If you ride a public bus with any regularity, you know all the common complaints. It's not very clean and it's very, very crowded. It stops so often you can see pedestrians keeping pace on the sidewalk. It arrives 7 minutes late and yet is considered "on time." But if you don't own a car, or simply don't want to drive it, sometimes the bus is the only option.
That might be changing. A new wave of private buses are popping up in several big cities across the U.S. They all seem to share a common "luxury" quality — promoting WiFi and reserved seating — as well as a common mission: to offer "choice" transit riders a better choice.
Take Bridj, a private bus still in its testing phase in metro Boston. For $6, or four times an MBTA bus fare, Bridj carries riders non-stop from Brookline to downtown Boston, Kendall and Harvard squares, and Back Bay. Bridj says it uses data to identify key service corridors (though the beta routes aren't exactly counter-intuitive). An MBTA spokesman recently told the New York Times that the authority didn't see Bridj as a competitor, but the beta riders clearly do.
Or Blackline, a new service that runs from Chicago's upscale Lakeview area to the downtown Loop. Blackline closely parallels the CTA's 135 bus, but while travel times aren't too different, amenities offer Blackline an edge. Reports put the cost for a Blackline "weekly morning membership" at $23; if evening membership is the same, then the total cost is about double CTA fares ($20 for five round trips). The service is currently limited to two morning and evening buses along one route, but the company website anticipates expansion.
There's also Leap Transit, a private alternative to San Francisco's Muni bus that emerged for testing last year and whose website now teases full service in "Summer 2014." Leap Transit looks like the other private options: leather seats, WiFi, smartphone ticketing, all at a cost above public transit (in this case, $6 compared to $2). During its test run, Leap Transit drew the ire of at least one city official, who criticized it for using Muni stops — the same criticism leveled at the much-maligned Google buses.
So we see a pretty clear pattern with luxury buses offering a higher-price option to commuters. They all tout an advantage to "overcrowded" buses, and they all appear to have one in the form of a mobile office environment and a guaranteed seat. Based on their beta locations, they appear targeting the same type of choice rider who wants public transit, but better; it's no accident that the Times quotes a "biotech worker" in its piece on Bridj.
It's far too early to say what these services will mean for the good (and bad) old city bus, but they do spark plenty of questions. Will the services disrupt traditional public routes, or will they serve as high-end carpools for workers from similar neighborhoods? Will the benefits they provide for the transportation network outweigh the harm they might cause to social equity? Will cities use them to consider charging a price for private access to the public curb?
And the biggest of all: Will transit agencies fight the services, or use them as motivation to do better themselves?