Even railroad fanatics like me have to admit that the future of passenger transportation by rail, particularly urban commuter rail, is pretty well frozen where it is. New rail – even light rail, an idealistic indulgence – is doomed by high costs, lack of appropriate track, and political squabbling.
New subways, the elegant way to get around a city, by going under it, are an almost impossible dream. The costs are too great in times of austerity, and the costs of maintenance can be prohibitive as a system ages.
Increasingly, the future appears to be the humble bus. Buses have low capital costs, are flexible, and can be adjusted to demand and population changes in ways trains cannot.
Spare the groaning: The buses are coming. And today's bus need not be yesterday's – noisy, smelly, and unreliable.
London, which has possibly the best transportation infrastructure in the world, with a huge rail network, is nonetheless betting on buses. It's deploying a new bus that is designed for the times and preserves some of the features that have made its buses emblematic of the city, like the two decks. And, yes, they are red.
The new London buses are a meeting of nostalgia with high-tech and environmental sensibility. London was busy phasing out its traditional buses in favor of articulated buses, which bend in the middle, when a controversial and eccentric Conservative journalist turned politician, Boris Johnson, declared that if he were elected mayor, he would save the old buses, or at least the concept of double-deck buses. He won the election and ideas were sought from the public.
The result is what the tabloids call the "Boris Bus." It's a high-tech beauty that meets many demands. It has two doors and two staircases, but it's so low that wheelchairs are easily accommodated.
They are designed to have conductors during rush hours and to be operated by drivers only at other times.
They use modern composite materials from the airline industry and are hybrids, with diesel engines and regenerative breaking. That has made way for the lowering of the bottom deck, increasing stability while reducing weight.
The initial reception of this high-tech scion of the old and loved London bus has been so enthusiastic that Johnson is talked about as a future Conservative prime minister – riding the bus to the highest office in the land.
Back to our buses. They, too, are getting better, but less dramatically so. Between Washington and New York, there's now thriving bus service with half a dozen competing firms offering WiFi, toilets, and many points of departure. The ticket price, about $20 each way, is a fraction of those for Amtrak and airlines.
These intercity buses are diesel-powered, but many cities are using natural-gas-powered buses. That might yet seal the deal for buses as the future of urban transportation, reducing the use of cars. America is awash in natural gas. It also has less environmental impact.
Buses are at their best when, as my wife pointed out in London once, they run like conveyors. Frequently, that means enough dedicated bus lanes.
The Obama administration would be well advised to launch a bus initiative with emphasis on better vehicles, à la London, and dedicated bus lanes. The solution to urban congestion may be in a high-speed, WiFi-equipped, natural-gas-powered bus. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate