Hopes, dreams, truth, lies, prayers and politics aside, one of the burning industry questions is: How do we get on the road again? Willie Nelson’s unforgettable tune left us no clues.
In Part 1 of this series, I outlined a number of important roles motorcoaches could and should have played immediately when the outbreak began. Performance of these roles would have helped the country cope with the virus. It would have helped the industry, its businesses and its drivers survive it. It would have negated the related interruption in production, marketing, sales and maintenance of vehicles in support of this continuity. And it would have left the industry in a stronger position when our collective health regained some semblance of normalcy. In this installment, I will outline the challenge of resuming the motorcoach industry’s conventional role: Carrying passengers.
The framework for this resumption of service would be a cakewalk in an environment of intelligible testing. It is far more challenging in an environment with little or none of it. To emphasize the difference, and make this installment as useful as possible, I will explore both scenarios.
Testing as the Prerequisite
Because I have had throat problems for decades, every couple of years my ENT has swabbed the back of my throat with a long-handled Q-tip. A day later, I got the results. To be fair, our diagnostic facilities would be overwhelmed today even if we had enough Q-tips. But also to be fair, we do not have enough – or the more-complex swabs we also do not have. But if we did, and if we had intelligible testing capabilities, we could be on the road again in a matter of months. In truth, many basic questions about testing have not been clarified at the time of this installment’s writing. But even if less than perfect, testing even a sliver of our population would inarguably have been helpful.
With so much other controversy and noise, the importance of testing as the basis for dealing with Covid-19 has often been pushed to the background. As of this writing, fewer than one percent of the U.S. population has been tested. For transportation purposes, it should be helpful to explore how to get back on the road again with or without testing.
Resumption of Service in an Environment of Testing
For starters, there are basically five types of people with respect to Covid-19:
- Those infected who are sick
- Those infected who are not sick (i.e., “asymptomatic” or “carriers”)
- Those vulnerable but not yet infected
- Those infected who have recovered
- Those who are immune
There are plenty of unanswered questions related to this classification. They include:
- Of the testing we have, can it identify these types and separate them into these (or similar) categories?
- How long can someone remain a carrier?
- How long might one’s immunity last?
- For those not immune, how soon after exposure to the infection can one expect to become sick?
- Do some individuals require more severe and/or different types of exposure to the virus than others to become infected?
- Are there some people we cannot classify?
- If so, how large is this class?
If we could classify individuals at noted above, we could begin to reconstruct motorcoach service. For one, those permanently immune (a subset of class #5) or recovered (class #4) would be safe as both drivers and wall-to-wall passengers. With the flood of unemployment, a new squadron of drivers could be trained in a matter of weeks. With digital navigators, they would not have to know the service area. Service would just be smoother with permanently-immune or recovered dispatchers.
At the passenger level, those in classes #4 and #5 would presumably have identification confirming their status, and simply flash it along with their tickets, cash or boarding passes. At first, the resumption of service would not likely fill the vehicles to capacity. And fewer vehicles would likely be deployed. But as the scourge passes through our society, the class of recovered victims would grow. And the number gradually tested and found permanently immune would also grow. As these numbers grow, and ridership resumes, subsidies could be scaled back.
Until vaccines are developed and dispensed to the entire population, full service as we know it could not be reached, in theory. But even after a vaccine is available, the economic damage following Covid-19 would almost certainly translate into fewer tour and charter passengers. But it would not necessarily translate into fewer commuter/express and intercity/scheduled service passengers. Were we to deploy some motorcoaches in other much-needed roles (see “Motorcoach Survival in the Age of Covid-19, Part 1: Roles and Responsibilities,” National Bus Trader, May, 2020),” the industry could operate at full force even while charter and tour patronage remained in decline for years to come. If the decline lasted longer, vehicles would have to adopt other roles to sustain pre-virus usage, production and sales levels. Of course, were we to learn the lessons of these expanded roles, the industry would rebound more strongly than before Covid-19 struck.
Regardless, motorcoach service could at least survive, even at only at these lower levels, until a vaccine becomes available. But again, this survival only pertains to the testing scenario.
Resumption of Service in an Environment of No Testing
Many might view the no-testing scenario as an unimportant hypothetical. After all, plenty developed countries (e.g., South Korea, Singapore) and even Second World countries (e.g., Vietnam) have already tested everyone. But these nations tested everyone before we tested even one percent of our population. So this scenario is worth exploring here.
With practically no testing, drivers and passengers could come from only one group: The “Recovered” (class #4 above). Again, given unemployment rates, even this small class could ramp up the driver pool in a few short weeks. The difference would lie, instead, in the much smaller number of passengers.
This reality involves a medical versus economic irony – mirroring the debate about medical protection versus the risks to it in exchange for more quickly trying to restart the economy. In other words, the more people who must remain protected during the pre-vaccine period, the fewer potential riders there would be. The more people who become infected but recover, the more potential class #4 riders there would be.
Hybrid Solutions and Risks
Assuming that driver levels (at least) could quickly return to normal under both scenarios, many of the strategies designed to protect transit drivers would be unneeded. These strategies have included rear-boarding, the abandonment of fare collection, personal protective gear (PPG), restricting passengers to only rear seats, and enhanced modesty panels/Plexiglas barriers, among others. As we have seen, these approaches have failed miserably. But this failure is academic to solutions for drivers recovery, since the labor pool could thicken in weeks, if we bothered to think about it. The same solution will clearly not work for passengers. On 45-foot motorcoaches filled to capacity, passengers outnumber drivers 55 to one.
Assuming a small risk, the passenger separation discussed in Part 1 of this series would allow transportation of small loads, with passengers seated three rows apart – with this “social distancing” enhanced by the barriers of forward-facing seats lying two feet apart, longitudinally. The passengers could also be outfitted with a full accoutrement of PPG. And unique to motorcoaches, this protection would be further enhanced by the presence of restrooms. With significantly smaller loads, a single restroom would accommodate the cleanliness and disinfecting needed.
To further minimize these risks, an attendant could ride along with the driver. That individual would be occupied not only with enforcing social distancing and compliance with constant use of PPG, but also keeping the restroom pristine, and otherwise swabbing down surfaces like handrails, seatbacks, seat tops, grab handles and overhead package racks.
Just the same, the risks would not vanish. They would only be minimized. It is unlikely that many “choice” riders would accept these risks. This reality would effectively kill the tour and charter sectors. However, commuter/express and intercity/scheduled service riders would not consist entirely of choice riders. Instead:
- For captive riders, motorcoaches deployed in commuter/express service would be viable and far-more-affordable alternatives to taxis, limos and Ubers/Lyfts.
- For captive riders, motorcoaches deployed in intercity/scheduled service would be viable and far-more-affordable alternatives to travel by air or passenger rail.
So even with small loads, commuter/express and intercity service could continue, albeit with sizeable subsidies.
In perspective, subsidizing this industry would be miniscule in terms of the subsidies required to support fixed route transit or airline service. So to the degree common sense prevailed, subsidizing empty intercity/scheduler service and commuter/express seats would be a prudent economic decision – even while it may not stand a chance, politically, given the size and clout of the airline and passenger rail sectors.
Were this pre-vaccine-era service to exist and continue, the industry would have to resist the forces of greed which the consolidation of vehicles would naturally entice. We have seen these forces employed by the airline industry long before Covid-19 emerged (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 2: The Nature of Modern Travel,” National Bus Trader, October, 2019). For decades, three scheduled flights two-thirds full were regularly consolidated into two flights completely full. The cost and inconvenience to passengers were irrelevant to the airline oligopolies. But this trend could be prevented in motorcoach travel by levels of law enforcement tuned into it, and supported by regulations removing operating authority from the perpetrators operating coaches with more than one-sixth of their seating capacity filled. In theory, airline and passenger rail services could be similarly enforced. In reality, such enforcement will never happen.
Choices and Conundrums
Particularly as motorcoach service in the non-testing scenario illustrates, there is no way to completely eliminate risk. But in fairness, there is also no way to completely eliminate need. Some people must travel, and many or most cannot do so in exclusive-ride vehicles. This is true for long trips, where most restaurants and hotels, and their restrooms, are closed. And it is true for short trips, for which many commuters and other travelers without cars, and/or who cannot find or afford parking, cannot afford taxis, limos or Ubers/Lyfts (even where they can find them). For these individuals, travel by some shared-ride mode may still be necessary. For these individuals, motorcoaches structured as described above (and in Part 1 of this series) may comprise the most realistic travel choice. At the seating capacities notes, they can certain fill our nation’s 33,000 motorcoaches.
Like so many things about the coronavirus, we are beginning to recognize that the consequences are not solely the fault of recent leadership failures. These consequences were seeded by decades of mistakes. Most of these mistakes lay beyond the control of anyone in the motorcoach field, or any other sector of public transportation. But countless mistakes were also made by those within the various public transportation sectors, and by those who exercised control over them. I have been writing about these failures in National Bus Trader for two decades now. I became familiar with such failures almost immediately upon entering the public transportation field in 1975.
Blame-placing my indeed help us do better in the future. But it will not get us back on the road again. To get back on the road again will require a combination of ingenuity that Americans used to be recognized for around the World. It will still require tough choices and action. If we perform both well, we will indeed be on the road again, in one form or another, relatively soon. If we fail to make these choices and fail to take these actions, we may never get back on the road again.
The normal dynamics of unsubsidized motorcoach service will not be the same in a nation suddenly full of many individuals much poorer, and less willing or able to participate in activities they feel are less essential. At the same time, far more of these individuals are likely to become “public transportation-dependent.” This socio-economic likelihood may trigger an increase in intercity/scheduled and commuter/express service in return for less charter and tour service. If we can get back on the road again, we may have to make such adjustments. But we can expect to make countless adjustments in countless other ways. In this regard, the motorcoach industry will be little different than any other industry.
Like it or not, the spirit of Willie Nelson is among us and upon us. As he crooned, and as we all feel, “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.” Whether this desire becomes a reality, or just a spirit, depends largely on our recognition of our opportunities, and our willingness to employ them.