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The Empty Bus

From the Slope of Hope: With all the grousing and grumbling I do here, I thought I'd change my tone and write up a genuinely positive, optimistic post. This has to do with what I think will be a tectonic shift over the next twenty years: transportation.

As dull as that sounds, I think the changes that take place in how we get people (or cargo) from point "A" to point "B" are going to be more profound that Amazon, Facebook, and the iPhone put together. My insight, if you want to be generous enough to call it that, is spawned from a couple of (as is typical for me - - negative) observations I make on a periodic basis.

The first observation is one I make almost daily: in spite of the relative wealth of the San Francisco peninsula, there are buses all over the place. Some of them are the fabled "white buses" that tote highly-paid twenty-somethings from Google and Facebook back to their residences in San Francisco. But most of them are the large (and sometimes double-length) VTA buses that drive all over the Santa Clara valley, and there is one thing I notice about virtually every one of them: they're empty or near-empty. As they rumble by, I typically see two or three people sitting in a bus that holds 50 to 100 people.

The other observation I have is that the people driving these buses are really, really, really overpaid. Many of them make six figures. One fellow mentioned in this article was clearing almost $200,000. For driving a bus. This is about as close to "unskilled labor' as I can imagine. It's mindless, boring work. And very, very lucrative. (Thank you, civic employee unions!)

I find inefficiency to be offensive, and just about every aspect of bus systems is offensive to me. Just off the top of my head:

  1. The empty seats are a screaming declaration of inefficiency. To have these huge, gas-guzzling, polluting monstrosities with a quantity of people that could fit into a VW Beetle is preposterous.
  2. The bloated salaries (union-driven, surely) are also wildly out of step with the skill set required.
  3. The passengers themselves have to somehow make their way to the closest bus stop they can find for departure, where in an ideal world I'm sure they'd prefer being driven directly from home, work, or wherever they happen to be.
  4. The destinations are also approximate, because wherever the bus is taking people is surely not quite where they really want to go. As with boarding, the passenger has to figure out the least-bad place to get off the bus so they can make their way to their actual destination.
  5. Even the bus stops themselves are wasteful, because, in the future I am envisioning, they simply wouldn't exist. That space could be used for something else - - or be simply empty. To say nothing of the huge parking lots where they store all the buses at night.

In short, it's a huge waste of space, energy, time, and money. I cringe every time I see one of these things rumble by with hardly anyone on board.

So what's going to get better? I think (or hope, at least) a far better world would be one in which small, self-driving cars were deployed all across the nation, and these would be at the beck and call or the same people that are presently riding buses.

First, let me give you a picture for your mind: here in Palo Alto, we see Google self-driving cars constantly. These have been retrofitted normal vehicles, but recently, the actual Google cars (not modified production cars, but honest-to-God all-Google cars) have been zipping around. They look like this:

Cute, isn't it?

So imagine a working-class person needs to get to their job somewhere. They request the car from their mobile phone, and in about five minutes, the vehicle above pulls up in front of their apartment building. They get in the (driverless) car and are taken to work in the most efficient way possible. There's no waiting and very little walking. For the passenger, it's a profoundly better experience.

Well, that sounds all lovely, but who is going to pay for this convenience? Well, hold on a second. Just think of the costs that are being expended right now on the inferior system in place. There are the aforementioned huge salaries, and with nearly 700,000 bus drivers in the United States alone, the human expense is enormous.

There are the buses, of course, and all the attendant costs, such as fuel, insurance, replacement parts, repair, and the replacement of worn-out buses. I daresay if you added up all the expenses related to toting individuals from place to place via the bus system and divided it by the number of passenger-miles, you'd get a higher figure than the one you'd get with the "one person/one car" idea I'm offering above.

Now this sort of thing doesn't happen overnight. It's going to take decades. But the technological leap forward of self-driving vehicles is, I believe, going to utterly alter the economic landscape for decades to come, not only with human transportation, but even more broadly with cargo. All the twenty-somethings today that are adding sillier and sillier features to all these social media web sites will be in far more useful occupations in the future as they weed out the grotesque inefficiencies present in worldwide transportation.

This sounds bone dry, I realize, but I think it's going to be a very big deal. Google is quite smart to be changing themselves to "Alphabet" and getting into new areas like this, because I think it's ultimately going to assure they are the largest company on the planet.

As for what those hundreds of thousands of unemployed bus drivers are going to do with their lives? Or the 3.5 million truck drivers? No clue. That's going to be just as big a challenge, but I seriously have no idea what the answer could be.