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Drivers v. Robots: The Nature of Moden Travel, Part 2

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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We are only a few years away from the complete consolidation of fixed route transportation (transit, motorcoach and schoolbus) and the complete consolidation of demand-responsive transportation (paratransit, taxi, limousine, NEMT and special education).

Future installments in this series will explain why. This installment will lay the groundwork by comparing modern travel to travel 30 years ago. The opportunities for motorcoach operators to benefit from these changes are once-in-a-lifetime.

Travel in Yesteryear

Thirty years ago, I coordinated intercontinental travel from several U.S. cities to Slovenia with a handful of one-sentence-long faxes: “Meet me in Maribor next Tuesday.” The various consultants simply called my travel agent, who knew their origins, destinations, sleep cycles and travel preferences. She made all the arrangements, occasionally clarifying choices with a  short phone call.

Travel to and from U.S. airports was effortless. Taxi companies answered their phones. Taxis pulled up and dropped off in front of airport terminals. For motorists, parking was available within hundreds of feet of the terminals. For less money, one could take shuttles to the terminal of choice.

I limited my team’s air travel to Lufthansa, Swiss Air and Air France. Connecting flights through Frankfurt were flawless. The airport had  every amenity possible. Everyone arrived in Maribor within a few hours of one another. No baggage fees. Few delays. Relentless reliability. Abundant knowledgeable staff. Baggage lost or stolen was compensated for, no questions asked and no documentation needed, with a single phone call to a live staff person in fewer than two rings.  And long before it was needed here, scrupulous but efficient security.

A Day of Modern Travel

This past July 17,  2019, my return flight from Cincinnati to New York City was cancelled, allegedly due to weather (the corridor was calm and dry). The flight onto which I was bumped was then cancelled due to alleged maintenance problems (the lack of spare aircraft and no requirements for them).

Being stranded is a holocaust at the hotel level. Stranding a thousand passengers overnight quickly fills up all the surrounding rooms. A traveler unfamiliar with the various suburbs cannot find a hotel on-line. One must spend hours doing this by phone, since about 10 companies own all the hotels and all employ layers of robots. Cabbies know all the back-up hotels; you can jump in a taxi and ask. But it is harder and harder to find a taxi. TNC drivers know nothing about hotels. They are using their phones while driving, just to find their way. TNC drivers will not pull over to help. With no meters, they are not paid when the vehicle is not moving.  Driving a TNC is already a side-hustle. As Uber claims, “Everyone needs a side-hustle.”

After several hours, I finally found a hotel, and commuted to it. The following morning I commuted back to the airport to spend the entire day getting bumped from stand-by lists. I finally boarded a flight in the early evening. After a 90-minute take-off delay, it arrived at La Guardia, late that night.

When I arrived at La Guardia, I found the former taxi pickup and drop-off area flooded with Ubers. I had to take a shuttle bus to get to a taxi stand. I asked some crossing guards for information about the shuttle. I lumbered several blocks toward it, dragging and carrying luggage behind me. I boarded the next shuttle bus with seating capacity, joining The Sleepy Poor living in their phones. When we finally got to the destination, I leaped over the gray zone to reach the sidewalk. I then dragged and carried my luggage several more blocks to a well-lit taxi stand, which had no vehicles when I arrived. The lines were not too long, as this was now nearing midnight. I eventually got a taxi. Relying on his navigator, the driver got lost near the destination. I directed him the last 30 or so blocks.
I arrived at my NYC office/weekday home to find the elevator not working. Trudging uphill through the parking garage with my bags, I finally caught an auxiliary elevator to my doorway. But this was an asterisk compared the trip. The welcome mat was a joy.

A better and cheaper alternative would have been an express bus, at a fourth of the taxi or Uber fare. I just had no time to learn the routes. There was no coherent information about them available. This was impossible by phone, as the route numbers were not displayed. Nor was the pickup point identified. One cannot reach the New York City Transit Authority providing this service.

Mode Split

As the reader may sense, I will be making my next trip to the Midwest by motorcoach.  I am certain the airlines are fine with this. With the casual nature of flight delays, schedules padded to (30 minutes for heartland flights, 60 minutes for coast-to-coast flights), consolidation at will and no spares, airlines do much better hauling only long-distance passengers. With these tricks, the profits can be enormous. Customer inconvenience is irrelevant.

In contrast, I can get a motorcoach from NYC to Cincinnati for 50 bucks. I could get a better one for 80 bucks. I can hop on a subway  and get to the Port Authority Terminal in less than an hour – even with the increasingly-broken down subway. If I must, I can take an Uber. For at least a few more years, I can take a taxi – although a shuttle bus to the Port Authority building is on the horizon (see La Guardia). Regardless, intermediate-distance travel by motorcoach is making a lot more sense.

Making More Money

Frankly, motorcoach carriers can do better. In particular, motorcoach operators have spares – even if one has to call a fellow company to provide one. Do not think for a moment that passengers do not notice or care. The breakdown of public transportation, across most modes, provides extraordinary opportunities for creative motorcoach operators.

Years ago, I wrote 10 articles for National Bus Trader on this subject (see “Making More Money,” January, 2012 to December, 2012). Even then, airline travel was not nearly as treacherous. The TNC’s had not yet decimated the taxi industry. And the fight through the robots was not nearly as time-consuming.
Intermediate-length trips are far more promising today. Vehicles and services could be dramatically updated. They would provide a haven for travelers. How much money one could make on a venture like this is limited only by one’s imagination and the SEO skills of one’s web designer.

Money and Choices

Without naming it, one airline available mostly out West is still great. No consolidation. Few cancellations. Spare aircraft. Miss a flight and that airline will simply put you on the next one. Arrive early, that airline will put you on an earlier one. No change fees. No baggage fees. Many fares remarkably inexpensive. No first class or business-class seats. The earlier one reserves the flight, the earlier in the queue he or she boards.

Most travelers in the west and southwest are well aware of this airline. So the motorcoach business model is not nearly as good where this airline flies. Even so, there is only so much room at airports. Our population is swelling. And we are growing poorer. The promise of substituting communications for transportation was The Big Lie. Long distance commutes are swelling. Less travel is an illusion (see airports). The Big Lie only helped eliminate jobs (see airports).

Motorcoach travel will soon not be for only those with no money. Motorcoach travel will soon become a mode of choice for those with no time. Providing far better service than airlines could at a fraction of the cost is only the frosting. This is true for short trips, medium-length trips and, especially, for intermediate-length trips which one might otherwise take on airplanes.

What to do as a motorcoach operator is clear. The laggards will disappear. The survivors may be able to sell their operations to Uber. But only before the density is too thin. Witness the disappearance of taxis.

Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 600 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...

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