Last week I mentioned estimates that 86% of travel in the Northeast Corridor is by heavily polluting modes (5% by plane, 81% by private car), and only 14% by transit (6% by train, 8% by bus). What if we wanted to flip that and make it 14% by plane and car, and 86% by bus and train? How could we get there?
In the comments on last week's post about Amtrak and the Chinatown buses, Ryan Miller points out that I neglected to mention that Amtrak is sold out for the peak hours at least. This point is also made by his cousin Stephen Miller, the new Streetsblog reporter, in a post on September 5.
The North River Tunnels that carry the Northeast Corridor from New Jersey into Penn Station are at capacity. There are only three ways that Amtrak can add more trains, two being a new tunnel under the Hudson or rebuilding the Maybrook line, and both of those are far off. Increasing the speed of the trains may allow a few more runs to fit in, but that won't allow Amtrak to double its ridership. That means that in the next ten years, trains will continue to carry the same number of people, and any increase in Northeast Corridor transit ridership is going to come from buses.
The expansion of bus service will most likely take place at the lower-cost end of the market. Jarrett Walker likes to talk about how buses are theoretically no less comfortable than trains, but it's much harder for a bus to achieve a train-comparable level of comfort on a long-distance run. Even on the smoothest highway (i.e. not the New Jersey Turnpike), the curves are sharper and lane changes are relatively frequent. There is no cafe car.
The best strategy, therefore, is for Amtrak to consistently aim to capture the high end of the market, increasing the speed, wifi and amenities on the Acela Express to a level that will satisfy the air shuttle riders, and those on the on the Regional to just below that level. That means that Bolt and Megabus need to get to one step below that, and Peter Pan and Greyhound need to build reputations of safety, comfort and reliability that are solidly middle class, to compete with driving.
Most importantly, capacity at all levels of bus service needs to increase. And here we run into another problem noted by Stephen: the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown is also at capacity. There is no room for most of the commuter buses to park during the day, so they have to go back through the tunnel to a garage in New Jersey and come back in the afternoon.
Here's another chart from that Amtrak report (PDF, page 4), showing that in 2010 people took 161 million trips on the Northeast Corridor. If you figure that most of them traveled between 8AM and midnight, that works out to 27,568 trips per hour. If Randal O'Toole is right and 8% of that is on buses, and we guess that the buses carry an average of 30 passengers, that's 74 buses an hour, which sounds about right.
If we assume that the total number of trips will remain constant, that means that we need to plan for a tenfold increase in the number of buses cruising into New York, i.e. 662 more buses per hour. Linear projections are stupid, but let's just imagine that the "Baseline Growth" scenario of 260 million trips per year projected by Amtrak in the chart above comes to pass. If that's all absorbed by buses, it means 1227 more buses per hour; if it's the "High Growth" scenario then we're looking at 1569 buses per hour.
Are we ready for that? I didn't think so.
Could we be ready? Sure! That's the kind of thinking we transit advocates have to do. What does mode shift really look like?