The Corner

Bus Fever Is Spreading

The New York Times has an interesting article on the use of buses by high-income Americans.

Until recently, John Alday either drove or flew the 200-mile trip between his company’s headquarters in Dallas and its satellite office in Austin.

But too many times, he said, when he flew it ended up taking far longer than he planned, whether it was a problem in getting to the airport or checking in, or a weather delay. Now he has switched to a simpler and, he says, more reliable means of transportation — a bus, specifically an executive coach.

“It’s more luxurious than any first-class seat I’ve ever been in,” said Mr. Alday, the chief executive of the Cima Solutions Group, an information technology company. The Vonlane bus Mr. Alday rides has 16 reclining leather seats, Wi-Fi, an attendant who serves meals and beverages, a wireless printer, office supplies and a conference table with additional seating.

The executive coach between Austin and Dallas isn’t unique. The article quotes a transportation consultant who credits the Hampton Jitney, “which shuttles people between New York and the North and South Forks of Long Island,” as being a pioneer in getting high-income Americans to recognize the value of traveling by bus.

Other services include Dartmouth Coach and C&J, originating in New Hampshire and traveling to Boston and New York with stops in between; LimoLiner, which travels between Boston and New York; Vamoose Gold and Royal Sprinter, which travel between Washington and New York; Red Coach, which connects cities in Florida; and Lux Bus America, whose routes include Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

Perhaps because of the sins of my youth, or of a past life, I spent several years stranded in Ithaca, New York. I often had to travel to New York City, which either meant a four-hour trip in a car or a short flight. But after a couple of years a “luxury bus” started running between Ithaca and the city. It was wonderful. It beat both flying and driving hands down — I got a lot of work done on that bus because it was equipped with large, comfortable seats and wireless internet; I could show up minutes before the bus left, as opposed to an hour for a flight; I didn’t have to go through the time-consuming process of packing with optimal precision because I wasn’t trying to fit all my stuff into an overhead-sized bag; I didn’t have to go through the humiliating and obnoxious rituals that define air travel today; and the bus picked us up and dropped us off in good locations, so there was no need to travel to and from airports or train stations. The bus had snacks and a coffee machine and other good stuff, too.

The fact that “luxury buses” or “executive coaches” or whatever you want to call them are catching on highlights some of the benefits of traveling by bus relative to car, air, or train. We will probably see more high-income Americans using buses for travel in the future, at least if trains and planes continue to provide their current levels of service, quality, and expense.

You can read the entire Times article here.

The benefits of buses are not restricted to high-income Americans. An expanded role for buses also offers an opportunity to help low-income Americans who live far away (measured by either clock time or mileage) from commercial centers. I pointed this out in my most recent column:

We know that urban areas characterized by a high degree of socioeconomic segregation often have relatively low mobility rates and high unemployment rates. One way to support employment and earnings is to spend money on transportation infrastructure to connect low-income workers with jobs.

The amount of money involved could be relatively small: We could simply buy buses, have them pick up workers in lower-income, outer neighborhoods and exurbs, and then run them express from those places — not stopping along the way in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods — all the way into commercial centers. In larger cities, we could run the buses express from low-income exurbs to the last stop on commuter rail lines; basically, we could give low-income workers a fast lift to the train, connecting residents of exurbs with the labor markets of major cities.

Buses are great because they’re flexible, cheap and use existing roads. Additionally, we could spend more money to build more sophisticated transportation networks — more roads, maybe rail; roads that function as dedicated bus lanes? — to support working-class Americans in their noble effort to earn their own success in the labor market.

By significantly decreasing commuting times from lower-income neighborhoods and exurbs — which are often measured in hours, not minutes — we would effectively increase the number of jobs available to low-income workers. Some workers on the margin of participating in the labor market may enter if their commute time is one hour rather than two. The long-term unemployed, currently in the labor market, would have more jobs to which they could apply. And the quality of life for low-income workers with long commutes would increase.

You can read my column in its entirety here.

— Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar and economist at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him on Twitter at twitter.com/MichaelRStrain.

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