Will New Electric Buses Need a Mini Bar?

Let’s talk about the stigma of the bus. Public transit in the United States is not particularly robust or well-funded compared to its European or Asian counterparts. The American bus system in particular is stigmatized; Americans associate the bus with poverty, crime, and filth. This stigma is not entirely unwarranted, but it has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. About 40% of buses in the U.S. are in disrepair. 

In Los Angeles, for example, the bus system is painfully underfunded but is in desperate need of a revamp, which has created a cycle of neglect and a decline in middle class users leading to a $861.9 million federal bailout in 2020. Though Los Angeles transit has been in rough shape for a while, the pandemic has sped up the problem since city and county governments temporarily suspended the bus fare, which has been referenced as America’s largest free transit experiment.

Some frequent complaints about the public bus systems are that it is inconvenient, unreliable, unsafe, inaccessible, inefficient, and has poor network integration with other modes of transportation such as the train or micromobility. Moreover, these problems do not impact all communities equally. Continuing with the Los Angeles example, 92% of users are people of color and users had a median income of $12,000 in 2012 and $17,000 in 2019. For readers who are doing the math, not only is $17,000 well below the poverty line, but it’s insidious when compared to the increased cost of living in the city. Coupled with the fact that the bus is in worse shape than other modes of local transportation, it is clear that low-income nonwhite people have worse access to transportation on average and the horrific bus infrastructure is partially to blame.

So, what do we do about the bad reputation of the bus? This question may be related to two blogs the Journal of Law and Mobility has posted recently. On December 23, I wrote about the role of recreation transportation in inspiring creative technology. Then on February 8, Research Editor Namjun Park wrote a blog about clean energy credits and electric vehicles (EVs). It may sound outlandish, but perhaps this is an example of recreation transportation inspiring new ideas about our daily mobility needs, and electrification is a piece of that puzzle.

Though recreation, EVs, and decrepit infrastructure sound like three different ideas, each touches on something important about the bus: the transportation industry has been buzzing about electrifying buses, and people love a “fun” bus. Even the above-linked article from The Atlantic mentions “bus lines of the ‘party’ variety”. Is it possible that electrifying public buses and somehow making the busing experience more enjoyable could increase ridership in a meaningful way? Is it even reasonable to assume that increasing bus ridership is a net positive for public transit? Though it is outside the scope of this blog, it may be important to consider bus fare and what LA’s accidental free transit experiment means for the future of accessible transit as bus fares generally contributes to the infrastructure budget.

First of all, electrifying buses may be a successful strategy for a few reasons. The cleanliness, accessibility, reliability, and network integration complaints could be reduced when new electric buses are introduced and the current units are replaced. With the passage of the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the United States has $89.9 billion (yes, with a ‘B’!) guaranteed funding for public transit projects over the next five years, which is long overdue considering the Biden Administration estimates there are 24,000 buses in the U.S. in need of replacement. Relatedly, the Biden Administration has placed particular emphasis on electrification as EVs after Biden’s lofty campaign promises regarding the climate crisis and manufacturing jobs. Aside from being politically flashy, electric buses can help combat environmental injustice, which disproportionately impacts poor communities of color; offers a smoother and quieter ride for users, which may promote ridership; and will eventually have lower operating costs than diesel buses, which justifies permanently eliminating bus fare to promote accessibility. 

If revamping and replacing the old, rundown buses with new EV technology does not increase ridership, perhaps local governments must also make the ride more enjoyable for the user. The Atlantic may have mentioned party buses in jest, but the concept has gained popularity in recent years. It seems that people love to watch TV, play video games, socialize, make coffee, or enjoy a cocktail while they are mobile. But the transportation industry has known this for a long time– one of the many appeals of automation has been using time in the car to do productive or recreational activities while the car drives itself. The allure of doing so is relevant to those who rely on public transportation as well. Although arguably those who use the bus have an opportunity to enjoy their coffee or watch a movie on the way to work unlike those who currently drive their own car, the chaos and dilapidation of American public infrastructure is certainly not luxurious. It would be disingenuous to suggest that riding the bus in LA is more relaxing or prestigious than driving one’s own vehicle simply because people on the bus have time to safely watch Netflix on their phones. 

The intersection of all these thoughts forces us to consider whether the stigma around the bus ultimately implies that those who rely on the least expensive means of transportation are simply less deserving of leisure than those who will be able to afford a fully automated vehicle. On the other hand, maybe cities could not eliminate the bus fare if we started advocating for televisions and mini bars to be installed in public buses. The value of a free, accessible bus system for communities with a tight budget certainly outweighs the excitement of making every bus a party bus.

I cannot help thinking, however, there must be a reasonable middle ground. The idea of having luxury options on a free bus is not completely farfetched; we already have movies, video games, lattes, and cocktails for purchase on planes– why not the bus, too? Perhaps there is a way of including optional creature comforts at bus stops or even on the bus itself. If the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is truly going to provide for electric buses, why not install televisions in the back of the seat as we already have for decades in airplanes and allow users to choose to pay a few dollars for use? Could we not provide the option to buy a coffee at the bus stop while waiting? Could the proceeds of these luxuries not be collected in an infrastructure account the way traditional bus fare has been for decades? 

As a lawyer, I will not agonize myself (or the reader) by analyzing the tortious nightmare of making every public bus a true party bus, however I will maintain that there could be a feasible way to abolish bus fare while simultaneously making the bus a more pleasant experience for those who have the privilege of choosing to drive their own car. I believe the recent infrastructure legislation, though still not enough money to completely solve the transportation crisis in the U.S., may offer momentum to chip away at the bus stigma. If we can make the bus a cleaner, more reliable, and dare I say even fun experience, maybe ridership would increase so greatly that the inherent value of investing tax dollars in free transit will become undeniable.

As we electrify buses, perhaps every public bus could be a bit more like a party bus.