Management & Operations

Sometimes looking ahead means remembering what was

Posted on January 1, 2001 by Cliff Henke, Associate Publisher/Editor

Many innovations that we celebrate as having profound implications for the industry’s future are simply reworked ideas from its rich past. That’s one important theme of Bill Luke’s new book, Bus Industry Chronicle: U.S. and Canadian Experiences.In it, Luke traces the history of the bus industry worldwide, from the early conversions of automobiles and trucks, to the war years during the mid-20th Century, to the challenges and issues facing it in recent decades.

All that is old is new againIssues, and even technologies, have been tried and retried through the industry’s colorful past. For example, intermodal concepts were introduced by streetcar and railroad companies as far back as when buses began to ply the streets. In fact, railway operators were among the first to see the advantages of buses on lower-density routes, and how the ticketing and timetables should be seamless for the passenger. Most of those companies did not see their buses as the “Trojan horses” used in a conspiracy to get rid of streetcar services, as many have charged. Rather, they saw buses as a way to complement their rail routes to keep the whole network healthy. In other words, these guys saw the concept of “network effects” far before our New Economy propellerheads ever were a gleam in their daddies’ eyes. Luke’s book adds to the body of evidence that what really engineered the demise of streetcars was the heavy highway subsidies being enacted, and our policymakers’ own stupidity for forcing electric utilities to divest themselves of their transit operations. Even the military, which had a strong bias toward carrying troops and equipment by rail, saw the advantages of carrying men and materiel by bus in certain conditions. One such advantage: Buses could be put into service much faster than new trainsets, sometimes by buses whose shells were wood, Luke reports. Perhaps it is one reason why the commander of the combined forces in Europe during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, signed the Federal Highway Act in 1954 after he became president.In another example, bus operators employed a variety of bus sizes and configurations to meet various types of service demands. Small buses were used on routes and during times with lighter ridership as far back as the 1930s. Using articulated and doubledecker buses for higher-capacity lines is perhaps even older than that. Artics were also used for intercity routes, and doubledecker units often used the higher deck for lounges with nice views and snack bars, much like rail services and airlines do today. And today’s darling, bus rapid transit, has long been with bus transportation, when the industry called the concept busways and city officials reserved lanes and built bridges for buses.The engine concepts that we are currently engaged in a debate about are also rooted far into the industry’s past. For example, Frank Fageol was developing a bus with hybrid propulsion prior to WWII. Automatic transmissions and air conditioning were introduced in the 1930s. Aluminum and airplane construction methods also date to the first half of the past century.Confident view of futureThe last chapter of the book is also an interesting examination of where bus transportation is headed. To Luke, the future looks bright indeed, not so much because individuals and governments are willing to spend gobs of money on buses in the future—which they are—but because of where the bus has already been.“The bus industry is a small industry, but it can be a strong, important part of the economy of any country,” he writes. “The role the bus industry plays in improving the environment, relieving congestion and promoting safety needs to be told again and again.”All we need to do to chart that better future is draw better upon where we have been.
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