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Safety and Liability: Motorcoach Survival in the Age of COVID-19
Part 1: Roles and Opportunities

Originally published in National Bus Trader / April 2020

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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I would normally begin a series by exploring the origin of the problems. These would have included four decades of failure in multiple sectors of public transportation. Among its fellow modes, the motorcoach industry created the fewest of these failures. But the motorcoach industry has been limited in its capabilities to contribute to the current crisis by poor decisions made above and around it, and beyond its control, for at least four decades now – as I have noted in many NATIONAL BUS TRADER articles. Decades of mistakes now threaten the motorcoach industry’s very survival. But they have also compromised the industry’s ability to contribute to much-needed solutions.

Beyond those things outside our control, the industry has failed to adopt countless approaches which would have provided it with far more flexibility. In this first installment, I will share some things the industry can still do to help both itself and our plight in general – at least in theory.

Mode Split and Trade-offs

The risks of contact with others has naturally triggered a quick and radical mode-split from large shared-ride vehicles to exclusive- ride vehicles. The failures of these smaller vehicles to accommodate their new roles has been addressed often in past installments of “Safety and Liability.” (See “Drivers v. Robots, Part 2: The Nature of Modern Travel,” in NATIONALBUS TRADER, September, 2019, in particular). The underutilization of these smaller modes continues. These failures may be covered further in future installments – if other urgencies do not eclipse doing so. Otherwise, with the breakneck speed of the Covid-19’s spread, many points will be obvious or obsolete by the time these installments reach publication.

This mode-split has left motorcoaches with important, much-needed roles they could have fulfilled if the industry and environment surrounding it had been better structured and better supported. The most obvious problem, of course, is that our healthcare system that was overwhelmed with this unexpected virus and is trying to catch up with masks, goggles, beds, ventilators, healthcare workers, and too little equipment to protect them or their patients.

More recently, action is underway to increase production of necessary items and address these shortages. An army of coders may enhance security and surveillance. But it is no replacement for a nurse.

Ferrying Passengers

As we try to catch up, despite the pestilence and death in our wake, our industry can still contribute. Among ground vehicles of all types and sizes, motorcoaches have the most to offer. For one, motorcoaches are the only ones with restrooms. This single feature makes motorcoaches exponentially more safe for passenger travel than any large vehicle counterpart.

Using a fourth of the seating capacity would easily separate passengers from one another by six feet, with two padded barriers between every one of them. Supplied with a modicum of safety equipment (masks, gloves and even disposable hospital gowns or washable shop coats), with access to plenty of soap, water and toilets, motorcoaches would appear to be the only mode which could actually transport a mix of healthy and infected passengers at minimal risk. Because we may have limited testing capabilities, this passenger mix will often be traveling together unknowingly. So this motorcoach capability is an extraordinary advantage. Cleaner interior air could be further enhanced by opening roof hatches and cracking open emergency exit windows.

Particularly with the right clothing and protective devices, drivers would likewise be shielded from the passengers, and vice versa. With first-World hospital-quality masks, gloves, goggles and disposable or washable uniforms, drivers could even continue to spot or assist passengers on and off the stepwell. Apart from passengers likely volunteering to help, even union rules could be bent to permit drivers to disinfect the passenger compartment. Disposable or washable slip covers could be placed on every seat, and changed following each passenger’s use of it.

With these few modifications, it is not hard to see how motorcoaches could provide virus-safe schoolbus service, which regular school buses cannot. (Students could even wash their hands upon boarding, and toss used tissues into the toilet – which the wider passenger aisles would facilitate.) Without the crossing equipment, operating adjustments would have to be made. But such adjustments could be made in countless ways, including routing changes which do not require crossing.

This last challenge (i.e., crossing safety) is not endemic to fixed route transit service, where motorcoaches so equipped could also operate far more safely – not even factoring in the elimination of standees which greater passenger spacing would automatically facilitate.

Regarding the deployment of motorcoaches for schoolbus service, some schools may open while their bus services are not equivalently safe. Traditional school buses might malfunction as short-trip petri dishes. Long before the pandemic is under control, motorcoaches could still make a contribution. Interestingly, all coaches manufactured after November of 2016 have three-point occupant restraint systems, and some of their seats are even compartmentalized. Like school buses, they prohibit standees – even while the increased spacing among passengers would eliminate them anyway. The fact that motorcoaches and modified transit or suburban buses provide pupil transportation service in all but two countries in the world (not including a small number of exceptions in Saudi Arabia and China) illustrates how appropriate deploying motorcoaches for pupil transportation would be. One would be exaggerating to characterize this role as an innovation.

Then there are more urgent and unusual passenger-carrying needs and opportunities. Many healthcare workers often need to travel significant distances. With hotels and restaurants largely shutdown, long distance travel by automobile is challenging, and often not possible. Particularly with their restrooms, electrical sockets (which could easily accommodate portable refrigerators) and reclining seats, long-distance transportation by motorcoach can also be well-accommodated by team drivers. Healthcare workers are not the only individuals who need to travel long distances on short notice. As this installment is being written, national guard units are being called up in most states. Other military personnel must cross state lines. All type and manner of personnel may need to be distributed long distances, particularly as the intensity of needs are not aligned with the normal distribution of our population. Major hot spots are thousands of miles apart. New York City and Seattle are already overwhelmed. New hot spots emerge daily.

Another overlooked role for motorcoaches is food-shopping. If our foolishly splayed taxi fleets and armada of non-professionally- operated, drive-when-you-want Uber and Lyft vehicles are overwhelmed (at least they should be, in theory), many individuals without access to personal vehicles will be stranded from food and medical supplies. The notion of scheduling and dispatching full-size vehicles to accommodate such individuals is rare, but hardly novel. In the 1970s, the Tulsa Dial-A-Ride system provided 10.8 passenger trips per hour (today’s systems barely provide a trip per hour) largely because it provided regularly-scheduled grocery shopping to clusters of mostly elderly passengers. During my examination of this system while directing the USDOT’s first nationwide examination of special systems accommodating elderly and disabled individuals, one full size bus on which I rode was so full that many grocery bags had to be placed in the passenger aisle. This role would be even easier for a large vehicle with luggage bays. Unfortunately, the inefficiency of our current paratransit systems renders them useless as a potential contributor to address our current needs. But our motorcoaches could do much.

Supply Ships

For those older readers with good memories, or even today in rare parts of the country, motorcoaches carried or may still carry mail and small packages. Particularly with padded seating on the interior, interior package racks, and huge luggage bays, the supply role of motorcoaches could expand significantly. Our 33,000 motorcoach might not add significantly to the millions of trucks on the roadways. But the last decade’s replacement of stores with delivery services now compounded by progressive quarantines has made every last available truck essential. The unique variety of freight capacity and driver accommodations provided by motorcoaches affords them capabilities which other “supply ships” do not have. The unique variety of carrying capacity enables a motorcoach to carry beds, masks, goggles, swabs, gowns, shop coats, medicine, construction materials, tools and various supplies in the luggage bays, while transporting more-sensitive cargo (e.g., testing equipment, computers, medicine, instruments, ventilators, etc.) on padded seats. There are not nearly enough motorcoaches to provide the bulk of this transportation. But motorcoaches could and should serve as the fleet’s flag ships.

Delivery Services

Another important role lies in delivery, particularly as the last decade has focused on the replacement of stores with delivery services. During a pandemic, drivers of all delivery modes lie at risk. Many have no access to restrooms; few customers allow them to use such facilities at the destinations. These challenges are greater in rural areas where trip lengths are longer and destinations lie farther apart.

Because the virus had compounded our reliance on delivery vehicles, many drivers are continuing to work while experiencing virus symptoms. Others are not. So the traditional delivery fleet is both underutilized and overwhelmed. Given the disappearance of amenities, operating conventional delivery vehicles increases the hardships on even perfectly healthy drivers. Because modern motorcoaches are equipped with outlets and wi-fi, small portable refrigerators can carry food and medicine, and outlets can provide power to microwave ovens. Dishes and utensils can be cleaned in the restrooms. On long-distance trips without team drivers, vehicle operators can fall asleep in reclining seats while watching the news on video monitors, while their phones are being charged.

Hospitals on Wheels

In a previous column about the use of motorcoaches to house the homeless (see “Making More Money – The Homeless Bus” (NATIONAL BUS TRADER, December, 2012), I noted that with a simple modification, each pair of bucket seats could be transformed into a short bed with a cheap, lightweight, portable insert (using materials like Styrofoam or other non-porous surfaces which can be cleaned and disinfected). For more serious needs, a few bolts each could be removed from each pair of seats and the entire vehicle could be retrofitted with hospital cots. Already equipped with electrical sockets, wi-fi, heating, A/C, sinks and toilets, each coach could be quickly and easily converted into a small hospital unit. More interesting, unlike any other solution, this hospital could also serve as its own ambulance. Plus, many motorcoaches manufactured since 2001 – which includes most of those still on the road – have a wheelchair lift, facilitating not only the transfer of patients on and off, but the loading and unloading of supplies and waste. The MCI D45 CRT LE would be better yet: The vestibule could be converted into a health-secure sanctuary for round-the-clock, onboard healthcare workers.

Costs, Fares and Reality

Even if deployed solely in passenger service, a pure fare-based recovery of operating costs is clearly not possible in the near future because the nature of Covid-19 necessarily constrains vehicle capacity. But the fact that our network of smaller vehicles is so inefficient and has been so underutilized only heightens the need for the intelligent deployment and use of motorcoaches.

As noted, using the full capacity of a motorcoach would compromise the health of the passengers. But using a fourth or a sixth of their capacity in passenger service, motorcoaches would require far fewer subsidies per passenger trip than many fixed route transit systems. In recent months, the reality of declining ridership combined with embarrassing fare recovery ratios (some systems recover a low one-digit percentage of their operating costs from farebox revenue), a handful of transit systems stopped charging fares altogether. In this context, the cost of subsidizing a subset of our 33,000 motorcoaches for a moderate period of time would be trivial. In contrast, the multiple uses to which these vehicles could be put appears vital.

Of course, charging bridge and tunnel fees to vehicles which carry the same number of passengers as 40 cars illustrates a degree of enlightenment which is as embarrassing as it is counterproductive. So the failure to factor in the importance of motorcoaches into disaster-mitigation strategies is not just a recent failure. I wrote about this failure in response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in this very column 14 ½ years ago (see “Plans, Preparation and the S-Word” in NATIONAL BUS TRADER (November, 2005.) Since then, we have learned or care nothing about this potential.

Flexibility and Opportunity

In 2012, I wrote a year-long series of installments for NATIONAL BUS TRADER titled “Making More Money.” Most of these ideas were largely marketing ideas which would not have altered the structure, or even the cosmetics, of the vehicle. A few of these variations have occasionally been deployed, although none have been widely replicated.

Most applicable of these variations to today’s situation was “The Homeless Bus” (December, 2012), referenced above. My secretary at the time of that installment’s writing was a friend of my City’s current mayor. As a reward for her ‘round-the-clock’ campaign efforts, she left my company to serve as the newly-elected mayor’s lead official in charge of the homeless. She actually tried to suggest this approach as a means of housing half the City’s homeless population (then only about 30,000). After three months of frustration at her powerlessness, she stormed out of her job with a flurry of four-letter words.

So with my City now at the epicenter of our nation’s pandemic, it is fair for me to be abnormally angry about its failure to incorporate the various sectors of the public transportation industry (not merely motorcoaches) into any solutions. Efforts to blame the City’s plight entirely on failures at the Federal level is a sloppy half-truth. Frankly, I would not have expected much more from a city where its taxi fleet was decimated (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 2 – The Nature of Modern Travel” in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, September, 2019). But the City’s reckless indifference to this solution for the homeless population clearly kept any notion of putting its 1500 motorcoaches to good use in any emergency far from decision-makers’ minds.

With even the rudimentary changes noted, motorcoaches could remain on the road not only in their normal roles, but in expanded roles for carrying passengers, and in a broad range of non-traditional/non-passenger- carrying roles for which they are better- equipped than many or most the vehicles currently performing these roles.

Rather than fade into bankruptcy as eight-wheeled rolling ghosts, motorcoaches could and should be deployed as the heart of our passenger, personnel, freight, delivery and hospital network. We are lucky to have such resources at our disposal. Regrettably, we are too unimaginative, too ignorant, too disorganized and too clueless to use them. Instead, we are squandering a valuable lifesaving, industry-sustaining and job-saving capability in our midst, leaving its vehicles lying around collecting dust. Instead of parking this fleet while its drivers starve, both motorcoach companies and drivers should be earning bonanzas. Along the way, they should be earning our gratitude. Instead, the failure to employ them as resources, like an unlimited number of similar failures, deserves only our blame and our scorn.

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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