Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Luxury bus to Bethesda

There's a big difference in comfort between trains and buses. Jarrett Walker acknowledges an intrinsic advantage of steel-wheeled vehicles in "ride quality," but asks, "Is the smooth ride of rail indispensable to a useful network? This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another." I definitely don't think it's indispensable. I can imagine a city with nothing but rubber-tired buses to get people around, but I would still get annoyed by the Lurch.

I definitely agree that there are plenty of ways that buses can approach the ride quality of rail by eliminating other differences or even offering higher quality in other aspects to compensate for the Lurch. I think this is important to increase overall capacity on the Northeast Corridor, since our elected officials seem uninterested in doing what's necessary to increase train capacity. At this point, bus companies have cornered the bottom of the market, but are having trouble competing at the top with trains, planes and private cars.

One of the biggest limitations on ride quality is the size of seats and the fact that on your average full bus, everyone absolutely has to be sitting right next to someone else - as in elbow-in-the-ribs right next to. Anyone who's been on a plane or an Amtrak train knows how much of a difference the space between seats makes. First class cabins routinely have one seat less across than coach. Business class and "premium coach" almost always have more legroom between rows. Premium buses do offer more legroom. But there's a maximum width to a bus, and even if you take Bolt, or Hampton Jitney, or DC2NY you're going to find two seats on the left side of the aisle and two on the right. As long as your seat doesn't get any wider than the one on the cheapest Chinatown bus, you've got a ceiling on quality.

Some bus companies are breaking through that ceiling by offering three seats across. There are services like this in Norway, Spain, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Myanmar and the good ol' USA. In Florida there's Red Coach, on Long Island the Hampton Ambassador, on the New York to Boston run the LimoLiner. From New York to Washington, DC there's the Vamoose Gold Bus.

I got a chance to take the Vamoose Gold Bus earlier this year, when I had business in DC. The bus doesn't actually go to DC, but for $60 it goes to Bethesda, Arlington and Lorton, which are other municipal districts in the cultural city of greater Washington, and that worked out well for me, since my hotel was in Friendship Heights, one Metro stop away from Bethesda.

It was a very nice bus. The aisle was wide, the bathroom was large, there were skylights (see the picture). I was hoping for one of the single seats, but they were all taken by the time I got on board. Still, my aisle seat was nice and wide, with a tray table. I had my own armrests, and the woman next to me had her own armrests. The power outlets were conveniently located between us.

Unfortunately, it was still a bus. It lurched, and it lurched big-time when we went through the New Jersey Turnpike construction that Chris Christie is funding with the money he took from the ARC Tunnel. It still smelled a little like diesel, and I was still feeling a little sick when I got off in Bethesda.

There is a lot that Vamoose could do to make the trip even better. After paying $60 online, I still had to stand in line on the 30th Street sidewalk for more than twenty minutes. It was a nice day but it was winter, and the curbside boarding really undercut the luxury experience. The dropoff in Bethesda was similar: a crowded street corner with no sign for the Metro station. There were televisions in the bus that played some cheesy business news, which was unnecessary because we all had devices. Or maybe it was necessary, because the wifi was pretty slow and not that reliable.

The elbow room did make the trip more relaxing. There are two more things that would have made the trip much more relaxing. The first is seat reservations. There was a deli right next to the bus stop, and I would've sat in there, but I stood online hoping to get a single seat close to the front. If I had been able to reserve that single seat when I bought the ticket, or even to know that I couldn't get one, I could have waited in the deli until the line was short.

The other thing would be a real terminal. Not the Port Authority, where they took out the benches in the 1980s and I'd have to stand for twenty minutes anyway. I'm imagining a real waiting room with comfortable chairs and a decent bathroom, where you can get a nice cappuccino but you don't have to buy anything because you've already bought your ticket. Where you can check your bags ahead of time and sit comfortably. Where you can wait to be called a few at a time instead of standing on line. I have just the place, too.


James Sinclair said...

Have you seen sleeper buses?

Heres an articulated megabus with sleeper berths (unsure how comfortable an artic on the highway is)

Double decker version

C.P. Norris said...

Reserved numbered seats would be huge. Not even Amtrak all-reserved trains offer that. Not even in business class. (I've never taken Acela so I'm not sure about that.)

A parent with a child knows they are guaranteed two seats, but they are not guaranteed two seats together. So they have to elbow their way on first to get two seats together. Nearly every airline and theater has this worked out, as well as lots of railroads overseas, so I don't see why American trains and buses can't.

neroden@gmail said...

""Is the smooth ride of rail indispensable to a useful network? This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another." I definitely don't think it's indispensable."

It's indispensible over long distances. (Which is why most people *detest* intercity buses.) It's dispensible over short distances. Basically, this is because the longer the distance, the more Lurching.

The Amateur Transporter said...

Wouldn't dedicated bus lanes on I-95 be great? If travelers to DC knew that they could escape those enormous I-95 delays by taking the bus -- especially on holidays -- we would see bus ridership skyrocket.

A good start would be to create dedicated lanes during holiday weekends.

simval84 said...

No matter how luxurious an intercity bus is, one of their major problems is that they are stuck on the freeway to be fast. Meaning that they may be okay in linking up downtowns of major cities, but they are nearly useless for travel to median points. They do let off or pick up people, but to save time, they stick to the freeway, and freeways and the areas around them tend to be pedestrian wastelands.

In some ways, intercity buses are like airplanes, they take you from one point and take you to another. Few if any useful median stops between these places.

Trains have the possibility of using urban right of way to have many usefully located stops all along the line. The best example for that is Japan, where intercity rail lines link up cities together all across the country, and with distance-based fares, these same intercity lines also act like local rapid transit lines for less densely habited areas. The result is that even small cities in Japan have comfortable, affordable, high-capacity rapid transit. Intercity rail thus doubles as commuter rail for rural areas.

Exploration by Google Maps is great there, it's incredible to see Japanese departments with 60 000 people all tied together by a train line going at an average of 45-55 km/h. Okay, the frequency is often pretty poor (1 hour isn't unusual), but this is still much better than usual bus lines in equivalent rural areas in North America.

Capn Transit said...

In general I agree with you, Simval, but many of the buses that cross the Hudson River to New York City have the advantage of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Lincoln Tunnel XBL, which mean that they're not stuck in much more traffic than private cars, sometimes less. There is also cordon and congestion pricing for the cars.