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Bus and Motor Coach Library

Everywhere But Nowhere!

Author – Brian Niddery (2002)

Few people have a real understanding of the sheer size of the bus industry, or the extensive range of services that the bus industry provides on behalf of the North American public. 

More surprisingly even industry people do not comprehend its size or extent.  There is a tendency for them to think in the more confined sense of being a member of a single industry sector, rather than part of the larger bus industry.

Those who operate intercity scheduled line services, tours, and charter services invariably refer to themselves as "motorcoach" people.  It is as if "motorcoaches" somehow have no relationship to the rest of the bus industry, and that these vehicles are radically different from other types of buses.  Those who operate yellow buses and carry students to and from school seem to also consider themselves as a separate and distinct species, unrelated to the rest of the bus industry.  Ditto for those involved in transporting passengers in congested urban environments.

Each of these above entities, sectors as we might wish call them, have traditionally cultured an attitude that somehow makes them separate and apart from the rest of the industry, so much so that through the years they have each established individual national associations to represent their numbers.  One of these sectors has actually felt the need to support two independent organizations to represent their numbers. 

Unfortunately there is also a significantly large "mainstream" of bus service providers throughout North America that have no representation at any level.  To complicate this situation still further, there are an interminable number of regional associations representing the various states and provinces, and there are still others that deal with specific issues within the industry such as accessibility, airport ground services, and so on.

Perhaps at one time there were sufficient specific or localized issues and concerns that required individual representation.  However in today's world, the most dominant issues tend to be more common to the entire industry.  Perhaps the most critical of these has been the industry's inability to address a poor industry image, an absence of recognized customer standards, and the capability to effectively market its many services.  The fragmented nature of the bus industry is in fact its greatest impediment in its ability to deal with these issues.  We live in a very competitive world that requires sophisticated business disciplines and expertise, and where consumers demand instant accessibility to product/service information, and expect high standards of service.  A fragmented industry operating at cross-purposes, lacking direction and focus cannot possibly be expected to deliver these service levels or meet present day consumer expectations. 

As Dr. John Cunningham, a former faculty member of The George Washington University, and who served as its Director of the Accelerated Master of Tourism Administration Degree program pointed out in an exclusive article for the Bus Exchange magazine last year (Jan/Feb 2001), "There are of course many facets involved in building a more competitive industry; however, customer service standards, industry "best practices", and a high level of industry skills and training are regarded as being essential elements by most industries."  He went on to say, "An indication of the importance that business places on skills and training lies in the fact that in so many fields, these are validated through industry licensing and certification to a measured standard.  This is particularly true of the airline, cruise and hotel industries and to a large degree has been a major contributor to their tremendous growth and their ability to successfully capitalize on new market opportunities".

Almost every major transportation and travel related industry has developed over a number of years or decades a significant industry "body of knowledge", and has created meaningful structures in which to provide necessary industry skills and expertise to their constituents so that they can better compete in a global economy. 

This has not been the case with the bus industry.  It is almost devoid of any recognized operating standards, identifiable customer service levels, and industry "best practices".  And it has not been able to develop the necessary structures to support these programs.  As a result the bus industry still survives on a hand-to-mouth existence, depending upon whatever business might come through their door.  It does not possess the necessary skill levels to provide the level of service that today's consumer’s demand. 

So then, where do we start?  And how can we make this a better industry?

Perhaps we should take a step back for a moment, and try to take a fresh look at what this industry is about.  What is its purpose?  Who does it serve?  How does it serve them?

To start we specialize in just one thing - we transport people to where they want and need to go!  And yes, we may employ various types of bus vehicles in order to carry out this responsibility more efficiently - and these vehicles may include yellow ones, small ones, large ones with two axles that can carry large numbers of people over short distances, and three-axle models that transport people over long distances at high speed.  But nonetheless we provide but that one single service - the transportation of people!  
To provide that one singular service, the industry employs those who drive buses, those who schedule and dispatch buses and drivers, those who service and maintain the buses, and those who manage and administrate operations.  So far it still looks like one singular and cohesive industry.  Do you agree?
For the most part the majority of the suppliers to the bus industry and a number of bus manufacturers sell their products and services to all sectors of the industry; whether it is tires, engines, insurance, windows, or paper clips.  Transit buses are sold to transit systems, to various private sector operators, and also to a number of vocational users.  Same goes for motorcoaches and mid-size buses - their market is across the entire spectrum, appropriately weighted of course.

Most private sector fleet operators and many public fleets are mixed fleets.  Surveys show that anywhere from 50% to 70% of all private bus fleets are mixed fleets, which serve two or more so-called sectors of the industry.

Therefore from both a supply chain and from an operations point of view the bus industry in the main still basically operates as a singular and indivisible industry.

In a governance aspect, there may be some differences.  Generally one might say that the bus industry serves different masters.  Transit serves urban riders, but is subject to the whims of municipal governments. School bus providers transport students; however, they must deal with the various school board jurisdictions.  In the private sector bus fleet operators serve a rather broad customer base and provide a range of services, and although they are not contracted by a governing agency like student and public transit, nonetheless they must compete for business and abide by the various operating regulations.
As a marketing specialist I would suggest that in fact very few industries have the luxury of being able to serve a singular market base.  For most industries and fields of endeavor, their markets are very complicated and wide-ranging, and yet somehow they have the ability to successfully serve multiple masters or marketplaces, without having to sub-divide their industries into smaller fragments.

So why is the bus industry so instilled with the idea that it must be structured as so many separate and unrelated fragments - sectors as they are known.  Is it due to licensing or government jurisdictional requirements?  Could it be that the many individual associations themselves over many decades that have nurtured these to remain as separate sectors?

For a moment let's look at the bus industry as a more unified and singular industry, firstly, from an industry size point-of-view.  With a little effort I have attempted to collate some relevant numbers on behalf of the industry at large.  These are taken from the published figures of each of the major bus sectors, and added to this are a few guesstimate numbers, where no viable information exists. 

There are perhaps more than 800,000 bus vehicles in service today throughout the length and breadth of North America.  Over the course of a year these vehicles likely transport some 20-billion riders. 
Broken down these figures include about 109,000 transit buses in the USA and some 19,000 transit vehicles registered in Canada.  There are approximately 435,000 school buses transporting some 23.5-million children every school day throughout the United States.  Another 90,000 school buses are in regular service throughout Canada.  There is, according to the American Bus Association - Census 2000 survey, a reported 44,000 motorcoaches in service throughout North America. 

In addition we have the wide-ranging bus services provided by the mid-size and shuttle bus categories of vehicles.  These include the full gamut of services, including vocational services such as hotel, airport, parking, rental, sightseeing, contract services, non-emergency medical, religious and learning institutional uses, community-based services, specialized services, and various accessibility and other on-demand services.  There is simply no relevant data available that can accurately assess the size of this industry segment.  Best estimates would conservatively place their numbers to at least 100,000 bus vehicles in current service throughout North America.  Some would argue that there are far more, maybe 150,000 to 200,000 such vehicles. 

In addition, it should be noted that the U.S. federal government defines a bus as being a commercial vehicle having a capacity to transport eight or more passengers, excluding driver.  This places full-size window vans within this definition, which would inflate these to still significantly greater numbers.

Using the more conservative 100,000 figure, we arrive at an 800,000-vehicle mark for the North American bus industry and it may very well approach the million mark.  This may provide some understanding as to the magnitude and relevance of the bus industry as a whole, and how this industry significantly contributes to the respective economies of the United States and Canada.

By any measure it is an incredibly large industry!  How many people does the bus industry in total employ?  Your guess is as good as mine!  What impact does it have on the economies of the United States and Canada?  Again, difficult to quantify, but is significant. To what extent has it alleviated urban congestion, and how much more congestion is this industry capable of solving?  And most significantly what effect has it had in mollifying environmental concerns and how has it positively contributed to a better North American lifestyle?

Nobody seems to have these answers in great detail, nor are there many valid statistics that can inclusively (all sectors) accurately or even give relevance to these questions.  And yet as an industry we ought to know these answers; it is in fact, our responsibility to know these answers!  This wealth of information - a fully-fledged "body of knowledge" is the kind of information that should be at everyone's fingertips - industry people, consumers, the media, and government officials.  This is the information that we need to build credibility and value for our industry, to improve industry image, and to generate the level of awareness and consumer knowledge of the entire spectrum of services that this industry provides.

Now given that we as industry people do not have the answers, or understand the capability or extent of, or the existence of the many and wide-ranging bus services available to the public, then how can we expect the general public to have this knowledge?  And it becomes frustratingly clear that the media and government officials have little or no appreciation for the overall industry value of bus services or the extent of how it serves the public.

One would be hard-pressed not to spot a bus vehicle at almost any time of the day, on any street, in any town, anywhere in North America.  Every day, school buses pick up kids, transit riders commute to work, individuals travel by intercity coaches, and shuttles transport travelers to and from hotels, airports, attractions, and other events.

How can our services be valued if people hardly acknowledge that these services exist!  How can bus service be considered as a viable means of passenger transport when we do not even appear on their radar screens!

What are some of the ramifications to the industry, and the damages that have been inflicted upon this industry, due to our neglect and inability to effectively promote and market the bus industry. Here are a few outcomes:

- One important outcome has been how public capital funds have been spent in the transportation industry.  Have you ever noticed how senior elected government officials like to spend public monies that tend to garner additional votes particularly prior to an upcoming round of elections?  They wantonly support light rail systems that require billions of dollars to construct, and which flies in the face of almost every transportation study that shows that equivalent dedicated bus ways could provide more efficient service, with greater capacities at a fraction of the cost.    

- Have you read newspaper articles where politicians talk about major airport expansion and place their support behind massive regional airport systems, which result in the uprooting of hundreds of farms at astronomical public cost, rather than implementing the obvious and more cost-effective urban bus corridor systems at a fraction of the cost?

- Politicians are very adept at gauging public perception.  Aside from the building of billion-dollar monuments to themselves, such decisions are usually not based on fiscally sound, practical, viable, nor accepted business practices.  Rather they are based on public perception.  If the general public does not consider bus service as a viable option or a very important consideration, then no matter how practical or sound it may be, the dollars will go elsewhere.  And there are plenty of "white elephants" throughout the country that can attest to these political legacies and decisions.

-  The 200-mile and 300-mile radius urban corridors are the most heavily traveled routes in North America.  Within these radii bus passenger service often represents by far the fastest point-to-point service, the most efficient and least costly mode of transport, and yet rail and air usually dominate these corridors, along with the private automobile.  Bus service isn't often even considered as an option.  Whereas the bus industry should really be at the forefront in developing short run passenger transport services, it continues to lag far behind in the minds of the public, the media, and government officials.

It is a definitive fact that the general public takes little notice of the existence of the bus industry.  Sure everyone knows that city dwellers use transit services to get to work, and that kids often take a school bus to school.  Other than that however there is this great void as to public knowledge of bus services.  What knowledge exists is deemed generally insignificant, unimportant, and of little or no value.  Add to this a perceived notion by much of the public that buses spew smoky exhaust into our streets, that they are noisy, and sometimes recall how when they were kids that they were bumpy and hard-riding.  It is little wonder that through the years an image has taken shape that it is the "poor man's mode of transport".

The bus industry historically has never satisfactorily addressed these perceived concerns, and in a way perhaps this lack by the industry to address these concerns fostered the belief in some minds that it may well be a rather accurate image of the industry.

If you were to question almost any member of the public about passenger services, most readily will mention air travel, rail, and at times even ferry or cruise boats before thinking of bus service.  Whatever the reality may be, all we have to work with is the perceived image that the public carries in their collective minds.  In our quest to improve image, awareness, and visibility, the perceived public image must be our starting point!  This reality boils down to:

l we are not even on the radar screen in many instances

 -    where we are on the radar screen, the public image often holds a poor image of our industry.            

 Around every corner and on every street one can see buses serving the public, however, in the minds of many consumers the industry continues to be virtually invisible. We are "Everywhere but Nowhere"