Decomposing the Bus

If you take public transit, this scenario will be familiar to you.

After a lengthy wait in the freezing cold (or sweltering heat), the bus finally arrives. It was likely held up by rush-hour traffic.

You fight your way onto the bus through a mob of people trying to get off. When you eventually get on, you find yourself packed in like a sardine in a can, with somebody’s heavy bag poking into your back.

As the bus lurches away (throwing everyone into each other), you see a crowd of angry people, through the window, who couldn’t make it onto the bus.

So here’s a thought for you:

What if it was possible for you to get on the bus before it had even arrived?

What if it was possible for all of those other people to get off of the bus after it (and you) had already left?

Before I answer how that could be possible, let’s take a quick look at a bus.

Copyright Steve Harris, Flickr Creative Commons

Copyright Steve Harris, Flickr Creative Commons

Pretty simple, huh? You’ve seen a million of them before.

Okay, so here’s another hint:

Copyright Walmart Corporation - Flickr Creative Commons

Copyright Walmart Corporation – Flickr Creative Commons

That’s a pretty standard (but unusually high tech) truck and trailer combo. You’ve probably seen even more of those than you’ve seen buses. The notion of a standard container size, readily interchangeable and shippable, was absolutely revolutionary when it was invented a few decades ago. Now it is so normal that we don’t really notice them.

Let’s take a look at that truck again:

The same truck as above, but with markings...

The same truck as above, but with markings…

See the red markings? There’s really two components to a truck: a cab, which contains the driver’s compartment and an engine, and the interchangeable trailer.

Here’s another hint about where I’m heading with this. This is the same bus as above, but with some markings on it as well:

The same bus as before...

The same bus as before…

What if the driver’s compartment and the passenger compartment were two separate objects that could be connected interchangeably to each other?

The experience of taking public transit would be rather different than today.

You would arrive at your terminal and step directly into the passenger compartment (which would be heated or cooled by the terminal) and wait in your seat for the bus to arrive.

The doors would automatically close when the compartment was full. Multiple passenger compartments for a single route could be made available, so that people could choose between a faster departure time and a higher likelihood of obtaining a chair.

When your bus “arrives”, the old passenger compartment would be automatically offloaded into the terminal, where the passengers would disembark at their leisure. The same automated system would then load the compartment you were sitting in onto the bus, and off you would go.

Before you object about the complexity and expense of implementing a scheme like this, there are actually quite a few reasons why transit systems might actually want to do so.

  1.  For long routes, a passenger compartment could be swapped between multiple drivers. Given that a driver can only operate on a route once they’ve been familiarized with it, and it takes less time to do so with a shorter route, this will allow a transit system much greater flexibility with scheduling – thus removing one particular blockage point.
  2. In addition, this will improve the frequency with which buses can pass any particular stop, which improves the passenger’s experience (especially in unpleasant weather!), even if it doesn’t directly speed up the time in transit.
  3. The same passenger compartments could be used on a wide variety of transit modes – there’s no reason why they couldn’t be loaded onto light rail or trains, allowing complete interoperability. On a longer route, your compartment could be swapped between buses and trains without your needing to switch vehicles.
  4. By standardizing the system, the buses themselves could be made cheaper and more readily maintainable. Currently most transit systems operate a wide variety of bus models, of varying ages. This increases maintenance costs and complexity (Anecdotally, I’ve seen much higher frequency of breakdowns in recent years where I live than I used to see in the past). Having a common standard for linkages would allow different manufacturers to bid on new purchases without adding new complexity to the system.
  5. This is also an excellent form of future-proofing. As better electric or hydrogen-powered models become available, only a portion of the bus would need to be replaced. When self-driving buses become feasible, the same scenario would apply.

2 responses on “Decomposing the Bus

  1. David Sharp

    Hi there!

    This is a cool concept but there are a number of initial concerns:
    1.reliability,
    2. real estate,
    3. finance.

    1. Reliability. Haulage companies have been moving away from models where their cargo is stationary for extended periods of time. This is because the goal of a logistical network is to create robust and reliable systems not to maximise journey time efficiency. Consider: in the past air traffic across the Atlantic was organised from a journey efficiency perspective, this meant that minimal journey time was the most important factor. However, customer dissatisfaction was high because of delays, queues, bottlenecks, etc. So a more robust system system was created to maximise reliability. The average journey time from take off to landing increased. However customer satisfaction went up. Why? In the past the system allowed for flights that were ahead of schedule to use that “spare time” to, well, arrive early. Now those spare bits of time are not used, the aircraft slow and/or circle, and that flexibility in the system is used to ensure ground systems are more prepared, that aircraft arrive exactly when their are supposed to.
    Now in the drop off bus module concept, I think the author is trying to address the problem of bus reliability, but heavily investing in new module systems may not be as cost effective as simply improving the quality and comfort of bus stops. Getting buses to wait at bus stops to ensure more reliable pick up drop off windows might also enhance customer satisfaction through reliability but without the massive expense.

    2. Land. Okay, so we decide to have module buses with detachable customer compartments. This means we need space to put these modules between journeys. That means we need Land. In the current bus system the buses are constantly moving, just like haulage, and are only stationary and in need of land at night when they are not being used. Not only does the need for land massively increase the cost of providing travel services, but it also means a massive remodeling of bus stops. It would be cheaper to just renovate existing bus stops to be more comfortable than to buy up land around them to provide for the constant need to store passenger units.

    3. Finance. This kind of business will need finance, be it banks, angel investors, or your grandparents. A key financial metric of business health is the acid test (and the associated acid test ratio). What this tells us, contrary to many a “capability focused” business model is that model tied up in stock, storage, machinery, assets, etc. is not the great business decision many think it is. In fact, the more money tied up in assets means the less fluid cash you have on hand. And without cash reserves your business is less able to respond to fluctuations in demand, more likely to have to refinance assets and leverage for more debt,etc. In short, high asset need in terms of vehicles and land is going to make this a very “Cash-poor” business and so it will be relatively hard to generate the investment for it. Between wages, land, assets, maintenance, tax and reserves, this business is going EAT cash, not produce it. This is why the free market isn’t great at providing public transport.

    Anyway, it is a cool idea, so there is that.

    1. Jeremy Lichtman Post author

      1. Reliability – valid points. I will note that where I live the various transit companies have tried a variety of techniques to improve service and passenger comfort with little effect. One of the candidates in the upcoming mayoral race is already advocating for large increases in the number of buses available during peak periods.

      2. The large regional (publicly owned) transit corp in my area already has vast land holdings for overnight storage of buses and train cars. They operate over 2,000 buses, another thousand street cars and rapid transit cars, and several subway lines. They’re also connected into a larger regional network that includes traditional train lines as well. I imagine that my idea would largely appeal to the riders of such a system, as opposed to a long-line bus company like (for example) Greyhound.

      3. Transit companies constantly buy new buses in any given time period. They already have financing in place (often public funds where I live). I doubt that this idea would appeal to a new transportation startup (why would anyone want to do that anyhow?). Standardization might drive down equipment costs over the long haul for an existing company though.