Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Bus by Any Other Name Is Still a Bus; Flooding Oahu Streets with Them Is No Solution to ‘Chaos’

"Lord, won't you buy us a Mercedes-Benz?"
The new plan floated in Honolulu Weekly to solve Honolulu’s mobility problem is built on the premise that adding more buses to our streets and highways is the way to go. More buses! The plan by a local marketing guru has inventiveness going for it, but let’s be clear about something: Dave Cheever, whom we know to be a good and likeable guy, is a marketing guy, not a transportation guy.

From the HW piece’s outset, it’s clear Dave’s “Grand Plan” takes aim at the “Road Gang” and its grip on the neck of Oahu’s driving public. The Gang’s members are “car companies and their dealers, oil companies, tire manufacturers, civil engineers, road paving companies, etc.”

We’ll bullet-point our way through the article with quotes that seem worth calling out.

• Dave calculates that $20 million is spent locally on advertising “to encourage people to buy and/or drive a car…. That’s free enterprise, which has very, very successfully convinced us that we should have as many cars as we want and be able to drive them wherever and whenever we want. The consequence, however, has lead directly to the constant traffic chaos on Oahu.”

So far, so good. What he calls “chaos” we call the ever-growing traffic congestion on the major arterial roads that run east-west to and through the urban core, such as the H-1 freeway, Nimitz and Kamehameha highways, Beretania and King streets and others. East-west is how the mountains and ocean have squeezed Honolulu’s development, and it’s on those surface roads and highways where the so-called “chaos” reigns as commuters pack them morning and evening.

“Spending $20 million to court consumers into cars is a dazzling amount, especially compared to the zero dollars spent on marketing us into our bus system. In a way, this scene is shocking, because when you think about it, it’s surprising there is any ridership of TheBus.”

We have to hit the brakes here. TheBus system is one of the nation’s best and has the nation’s sixth highest per-capita ridership. Riders choose TheBus for numerous reasons – out of necessity (no car ownership), thriftiness (good value compared to driving), convenience (TheBus goes where they want to go). In other words, the marketplace has made TheBus an attractive choice for large numbers of residents, and that’s not shocking at all.

“Regardless of what we may believe, we cannot build our way out of Oahu’s transportation mess by continually spending millions to widen lanes or by constructing an elevated toll roadway.”

Agreed! There’s no room to build more highways on Oahu, and toll roads would just be added to the cost of driving, but not for everyone. Only the well-to-do would use them, leaving the rest of us trapped in surface congestion.

• Dave then switches to the heart of the Grand Plan – to buy “gorgeous” Mercedes-Benz buses for Oahu. “Seriously, that way a spouse leaving in the morning can say, ‘Honey, I’m taking the Mercedes to work.’ Think about it. Mercedes can build these buses with leather seats. No tacky ‘TheBus’ signs on these vehicles. They would be painted in real Mercedes colors….” Some routes would have “uniformed attendants,” free newspapers and Starbucks coffee, he writes.

This is probably a good place to drop in a photograph of a Mercedes-Benz bus:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~Shakespeare 
 Translation: “What matters is what something is, not what it is called.”

Dave Cheever goes on to describe a fleet of 400 jitney-type Mercedes buses that would service the valleys and neighborhoods and carry passengers to bigger buses on the long-haul routes. Riding all these neighborhood buses would be free, and fares for the long-haul buses would be 25-50 cents, which poses what he calls “the hard part.”

Freedom Fuel

“How are you going to pay for the big ones and the small ones, too? The attendants? The wireless Internet? And all that other stuff…? The key ingredient in the Grand Plan is called Freedom Fuel…. Under the Grand Plan, Freedom Fuel (gasoline) would cost about $7.50 per gallon, which is just what gasoline costs in most of the rest of the world…. If this pricing mechanism is successful and individual car use drops by one-third, the $3.00 over the current price would generate an estimated $300 million to fund the Grand Plan. That revenue totals 100 million gallons times $3 per gallon.”

You can read the HW article repeatedly if you want, but you won’t find any more explanation about how the Freedom Fuel mechanism would work than what’s in the above paragraph. Apparently, one-third of current drivers would be priced out of driving and forced by economics to ride the Mercedes-Benz buses. The other two-thirds would pay a $3 premium for every gallon of gas they buy to fund the buses, the free coffee, the free Internet access, the on-board attendants and the free bus rides themselves.

Dave Cheever deserves points for inventiveness, and maybe his marketing proposal would fly in notoriously dictatorial locales like Singapore, but on Oahu, it hasn’t a chance. Artificially inflating the cost of driving a car or anything else in high-cost Hawaii is about the last thing Oahu residents would accept.

Gasoline is highly likely to cost upwards of $7.50/gallon by the end of this decade due to traditional market forces, and that’s one reason why Honolulu rail will be an attractive alternative for potential riders. An estimated 40,000 fewer cars will be off the road in 2030 with rail as a viable option for the anticipated 116,300 weekday ridership.

We’ll end our assessment of Dave’s HW piece by disagreeing with two points made near its end. He asserts that once rail construction begins, “traffic will be tied up not for hours, but years. I repeat – years.” That’s simply not true, which will be evident once the builder’s traffic-mitigation plans are better known.

Dave also says Honolulu rail will be much more expensive than the plan and will take longer to build. It looks like he buys the anti-railers’ mantra, but there’s nothing to substantiate that assessment beyond rail opponents' belief systems.

1 comment:

sumwonyuno said...

More buses aren't going to work. These expensive buses are just going to get stuck with all of the other buses and street-going vehicles we have.

Encouraging transit is good, but you need to add moving capacity for it to make difference.

Also, valley and mountain ridge bus routes tend to be less utilized than those that run in the rail corridor.