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Making More Money, Part 10: The Homeless Bus

As Originally published by Natioanl Bus Trader, December 2012.

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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As with every installment in this series of articles, this particular model or vision is highly unusual, has only limited application, and requires considerable creativity and effort to bring to life, and still contains some constraints even if and when one can develop it beyond the womb of an idea. Unlike previous visions, however, this particular one, the Homeless Bus, also requires an extremely open mind to even consider. It also requires the ability to evaluate its feasibility from a range of perspectives not normally involved in making decisions about what to do with a motorcoach. Those readers whose minds are not so open should probably read no further. In contrast, while the Homeless Bus is almost certain to be the most exotic stretch of one's imagination in our industry, and because spatial constraints place limits on comfort as a practical matter, it is also the most meaningful vision presented so far in this series, and a vision that would do more to promote motorcoaches as the chameleons they truly are than almost anything else one could think of.

Existing Housing Alternatives

Apart from three basic options, there are only a handful of quirks to which only a small fraction of homeless individuals have for their housing. A salient example is Joe DiMaggio. Other than during his short marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio never owned a home; he spent his entire life visiting and staying with friends. Obviously, Mr. DiMaggio possessed options that few traditional homeless individuals could even dream of -- even as their numbers seem to be swelling, and the challenge of addressing this growth increasingly costly, if not desperate. Frankly, there are really only three approaches generally employed to accommodate them in our society:

  1. They live and sleep effectively in the street (including cardboard boxes, on subway seats, or sundry alcoves vacant during normal bedtime hours)
  2. They live in shelters
  3. They live in cheap motels

The latter option is exponentially superior for such individuals, and particularly with the increasing number of individuals unemployed, cheap motel rooms are increasingly available. Of course, even at deeply-discounted rates, they represent a significant drain on local, county or state budgets already strained to the breaking point. Otherwise, the fact that the first option even exists is explainable only by the reality of what life in the second option is like. Living in a shelter often means sleeping in a cot within breathing distance of a fellow-cot's occupant on all sides, devoid not only of a gram of privacy, but with prison-like rules for everything from when the lights are turned off to when and what to eat. Needless to say, the first two of these options involves enormous hardship and suffering for the individuals, while the third involves enormous hardship for our communities and their taxpayers.

Unasked Questions

Let us begin developing a sensible alternative by exploring a few questions about our industry:

  1. In the commuter/express sector, what days are the vehicles rarely if ever used on?
  2. On those days when they are deployed, what hours are they almost never used?

Answering these two simple questions is a practical place to start the discussion. Overall, motorcoaches deployed in commuter/express service often serve as "feeder" services to rail systems, often attract executive-level passengers (not the "transit-dependent") and often require use of the luggage bays. In contrast, large urban area commuter/express services do nothing remotely like this, but instead, are rarely if ever used, or even maintained, from mid-evening until early morning, Monday through Friday. They simply shuttle commuters to work from their suburban homes in the morning, and return them in the late afternoon or evening. They are rarely used at any time on weekends, other than a handful deployed in charter or tour service to events like local or regional football games or similar activities. And even then, these same vehicles are rarely deployed during what are referred to as "night" and "owl" service hours. Further, among the four sectors in which motorcoaches are deployed, the urban form of commuter/express services is the only one that does not involve the use of the vehicle's luggage bays. Frankly, as a taxpayer, I have never understood why urban transit agencies deploying motorcoaches for such a purpose even deploy motorcoaches, since both the ride quality and luxury of a bus' interior can match them, likely at less than $100,000 per vehicle. Yet using them to house homeless individuals provides a justification for their continued deployment in this sector that otherwise does not legitimately even exist.

Life in the Homeless Bus

Here is a short list outlining what a homeless individual's life would be like if his or her home would be a pair of motorcoach seats:

  • The individual would have the same bed every night, even if that bed more closely resembles a Lazy-Boy recliner.
  • By simply adding a purpose-built, low-cost molded form "mattress" that could be laid across a pair of bench seats, and stored in the luggage bays during the weekday, daytime hours, the bed could even be flat, horizontal and somewhat comfortable, not merely a reclining seat, although the occupant would have to sleep somewhat curled up, since the vehicle's entire interior width is less than 102 inches, and room does not exist for even most relatively-short adults to completely stretch out on their seat benches without bumping toes.
  • With a cheap curtain rigged up to hang from a modified interior package rack, and a shade pulled down from the ceiling to the top of each seat back, the bed's occupant would have a reasonable degree of privacy, albeit not as soundproof as a single-bed sleeping compartment on an AMTRAK train.
  • The vehicle has a restroom, and with an inexpensive modification common to luxurious motorcoach conversions, one seat bench could even be replaced with a shower.
  • The typical "shopping cart's worth of belongings that comprise the spectrum of possessions that most homeless individuals are forced to lug around in order to retain could simply be stored in the luggage bays, providing them with an unthinkable degree of freedom and dignity during their daytime activities compared to the tagged-as-a-homeless-person that dragging these belongings around would otherwise represent.
  • With access to electrical sockets, the coach could be heated during the winter months with electric heaters, and cooled during the summer months with fans, enhanced by ventilation by four open push-out windows and two open roof hatches.
  • Each occupant's miniature home would come with a window; the fact that it would really be only a portion of a larger window would be irrelevant given the ventilation amenities noted just above.
  • Before retiring, and throughout the entire weekend, the occupants could enjoy television or movies displayed on a handful of video screens, and would have access to electrical sockets and even Wi-Fi connections.
  • With individual lighting modules, each occupant could control his or her time of retirement, counter to the prison-like environment of a homeless shelter.
  • Like a shelter, the Homeless Bus would serve as a convenient collection point for a vast array of services, ranging from food deliveries to medical care.

Taking this vision a small step further -- although not feasible for many or most urban transit systems that store their buses in various downtown storage locations -- some may be relatively close to suburban campgrounds, where the vehicles could connect to water and sewer lines in a matter of minutes. Further, with a couple of small refrigerators, microwave ovens, and safe, instant-cool-to-the-touch electric cook tops, one could even store and prepare food. In fact, positioned in a few small sections of interior package racks (albeit somewhat reconfigured), these amenities would not even replace any of the seating. In fact, their installation would increase the resale value of the vehicle if it were sold into the tour or charter, or even the intercity/regular route market, where the regular passengers could utilize these amenities (and perhaps lead to slight increases in their fares in the process).;

Now: Replace the word "occupant" in the above batch of amenities with the word "resident." While we are hardly talking about the American Dream, this environment promises a living environment noticeably more hospitable than a shelter. On top of all this, the costs would not be nothing: They would likely be negative. The occupants or residents would provide cleaning and disinfecting. A small handful could even perform certain types of maintenance, including washing the vehicle's exterior. For a municipally-owned fleet, this vision or concept would eliminate considerable expenditures, particularly where the alternative involves housing in a cheap motel. For a contractor-owned fleet, it would not be unreasonable for the community to provide a moderate fee for such a service: A fee that would be miniscule compared to 20 permanent stays in a cheap motel could represent a bonanza to a motorcoach company whose vehicle costs are already covered by the subsidies provides to operate the vehicles in commuter/express service. As an example, a one dollar a night per passenger rental fee would bring a motorcoach operator an additional $140 of revenue per week, plus the savings from not having to clean or wash the vehicle, and possible some marginal savings in maintenance. In contrast, at even $100/week per person, an extraordinarily-cheap motel rental rate, costs for housing individuals in that environment would be almost 1500 percent greater.

Challenges and Solutions

No one is arguing that some adjustments would not have to be made to accommodate this vision. For starters, a handful of union jobs might disappear, although a community could obviously choose to forgo the opportunities for the Homeless Bus' residents to perform cleaning and lower-level maintenance, thereby effectively "earning their keep" in return for the privilege of a tiny home that contains just enough amenities to accommodate an unusual but still normal life.

There are plenty of challenges, particularly at the operating level. Having a bunch of strangers wandering around within a vehicle storage yard is a serious problem, and it would be unreasonable to expect every resident of the Homeless Bus to remain inside the entire time he or she enters it until the time he or she leaves. Since one would certainly not want anyone smoking on the vehicle, some "wandering around outside" would be unavoidable. This raises a challenging security problem. Of course, it is childlike in comparison to the security challenges we have faced this past decade. Further, if one recognizes that every homeless person is not a hopelessly untrustworthy and useless thief, the more capable among the group could serve as "captains," and help maintain order outside the vehicle, including confining residents off the bus to a limited distance away from it, and notifying enforcement personnel when such space is breached, or any other deviant activity is spotted.

Another challenge is the fact that most vehicles in the fleet would need to be accessible for several hours that they are not deployed, primarily to accommodate maintenance, refueling and other needs. But in those environments where vehicles either deadhead back to their storage yards after their last AM commuter/express runs, or deadhead to a different storage yard in the downtown area during the "base period" (when these storage yards are relatively empty because most of their buses are still deployed in "local" or "regional" transit service during this time), some of these activities could easily be shifted to this base period, normally a good five to six hours that a commuter/express coach is out-of-service between its AM inbound and PM outbound runs.

Then there is the issue of on-the-bus security. Fortunately, we have devices known as cameras and microphones. And their images and sounds can easily be monitored from remote locations. Their application would have to strike an enlightened balance between privacy and security. But this balance could be accommodated partly by empowering a few of each vehicle's residents with some responsibility.

Also, challenges remain for the vehicle's nighttime and weekend residents. They must be early risers, would have no access whatsoever to any of their belongings from very early in the morning until late in the evening, would have a limited number of hours they could sleep (at least during the week), and their behavior would likely have to be toned down to accommodate the privacy, security and comfort that only makes sense if one is to undertake the implementation of such an extraordinarily different experiment.

As noted, the greatest challenge, and, frankly, the only one I feel cannot be addressed reasonably easily with existing technology, is the spatial limitations imposed by the vehicle's width. I suppose one could accommodate this by housing only 10 residents on each coach, allowing each one to stick his or her legs into the center aisle. But even this would pose a problem for those residents needing to use the restrooms. A far more enlightened solution would exist with the type of two-plus-one seating one often finds in European First Class subway compartments, or even the First Class sections of smaller commercial aircraft. Such configurations would obviously reduce the seating capacity of the vehicle's daytime use considerably. But because we have never tried it, we have no idea how many commuter/express passengers might be willing to pay a fare one-third higher for a real First Class seat. Keep in mind, such seats on commercial aircraft can easily cost five times as much as those in "Economy Class."

I am not suggesting a transit agency configure its entire commuter/express fleet in such fashion. But there may be enough demand, particularly for those vehicles serving affluent areas, for a fleet to contain a moderate number of such vehicles. If it did, those vehicles could house 10 passengers in a full-size bed, and 10 more who would have to sleep on a reclining seat, in a much, smaller compartment. But even with this approach, the single-side seats could be spaced further apart, losing perhaps two or three additional seating positions at most, and the seats could recline to a nearly horizontal level, more resembling a hospital bed. Frankly, it would not be terribly hard to sell these 10 or 11 seats to a regular commuter who could practically lie down during the inbound, AM ride, extending his or her morning's sleep -- and/or take a genuine nap during the evening's return trip. With the curtains and drop-down shades noted above, such commuters could even obtain a degree of privacy during the trip, assuming, of course, that this last twist is not erased by the imposition of seatbelts on motorcoaches accompanied by the requirement to use them. But I think the usage requirement is so far-fetched as to be irrelevant: Other than on New Jersey schoolbuses containing lapbelts (extremely dangerous given their tight seat-spacing), no other relatively-large passenger transportation vehicle for which the installation of seatbelts is required (i.e., with a GVWR greater than 10,000 lbs.) also requires their usage, and this even includes no requirement for the usage of three-point seatbelts at wheelchair securement positions, even though it is the industry standard to affix them.

Interestingly, there are a number of variables that comprise solutions by themselves, devoid of anything one might realistically term as a challenge. For example, while a flock of homeless folk sleeping on a coach may initially translate into the notion of a really dirty and smelly bus for the commuters whom it would primarily accommodate, this notion need never materialize. Instead, every morning, a handful of occupants could clean and disinfect the coach. Particularly with the foam inserts noted, the sleepers would not even touch the seat cushions, and removable "slip covers" could easily be placed over the seatbacks before the nighttime and weekend residents enter the vehicle. As a consequence, the coach would be cleaner and smell fresher for each morning's commuters than it would without its nighttime occupants.

I am sure there are other challenges, including some interesting institutional ones like zoning regulations and union work rules. But most of these are conceptual challenges, not physical challenges. This means that there are no genuine barriers to their resolution other than, as noted, the width and traditional seating configuration of the vehicle.

Home Sweet Home

To learn about the railroads as a part-time graduate student in Urban & Regional Planning, and to pay my tuition and living expenses, I actually worked for the last six months they existed as one of the AMTRAK "Montrealer's" piano players, traveling one round-trip a week between Washington, D.C. and Montreal, with a major stop in New York City among a string of lesser stops in the northeast corridor. This trip required my sleeping on two consecutive nights each week in a sleeping car whose twin mattress literally covered both the sink and the toilet. All four sides of my bed lay adjacent to a wall. But I had the luxury of a window.

Oddly enough, the longitudinal movement of the train created a hammock-like or cradle effect that literally rocked me to sleep. My level of comfort and security was so extensive that, even today, nearly 40 years later, I become sleepy the moment I set foot on a train. (I have heard of this phenomenon from countless motorcoach drivers who become sleeping the moment they set foot on a bus or coach as a passenger.) Other than having a curtain on one side, and perhaps shorter curtains draped to the top of each seatback, the only differences between a motorcoach's "sleeping compartment" and that of a train is the fact that, with the motorcoach, the taller passengers' would have to sleep somewhat curled up (or sleep in a reclined seat), and the fact that the motorcoach's sleeping compartment would not provide nearly the degree of insulation from noise, although, in trade-off, it would not encounter the road or "track" noise that would otherwise accompany a train's movement.

Another phenomenon no one would have even dreamed of a decade ago, and which provides an important perspective to this vision, is the sudden explosion of micro-sized hotel and motel rooms on both the American and world-wide landscape. Particularly in dense major cities where space is outrageously costly, this development provides opportunities for visitation and travel that would have been unaffordable with conventional hotel and motel rooms. But the development of this phenomenon, or at least the way it is marketed -- also demonstrates how little space we really need to accommodate the basic necessities of life. It was less than a century ago that most Americans lived in homes without running water, flush toilets and electricity. The tiny cubicles afforded residents of the Homeless Bus contain all of these things. And even today, the American landscape is still littered with cheap hotels with bathrooms "down the hall." In fact, even my large, splashy country home requires a septic tank, has no access to natural gas, and relies for water on an old-fashioned well. Other than its spatial limitations, some aspects of living on the Homeless Bus resemble an extended picnic.

It is also important to recognize that even in many modern societies, urban Japan and China provide excellent examples, living space for even upper middle class residents is a fraction of the size we, as Americans, are used to. So craved for space are these families and individuals that our musical landscape is verily littered with used Yamaha and Kawai grand pianos shipped to our shores the minute Japanese children leave their parents' "nests."

Staging Areas

If you happen to think that homeless individuals are simply bums, you deserve to live in a cave. With both his parents dead, no relatives, and following five months in the hospital from the worst appendicitis explosion in his hospital's records, my former business partner in my paratransit operating company spent an entire year living in a shelter (largely because I had just moved from my home in Los Angeles to an apartment in New York City). Within a month, he was managing it. But along with his increased responsibilities came a cubicle, providing him access to a telephone and, in those days, dial-up internet access. Because of the shelter's amenities, he was able to show up for job interviews clean and well-groomed, and possessed the means to maintain the continuity of communications one needs to stay in touch with potential employers. He eventually landed a position managing a large network of internet servers. With his earnings, he managed to return to college to receive a second master's degree, and now works as an intervention therapist, literally helping scores of individuals in the same straights he found himself roughly 15 years ago. He is still my closest friend.

I mention this story for an important reason: The personnel needed to accommodate the Homeless Bus, individuals to clean and disinfect it, provide security both within the coach and in its storage yards, and coordinate other needs that the centralized location of a clump of homeless individuals requires, including administrative tasks -- would likely emerge from the ranks of the vehicle's inhabitants, much less performing them at no cost.

Time and Space

Anyone in the transportation community understands that time and space are what public transportation is all about. Yet these notions are precisely what the Homeless Bus is all about. With a natural, life-long sleep/wakefulness cycle considerably longer than a single rotation of the Earth on its axis, I wrote my Master's Thesis on a concept I termed "the Non-Solar Dey", not a misspelling. In this document, I explored the sequential usage of space (particularly work space) by a succession of occupants, for most of each week's 168 hours, rather than the 40 to 50 hours it is traditionally used. Since those of us who, like myself, possess longer sleep/wakefulness cycles can probably adapt to a 28-hour day (or dey), our work needs could be accommodated by roughly one fourth of the space it currently requires. The Homeless Bus is nothing more than a residential application of this concept, except for the fact that it is a far easier adaptation since it does not require anyone in the vehicle's sphere of usage to adapt a non-solar sleep/wakefulness cycle. At the vehicle level, the Homeless Bus represents nothing more than a use of space during those times that it would otherwise lie unoccupied. That this usage provides an affordable and humane solution to an enormous problem is only a characterization. The reality and feasibility is obvious, and involves absolutely nothing more than an imaginative use of otherwise unoccupied space. In more flowery terms, one could argue it comprises a clever manipulation of time and space. Either way, the vision if not only full of upsides, but void of downsides, with only a single, genuine spatial challenge that would simply compromise the most luxurious feature of each mini-home: The ability to sleep lying down completely flat.

Promise and Perspective

I am certain that every reader began this installment thinking that a single seat bench on a motorcoach is not much of a home. But that is because, as Americans, so many of us enjoy so much more. Frankly, the home that this vehicle could provide is far superior to the typical homes of billions of people on our planet, people who often earn the equivalent of a dollar a day, have no access to electricity (much less the diversity of appliances it could operate), and spend several hours a day walking across the desert or through the jungle simply to fetch two pails of clean water.

Looking at the situation from the perspective of the American Dream, let us recognize the reality that we have tens of millions of would-be workers unemployed or underemployed, and that one fourth of all our children go to bed at night hungry. If our individual and collective inventiveness can overcome our individual and collective greed, we may be able to dig our way out of this misfortune, just as we did in the 1930's. But every improvement requires a starting point. A wave of improvements involves hundreds or thousands of them. The Homeless Bus should certainly be included among them.

Rising from the Ashes

The story of the homeless bus is nothing but the story of America. The first thing a century of many of our immigrants saw upon entering New York harbor was a statue asking their former homelands to "Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free." Rising from the ashes is what made us the greatest nation this planet has ever known. It is who we are. It is also how so many of us got started. For countless millions, it was the first step toward realizing the American dream.

There is a Japanese saying that what defines a nation is how it treats its most unfortunate inhabitants. We should be proud of what we, as Americans, have accomplished both during the last century and since. Among these accomplishments has been a social structure in which hard work generally translated into advancement, and those willing to perform it were often able to work their way from the gutter to a single family home, and in some cases, to a mansion. Even as our safety net is being stretched largely by our extended life spans, we should still be proud of the opportunities our nation has offered to hundreds of millions of people for at least two centuries.

During the height of his fortune and fame, Enrico Caruso used to sit in his garden and hand out small sums of money to everyone in an almost endless line of recipients and beggars. When told by many of his close friends that most of these people did not genuinely need the things they were asking money for, Mr. Caruso replied, "Well, some of them do."

If nothing else, the Homeless Bus is the stuff of local and perhaps national headlines. Most media journalists would be drawn to stories about it as if by magnets. Such coverage would likely comprise better marketing than we could ever invent, much less afford. I hardly think it would cheapen the image of motorcoach ridership, since the Homeless Bus really makes sense only for vehicles deployed in urban-area commuter/express service, service ridden mostly by either the "transit dependent" or individuals smart enough to recognize the benefits that public transportation service provides to suburbanites. I cannot imagine either of these ridership groups "mode-splitting" away from their daily trips on a $450,000 vehicle with a ride comfort far superior to that of any limousine simply because it now has that "new car smell" that daily disinfecting it would provide.

The Homeless Bus holds the promise of becoming one of the most unique pieces of the puzzle in solving one of our nation's greatest problems. Yet ironically, this solution also contains the promise of decreased public spending or additional profits, depending simply on whether an urban area's commuter/express fleet is publicly or privately owned. As everyone and anyone in the transportation business knows, the way to earn money or minimize subsidies is to keep the vehicle providing as much "passenger mileage" and as little "deadhead mileage" as possible. Who would have thought that a motorcoach could earn revenue or decrease public spending while it was not even moving? Yet the vision of the Homeless Bus is an accessible piece of clay that can be molded to perfection by our effort and imagination.

One can view this vision from a vast array of perspectives, including many I have not touched upon or even thought of. But one perspective I like to view it from is an American one. Full of ingenuity. Void of the fear of doing something different. Solving our problems logically and prudently. If any developed nation succeeds in creating this fascinating albeit controversial "starting point" or "staging area," the phenomenon will spread like wildfire. Frankly, I am tired of our industry lagging behind that of Europe. Once in a while, it would be nice for us to do something clever and meaningful first.

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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