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.