Opinion: Daily Journal

The Real Automotive Alternative

RALEIGH – Although I have often argued in favor of automobility – the economic and social benefits of widespread car ownership – I don’t doubt the value of alternative means of transportation.

Railroads retain significant value, for example, as movers of freight. One of my chief objections to government subsidies for intercity rail passenger service and regional rail transit schemes is that they impose unnecessary burdens on the operation of freight railroads, which are viable companies that create economic value and pay taxes.

As for buses, they are a good, flexible solution for increasing the mobility of poor people who don’t own cars, elderly and disabled people who can’t drive cars, and a few urbanites who don’t want to own cars.

While able-bodied bus riders ought to shoulder a higher percentage of the real cost of serving them, I have no beef with buses as a 21st century transportation mode. In fact, unlike Amtrak lines or small-city air services – most of which survive only through perpetual taxpayer bailouts – bus lines are a real and growing competitor to personal autos for intercity passenger trips.

In a new Cato Institute paper entitled “Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode,” Randal O’Toole reports that over the past decade, entrepreneurs have created dozens of new bus companies serving American cities from coast to coast. Pioneered first in Asia, Britain, and Northern Europe, these new bus lines book passengers online and pick them up curbside, thus eliminating much of the overhead that encumbered traditional bus companies such as Greyhound and Trailways.

The buses are well maintained and feature amenities such as charging stations and wi-fi. Ticket prices for many routes are as low as $15 to $20, far below the cost of taking a plane or train, and often below the cost of driving a car.

O’Toole ran the numbers to compare services and ticket prices along the key transportation corridor linking Boston and Washington. D.C. At least 16 bus companies serve the market, selling an estimated 2.4 billion passenger miles worth of service last year.

The Boston-Washington corridor is Amtrak’s most-traveled line. So how many passenger miles of service does it sell? About 1.7 billion a year. “While Amtrak frequently brags that it carries as many or more passengers in the Northeast Corridor than the airlines,” O’Toole wrote, “it carries little more than two-thirds as many passengers as intercity buses.”

Overall, Amtrak can claim about six percent of the market for travel in the Northeast Corridor. Airlines move about five percentage of the passengers. Intercity buses claim 9 percent of the market. The remaining 80 percent consists of personal automobiles.

Because both auto drivers and bus companies pay fuel and vehicle taxes into the highway system, they cover a large percentage of the cost of the infrastructure they use – or close to the entire cost, if you account for the money properly. Through ticket taxes and other assessments, airline users pay most or all of their way, as well.

Amtrak users don’t. They don’t even come close.

But wait, some choo-choo enthusiasts might object, at least trains are safer for riders and the environment.

No, not really. It turns out that intercity buses are associated with 80 percent fewer fatalities and 60 percent less energy use per passenger mile than Amtrak.

When you get right down to it, the only thing really wrong with intercity bus service is that it is private and competitive. It isn’t run by government, funded by government, and integrated with government land-use regulators and economic planners.

So don’t expect government policymakers to hop on board. Many of them view the new bus business with disdain. That’s all the more reason you shouldn’t.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.