It seems “break-throughs” are happening all over the place. Medicine. Technology. Communications. Entertainment. War-fighting. Space exploration. But mechanised transportation fell asleep at the wheel (pardon the pun) decades ago. It’s nice that folks like Elon Musk and guys at Google are playing around with personal scale vehicle technology, it really is. But mass transit really needs some TLC.
Since the 1950’s and the building of the Interstate highway systems, we really have not done much, relatively speaking. Sure, we’ve built some tunnels, and bridges and so on, since then, but nothing of the scale that was. Nor have any of the latter-day projects had the impact those grandiose efforts had.
The building of the Interstate system literally gave life to towns and cities along the way, created huge numbers of jobs, ancillary industries (trucking, busing, towing, emergency services, etc.). Since then, the other projects have added maybe some toll booths and a contract for some roadway paint cans. People needed work, and it pulled us into a new age of travel, commerce and connectivity. But I digress.
For many of you who live near major urban centers, this probably makes no sense to you at all. For those who need to shuffle between places that fall outside of major urban areas however, it sucks. Current mass transportation services are a mess. Check this example out… it compares a rather not-uncommon trip between Virginia Beach or Norfolk, Virginia, to New York City. The dates are the same: April 24-26, 2015, and both are 2 adults traveling. The parameters were “anytime” during each day, and sorted by cheapest first.
Consider this: In 2015, it takes longer to fly from New York to Los Angeles than it did in 1990. Not because the Earth’s rotation slowed. Not because technology made for slower planes. But added safety, and concern for cutting costs, have all resulted in slower lines, slower boarding, slower take-offs, slower routing, slower deboarding, slower luggage handling, and slower routes in/out of the airports. Slower. That’s our new motto. This article by Slate sums it up pretty well.
First up is Amtrak, which now has actual, real, live, train service from Norfolk! Nice that it was once thriving, removed for almost 40 years and now given back to us as a major breakthrough.
Notice the total travel time is over 8 hours. Keep in mind, a fairly typical drive in a car takes just over 7 hours, but the train has to stop or slow down at every crossing, and buses usually stick to 55 MPH (I know, cars do as well, a-hem, sure).
Now, the air fares…
You can argue financials, logistics and taxation all you want, but the end result is that it’s just not working like it should. Case in point? Check out Wanderu. These are the imaginative folks who acquired or partnered with a bunch of bus services and offer insanely cheap prices (most with wi-fi too). For example, this SAME trip with the SAME parameters (2 people, round trip, same dates) is $180 ($45 x 2 people, each way). There is one small difference however: theirs is a 7 hour ride each way, not 8+ hours.
I don’t know if you’ve seen many of their buses, but they generally appear to be better cared for than the Amtrak bus services (partner company owned, of course). Obviously, a big part of this contrast (Amtrak vs. Wanderu) is that Amtrak is a government-managed entity and therefore prone to being in the prone position (if you know what I mean, wink-wink).
I can’t imagine that if someone like Elon Musk were given control over making a “better” route between these two places, that it wouldn’t end up quicker and cheaper somehow. Better technology. Better operation. Greater efficiencies. Tighter spending. And probably a more comfortable ride as well. What happened? America used to kick the shit out of things like this. Now we sit back and gladly accept second-rate effort as if that’s all we can do anymore, or we wait for private industry to take the wheel and we play cheerleaders.
Bullet Trains? That’s for other countries. We like our traveling nice and slow. And more expensive too.