The Apple iPad: A Boost for Buses Over Trains?

Tory Gattis at New Geography argues that mobile computing products such as the new Apple iPad will be a boon for transit, but not for trains:

As more people realize the productivity advantage of a transit commute, I think there could be a substantial shift. But it might not be quite what you’d expect. Mobile productivity favors one long ride in a comfortable seat – no transfers, no standing ‘strap-hanging’ (like on a subway or full light rail or local bus), and minimal walking (which is not only incompatible with mobile productivity, but also has weather risk and is especially hard on women in heels). That argues for express buses over trains. I recently met with a friend that lives in Manhattan but works in Connecticut. Does he take the subway and then ride the train? Nope – a luxury shuttle bus with wi-fi picks him (and the other Manhattan employees) up right near his apartment and drops him at the front door of work. Point-to-point express buses are the future of commuting. All you need are a couple dozen people that need to get from the same neighborhood to the same job cluster on roughly a similar schedule to justify a daily round trip – and they can all be productive the whole way, whether through individual 3G data connections on their devices or wi-fi on the bus (by far the cheapest option).

First of all, “a long ride in a comfortable seat” is already, implicitly, a fairly long commute trip.  Comfort is expensive, and the expense pays off only if you’re riding for long enough to enjoy it.  ‘Straphanging’ for 10-minute rides will always be the norm.  Gattis is talking about longer distance buses, such as between Connecticut and Manhattan; thus the proper comparison is with long-distance commuter trains, which are perfectly capable of offering wi-fi too.

Once we set the focus on long commutes, other questions arise.  Buses are better at spreading out over large areas without needing expensive infrastructure, but both buses and trains require a concentration of people wanting to travel, which means both respond to density at at least one end of the trip.  It’s significant, here, that Gattis’s friend lives in Manhattan.  He is not going from one low-density place to another.

For people who live in low-density suburbia, the only way to get even a luxury express bus is going to be Park-and-Ride, and you can Park-and-Ride for either a bus or a train. The train’s Park-and-Ride is likely to be bigger, further away, and perhaps more expensive to park at.  That just reflects the fact that lots of people want to use it, and if you retort that “we” won’t put up with that when “we” have luxury express buses, you’re on the verge of the Yogi Berra fallacy.  Berra famously said of a St. Louis restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”  The Yogi Berra Fallacy is inherent in any statement that cites crowding as evidence of unpopularity, or more broadly, that a service’s high prices, or other inconveniences driven by high demand, are evidence that “nobody” wants that service anymore.

In urbanist writing, the Yogi Berra fallacy usually signals that a writer wants to imagine his proposed lifestyle trend as the new norm when in fact it only works if it’s the choice of a narrow elite.  But urbanist writing needs to care about what kind of city a trend is helping to create, and it’s not clear that luxury express buses will have much impact at all.  Sure, these buses will serve some people, and perhaps represent a lifestyle aspiration for many more.  But there will still be plenty of people on the all-day buses and trains.

The other odd thing about Gattis’s prediction is that we’re to imagine affluent commuters gratefully accepting the ball-and-chain of very limited timetables.  He’s talking about someone who can afford a luxury bus but who also knows he’ll be able to leave work at 5:01 to catch the one or two buses back.  I don’t know many professionals whose lives are still like that — even in the public sector.

So I’m having trouble getting either excited or worried about luxury peak express buses.  They’re a welcome part of the mix in their corner of the market, but they aren’t going to challenge the broad market for all-day transit linking the dense parts of an urban region, nor do they change the need for urban development forms that make good all-day transit possible.

31 Responses to The Apple iPad: A Boost for Buses Over Trains?

  1. Kyle February 2, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    Sounds like the ‘Google Commute’ is going a bit more mainstream.

  2. Rhywun February 2, 2010 at 5:03 am #

    The story says he lives in Manhattan and works in Connecticut–probably, the bus is being provided by one of the many large corporations that decamped out to the country over the last few decades (like IBM).
    As for “productivity”, my commute is a long, underground local train. I read & nap. I don’t miss “connectivity” at all.

  3. Rob February 2, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    The same goals could be accomplished by using a simple carpool, but many people hate to carpool. Why? Like you say, the problem is that is locks people into a routine. Everyone in the carpool has to get to work at X time and leave at Y time. In blue-collar industries where employees clock in and out on a regular schedule, this might work. In white collar-industries where people frequently have to stay late, travel for business, etc. this fails.

  4. EngineerScotty February 2, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    I don’t think the iPad is that revolutionary, at least not in this context. As noted, it’s a two-handed device–you need two hands to operate it, as opposed to a mobile phone (including the iPhone) which can be operated with one. Which does preclude using the thing while standing on a transit vehicle.
    But we’ve had notebooks and netbooks and other two-handed computing gadgets for years. The iPad probably is more transit friendly–neither a table nor a lap is required–but you still need two hands. You can use one while standing, but not while standing on a moving bus or train. (Though I’m sure that clever commuters will learn how to use the thing with one hand wrapped around an interior pole; thus making standing room next to the poles prime real estate on transit).
    If anything, the I-want-my-iPad argument is an argument for more seating on transit (i.e no use of standing room to manage peak demand), which reduces overall vehicle capacity. That probably has little to say about mode choice, but with rail its easier to add capacity by adding cars to the consist, whereas with busses you need to put more vehicles (and more drivers) out on the road.
    In the alternative, it might be a means for price discrimination on transit. Pay more, and you’re guaranteed a seat. Pay less and you may be hanging on the strap.

  5. Alurin February 2, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    Commuter trains in Boston already offer wi-fi.

  6. EngineerScotty February 2, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    WES in Portland offers wi-fi. Still, nobody rides it. 🙂

  7. David February 2, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    Hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. I thought the title was a joke but no, someone is actually serious with this.
    Comfortable seat on a bus? A city bus? Especially an articulated bus? At 60+ km/h? Come to Ottawa and we’ll fix you of any such delusions. That’s when it’s not stuck in a queue for 4 minutes waiting to enter a major station on the Transitway, that is. Anyhow, I note he used an example of a friend who uses a “luxury shuttle bus”. Yes, why not just go full PRT and be done with it… how many people are going to have access to these luxury shuttles?
    With all the banging around that city buses experience it’ll be a miracle if the iPad survives a week of use and/or someone doesn’t break a finger. You certainly won’t be able to do much with it. Smartphones are small enough to cradle in the palm of one hand so the user can compensate for the shocks and bumps – but that’s not so easily done with something as large as an iPad which needs two hands to use. I’ve tried using a netbook on Ottawa’s buses. The keyboards are nearly a waste of time on a bumpy bus and the touchpad is just as bad – and an iPad is basically one big touchpad. You can’t position anything with any reliability unless you’re stopped or going fairly slowly. Basically all one can do is read and occasionally take a chance to push something to move the text along. The notion of doing any real work is a farce.
    The smoother ride of rail is far more conducive to A4/Letter-sized tablet-use than are the bumpy rides of buses. I realize there are legions of bus fanatics about trying to peddle the discredited notion that buses can do anything trains can do and more, but seriously, this nonsense has gone too far when it starts to invoke the use of the iPad of all things. As EngineerScotty has written, iPad use would call for more seating on transit, and preferably on something with a smooth ride.
    Besides all that, the cool Apple iPad-using people probably wouldn’t want to be seen on most buses (remember that “luxury shuttle”?) anyway.

  8. Richard Masoner February 2, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    @David, the longer distance commuter “express” buses do tend to have slightly more comfortable seats. There’s WiFi on my bus from Santa Cruz to San Jose and several people (including myself) bang away on laptops and netbooks on the 20 mile trip. Santa Cruz Metro reports 80% fare recovery on that popular route.

  9. samussas February 2, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    @Scotty, not true. I met one the other day. 😀

  10. EngineerScotty February 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    The conductor and the engineer don’t count. (What, no fireman or brakeman?)

  11. Spokker February 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    The problem is that having expensive electronics and riding transit makes you a target. I have been told not to use my smartphone on the bus if I get one. Huh? Then what’s the point of having it?
    Express buses and commuter trains shouldn’t be a problem. But the city bus appears to scare people out of using their devices for fear that someone will mug them.
    Of course, those that told me that don’t appear to actually ride transit. Anybody have any real experiences?

  12. Alurin February 2, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    “I have been told not to use my smartphone on the bus if I get one.”
    That’s silly. I use my iPhone on the bus (and subway) every weekday.
    David makes a good point: if you really want to do work during your commute, you need the smooth ride that rails provide. I would use a laptop/netbook/iPad on the commuter rail or subway, but not on a bus, precisely because the ride is too bumpy. I’ve taken the cheap intercity Bolt bus between boston and New York, which provides free wifi, but it’s very hard to get anything done, and I get a little motion sick. This is not a problem on Amtrak. If iPad owners are going to drive the development of transit (which I doubt), it would be in the direction of rail, not bus (even “luxury shuttles”).

  13. Cap'n Transit February 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    I use my smartphone all the time on the bus, and when I look up from it I can almost always see someone else with one. Never had a problem.

  14. Randy February 2, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    what’s wrong with this picture is having to commute more than 15 to 20 minutes to your job in the first place.

  15. EngineerScotty February 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    The “transit breeds crime” myth is alive and well. Up in Seattle, it appears that the good folk in Bellevue, terrified that their town might be sullied by Link LRT, are playing the “crime” card as a reason why the line (which is desired by the adjacent suburb of Redmond) ought to stay clear away from where people live and work.

  16. Matt Fisher February 2, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    I’m from Ottawa, and the Transitway in the form of a busway with stations is a success, but it’s not as good as rail. The argument that “Ottawa has the world’s best transit system because of no transfers” would be lying.
    Also, if you read last Thursday’s Ottawa Citizen, I just wrote a letter to the editor talking about the BRT vs. LRT issue.

  17. Alon Levy February 2, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    Anybody have any real experiences?

    Last semester I routinely worked on my laptop on the bus and the subway.

  18. Spokker February 2, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    “I use my smartphone all the time on the bus, and when I look up from it I can almost always see someone else with one. Never had a problem.”
    I think this is what it comes down to. The uninformed would say, “Never use your phone on transit! It makes you a target!”
    But when I ride the bus or train, every other person is using some kind of phone, mp3 player or handheld gaming device of varying makes and models.
    I don’t have much occasion to ride Los Angeles’s so-called “Ghetto Blue” Line (as described by LA Weekly). But the times that I have been on it train was full of people with razor cell phones, iPhones, PSPs, Nintendo DS’s, and all kinds of mp3 players. I think people overestimate how down and out transit riders are.
    Sure, there are incidents where people are mugged and things are stolen, but do we live in fear at all times?

  19. Aaron M. Renn February 2, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Most of the express bus services I’m aware of are based on the “google bus” model. That is, they are privately chartered shuttles used to bring city dwellers out to suburban office parks where no good current transit options exist. For example, my former employer did this in Madrid. The bulk of the work happened in a suburban office park, and a series of buses took employees back to select points the city.
    Indianapolis also has CMAQ funded express buses from the suburbs of Fishers and Carmel to downtown. These pick up at 3-4 points and drop off at 3-4 points downtown. When gas hit $4, they were very well patronized, and while ridership has dropped with gas prices, they are still doing ok.
    These buses are charter buses, not transit style buses, and thus are very nice. I don’t think they have wi-fi though, but 3G would work. I like this model as well because of its relatively low cost vs. a train, it’s minimum downside risk (if it fails, you aren’t stranding major capital), and because it is a true limited stop route, at least if you were one of the last ones on and the first ones off.

  20. Cap'n Transit February 2, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    I’ve also written about express buses before.
    Jarrett, I don’t know why you think that there’s nothing between a ten-minute bus ride and a 1.5-hour trip to Connecticut. Most local bus rides I’ve taken have been closer to half an hour, which is not long enough to fire up the laptop, but is plenty of time to pull out a smartphone or an ebook reader. My current commute, in fact, involves a twenty-minute bus ride, where I’ve written quite a few of the blog posts you’ve read, on my smartphone. On a smartphone I can read and write with one hand, standing up.
    There are plenty of express buses with runs in the 45-60 minute range in New York. That is long enough to open up a laptop. Peter Pan and Pine Hill Trailways already offer wifi on most of their buses. I’m guessing that the MTA could boost ridership (and thus farebox recovery) on its express buses by offering wifi.

  21. Cap'n Transit February 2, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Also, Rhywun is right: Gattis’s friend lives in Manhattan and works in Connecticut. I’m guessing he works at one of the isolated suburban office parks that are so beloved by the executives who live a few miles down the road.
    I would also imagine that it’s the employer who contracts the luxury bus service at their own expense, which shows that they have to make an extra effort to get apartment-living Manhattanite creative-class types to work there. If they’re going to run the bus, they probably either run it at a decent schedule, or else find some way to get employees back to Manhattan if their work schedule doesn’t fit with the buses. Maybe a car service to the nearest train station, but possibly a car service directly to the Manhattanite’s front door.

  22. Jarrett February 2, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Errors noted by previous commenters have now been corrected in the post. Thanks to Rhywun and Cap’n Transit for catching my previous misreading.
    Cap’n, I agree that there’s a range of travel times and technology options suited to each. I was just taking apart the contrast Gattis offered between the short-on-average straphanging trip and the long-on-average Connecticut commute. This is another case where a special feature of one technology is being claimed (express bus in this case) using comparisons that are really about dramatically different trip lengths.

  23. Cap'n Transit February 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    True, Jarrett, but it’s not just about trip lengths. The fact that the employer subsidizes the “luxury bus” to Connecticut, and that the NYC express buses have higher fares ($5.50 instead of $2.25), means that these buses tend to be much less crowded, and therefore easier to spread out on.
    You’re right that it’s not that much about technology. You could do the same thing on Metro-North if they offered wifi. But again, some Metro-North trains can get crowded, and Amtrak has more room to spread out.
    So there are at least three factors involved: trip length, crowding and technology (wireless Internet, power outlets).

  24. Ted King February 3, 2010 at 12:34 am #

    Re ; One-handed use of an iPad
    Remember those ad’s for embroidery magnifiers ? The ones that had a strap around the neck and were propped against one’s torso ? How about a U-shaped frame than an iPad could slide into that worked in a similar fashion ?
    Problem solved.

  25. K February 3, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    That flaw in the idea as I see is that he assumes people want to “work” on their way to work. I think devices like the iPad might be seen quite a bit on transit in the future but I doubt anyone will be using the opportunity to work.

  26. Cap'n Transit February 3, 2010 at 5:00 am #

    Judging by the number of work calls I hear on the bus and the el (“Can you send me the spreadsheet?”), there’s a significant number of people who do want to work while commuting. When I had a 9-5 job I didn’t, but salaried people and small businesspeople don’t often get that kind of downtime.

  27. Jonathan February 3, 2010 at 5:15 am #

    From my point of view, working on a bus for any length of time is impossible due to the swaying of the vehicle and, tangentially, it’s acceleration profile (essentially due to the gearbox). This could of course be improved by increasing road quality, segregation from other road users (adjusting braking frequency etc), optimising the bus design for smoothness and driver training. Working on trains, however, is no problem.

  28. Steven February 3, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    The shift the iPad does make is the cost of network connectivity. Currently, the average 3G connection costs ~$70/Mo USD with a time commitment.
    Apple has motivated At&T to offer a $15 250Mb/Mo connection with no time commitment.
    Despite that change in costs, I can’t forsee many, if any, SOV driver deciding to switch to transit because they would have more affordable connection costs and could work or watch while a passenger.

  29. anonymouse February 4, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    I’ve tried reading on the bus, and it gave me motion sickness. I pretty consistently have this problem with buses (though it’s less bad on freeway buses, and I can usually get some reading done before I start to feel sick). I’ve never had this problem on trains. I do know that there are people who have no problem with reading on buses, and there are people who get motion sickness on trains, but I think the general trend is that buses tend to induce motion sickness more than trains do.

  30. Richard February 17, 2010 at 12:31 am #

    It is not so much bus vs train as public vs private transport. iPods allow commuters (including drivers) to listen to the provided content.
    But iPads permit the realistic consumption of written material including magazines, educational and work related content. The screen size on iPhones and iPad Touches do not make reading a pleasant experience.
    If this material is downloaded before your journey starts, the availability of WiFi isn’t really a big deal. And if your journey or part of it is by bus, just switch to audio for that part of the journey; you can keep listening while you walk too.

  31. Ari February 23, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Express buses are useful for sprawled-out cities with low transit use, but they are really not scalable. They depend on a few, but only a few, people going from one place to another. If there were more people, the model would move from a charter-type service to more of a transit-type service, with multiple buses on a route with a schedule. In essence what this is is a carpool. I have nothing against carpools, but they’re also not particularly scalable.
    I can’t imagine that this type of route is, overall, profitable, unless everyone has a very fixed schedule. I know of fifteen-person van-pools which are successful, but they generally only work in instances where several employees live near each other and work shifts, with everyone on the same schedule. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of these types of jobs.
    The reason it works for the Manhattanite working in Connecticut is that the bus goes against the flow of traffic; if Metro North operated buses instead of trains, the freeways would be even more gridlocked. If you look at cities with high transit use, they have few express buses—most long-distance transit use is rail-based (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philly, DC and San Francisco). It is in lower-density, higher SOV cities that you see more express buses. An express bus is sort of a poor man’s commuter rail: less comfortable, slower, more prone to traffic delays and far less scalable.
    There are several commuter rail lines which see 10,000+ riders per day. I don’t know if there are any express bus lines with that kind of volume (that would be 200 buses, assuming even distribution and 50 passengers per bus, which requires articulation or standees). Express buses can, in theory, provide door-to-door service, but most of their route is the same as other buses. It gives the question: would you rather have a service that picks up on your corner, but only comes once (or twice) a day, or a service a 10 minute walk away which runs every hour or better? That’s often the difference between express buses and rail. (The anecdote about the Manhattanite probably leaves out the fact, as another commenter has noted, that he or his company has the resources to pay for a car should be miss the bus, which is not very practical for most commuters.)
    Finally, unless you have very standardized schedules, you need to have unprofitable services outside of peak travel times in order to satisfy the demands of commuters. If you don’t provide any service after hours, anyone who sometimes has to stay late is up a creek. The MBTA in Boston proposed that last spring, and it didn’t go anywhere.
    In any case, I don’t see express buses replacing subways, local buses or commuter rail systems any time soon.