North America

Next Man Up: The Passenger-Driven Bus  

Busses can be driven by bus drivers, by computers, or by passengers. Bus drivers are the most sensible option, but are expensive in places where busses are forced to crawl along in traffic jams instead of getting their own designated lanes. Computers are the cheapest option, but are creepy and may not be ready to operate safely in bustling or wintry cities for many years yet, if ever.

The idea of having passenger-driven busses, however, has never even been discussed as far as I can tell. And probably with good reason, since the idea appears to be ridiculous. Ridiculous ideas are at least interesting though, so: let’s discuss how a passenger-driven bus might actually work.

The first step would be to create a bus so easy to drive that anyone with a driver’s license could do so without having to face a steep learning curve. Busses are already not so difficult to drive, so this is not really beyond the realm of plausibility, unlikely though it may be.

If buses were also to be equipped with a comparatively low level of automation — for instance, if the bus were able to automatically keep within its lane, pull up to the curb at bus stops, change or merge lanes when directed to do so, make turns at certain specified intersections, pull in to bus stations,  etc. – then operating a bus could perhaps become as easy as driving a car. If you were to give these buses their own separated bus lanes they might become even easier to drive than a car.

Express bus routes, which stop only at bus stations rather than making many stops along the way, would be easier to drive too, and might also help to entice passenger-drivers given that such routes would not take as much time to drive.

Alternatively, or additionally, if the bus simulations that trainee bus drivers already use were to become cheaper, better, and ubiquitous, many more people could learn to drive conventional busses.

The second step would be to create a service, a sort-of car-sharing app for buses, that would ensure that only designated drivers would be able to turn on the buses’ ignition and drive them. The driver would schedule a bus route from one bus station to another, and be paid based on how far or how many other passengers he or she drives. Upon arrival at the destination bus station, the driver-passenger would park the bus – or, perhaps, the bus would park itself – leaving it there for either another passenger-driver or a professional bus driver to use.

By doing this, the supply of bus drivers could be greatly increased, thereby allowing for more frequent bus services. It might, in addition, allow for cheaper bus services, since passenger-drivers might be willing to accept lower wages, as they would be simultaneously benefiting from being passengers as well as drivers. Ideally, passenger-drivers would not end up replacing or undercutting professional drivers’ wages, although of course it is plausible that they would do so.

One question, obviously, is how such a system could be profitable if the buses end up sitting unused for long stretches of time after one driver leaves and before the next driver arrives. The answer is that the system would not work in that case; it would only work if the supply of drivers was large and consistent enough that the buses would not remain idle for too long. Nevertheless, because paying drivers is such a large share of the cost of buses, they might be able to remain idle for some time at least before becoming unprofitable.

Moreover, steps might be taken to limit buses’ idleness or increase the utility of their idleness. Dynamic market pricing might be effective: whenever a bus becomes idle, the wages offered to passenger-drivers could increase in order to induce drivers to come and drive it. If nobody steps up to take the wheel even then, a professional bus driver could be summoned instead. 

Idle buses, meanwhile, might be able to serve as portable, air-conditioned or heated bus stops on streets which allow street parking or have bus turnouts, which could be useful in hot, cold, or stormy weather.

The concept of passenger-drivers might, however, be more likely to begin in carpools or vancabs or minibuses, rather than in full-sized buses. This is because there are so many more people who are able and willing drive a car than a bus, and because it is easier to park a car than a bus for times when the vehicle is idle. Lately BMW, for example, has begun to offer a combination car-sharing/ride-sharing service, intended for people who want to be ride-sharing drivers but do not own a car.  It is possible that in some cases this service will be used by passenger-drivers, drivers who are going to destinations they were already heading towards themselves.

Still, such a service would not have the same positive impact as buses. Carpools carry many fewer passengers and take up much more road space per passenger than buses. Buses – especially electric trolleybuses– can be much cheaper and cleaner than even the most efficient carpools.

The purpose of a passenger-driven bus would be to offer, in effect, a compromise between the affordability and scalability of computer-driven busses and the viability and desirability of human-driven ones. It would make use of the advantages of car-sharing and ride-sharing technologies – the ability to smoothly match the supply of vehicles and drivers to demand – but avoid their primary disadvantage; namely that cars, even carpools, tend to be extremely inefficient and costly compared to busses.

If the idea were to actually work, it would allow cheaper, more frequent bus service options to supplement (though hopefully not undercut) the more expensive existing bus services driven by professional bus drivers. And it might achieve this without the use of robots.

Okay, it’s true, this idea sounds crazy. (Though not as crazy as some). It is basically the transit equivalent of self-checkout machines at grocery stores.

…But then again, almost anyone can drive a bus, right?







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