From the article:
Singh’s experience offers a glimpse into a corner of the travel industry that receives practically no coverage or concern from the travel media: the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of people who travel by bus.

After Singh’s motorcoach, which originated in Minneapolis, left them at the station, the passengers huddled together outside the closed building. Singh opened his luggage and added layer upon layer of clothes in an effort to keep warm. ...

“Greyhound terminals and agencies are open when buses are scheduled to arrive or depart,” she said, adding, “We will work with the interline carriers to help ensure that their hours are consistent with the scheduled arrivals and departures.”

Singh has been waiting a while to hear that. In February, he launched a petition on Change.org asking Greyhound to keep its terminals open, and this policy shift seems to address the loophole. It’s one that has existed for a while now, and it’s one that I should have exposed years ago.
This is exacerbated by the fact that most of the new intercity bus services don't use stations but provide service at the curb, and this can be very chaotic.

Megabus bus stop with sign, New York City. A Megabus boarding site on 34th Street in Manhattan. It serves 90 cities, compared with 40 two years ago. Ruby Washington/The New York Times.

Curbside bus services and rising demand for intercity bus service.  While Greyhound and Trailways have been operating as national intercity bus systems for many decades, those systems have tended in recent years to focus on transporting lower income passengers as higher income long haul passengers take planes.

The rebirth of intercity bus service serving different demographics was a response to the so-called "Chinatown" bus services, which originally were created to bus Chinese restaurant workers between Chinatowns (such as between Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and Boston) and casinos.   Non-Chinese started riding the buses as well and ridership grew considerably ("The Indomitable Chinatown Bus," New York Magazine).

The chaos and problems associated with Chinatown bus service ("Federal Officials Shut Down 26 Bus Operators," New York Times), created an opportunity for the major bus companies to step in and offer comparable services, but with more reliability and amenities like wifi access. 

Major bus companies--BoltBus is a nonunion carrier owned by Greyhound and CoachUSA created Megabus--are now leading this market, both in the Northeast corridor and in other parts of the country ("Buses fastest-growing form of intercity travel," USA Today).

Research studies.  The Institute for Public Administration (IPA) at the University of Delaware has been researching the "curbside bus industry," called such because the new services often don't operate out of terminals but pick and drop people off at curbside stops near train stations and subway stations, and they have produced a report and a masters thesis on the subject:

-- Curbside Intercity Bus Industry: Research of Transportation Policy Opportunities and Challenges
-- The Curbside Bus Industry: A New Era of Bus Travel, masters thesis by Eileen Collins

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago has done a fair amount of research as well, in part focusing on the Midwest.

-- Intercity Bus Research webpage
-- The Return of the Intercity Bus: The Decline and Recovery of Scheduled Service to American Cities, 1960 - 2007

Integrating intercity bus services into local transit infrastructure.  In "the old days," when bus service was more widely used, many communities had bus terminals, most often provided, owned, and managed by Greyhound or Trailways operators.  Back then, with privately operated transit systems, it was rare for transit services--railroad or bus--to coordinated their service from a single station.  (Washington's "Union" Station was an exception for railroad service.)

But as ridership declined, many of these terminals have been closed. Some larger cities like Toronto, Montreal, and New York City do still provide support for intercity bus terminals, but in the US, operators can't be forced to use these facilities.

The Salt Lake City Intermodal Hub connects Amtrak, commuter rail, light rail, bus, and intercity bus transit services.  Wikipedia photo.

In some communities, intercity bus lines work with local transit services for access to a main station, which provides for better service for patrons but at the same time, can create problems as intercity bus terminals tend to have some loitering, vagrancy, and crime issues.

That's why in Baltimore relocating the Greyhound terminal next to Penn Station was ultimately unsuccessful ("Mayor vetoes city bus terminal," Baltimore Sun, 2001). In DC, the services have been relocated to Union Station after many years of hoping for it, in large part because the Greyhound terminal--located about 5 blocks from Union Station--was worth more as a redevelopment site.

But many places provide minimal accommodations for people traveling by intercity bus and this should be addressed at the scale of metropolitan, regional, and multi-state transportation planning.

Bus departures screen, Gare D'autocars, Montreal.  Wikipedia photo.

Improving station accommodations.   I have argued that the bus services need to be better integrated into Union Station than they have been ("Union Station bus terminal"), such as with coordination departure and arrival information displays, such as are provided at the intercity bus terminal in Montreal.

Conclusion.  It would be nice to see more support for the efforts of Michael Buiting-American Intercity Bus Riders Association, not just for the creation of a map, as well as greater focus by planners on some of the issues that he and others raise with regard to the quality, breadth, and depth of intercity transit as it relates to buses.

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