The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a better night’s sleep in a ‘hipster’ bus replace flying?

Cabin is an overnight bus line with sleeping quarters that transports passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The company considers itself a luxury hotel on wheels and an alternative to driving and flying. (Courtesy of Cabin)

Picture this: Your boss asks you to make a last-second trip to a city a few hundred miles away for a meeting tomorrow morning.

So how do you get there?

You could take an early-morning regional flight, but frequent delays on small carriers might mean you risk missing your meeting and spending more time on the tarmac than in the air.

You could spend a few hundred bucks on a train ticket, but don’t expect to get much sleep ahead of your meeting. You could also drive your own car, but that means confronting traffic jams and an exhausting night on the road.

For many people, moving between major hubs that are just far enough away to create complications — think Los Angeles to San Francisco, for instance — is a regular travel headache.

Tom Currier calls it the “500-mile problem” and now, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and his partner, Gaetano Crupi, say they have a solution. It’s called “Cabin” — a double-decker, luxury bus line with WiFi, a comfy lounge and sleeping pods that offer the same pressed sheets you’ll find at the Ritz Carlton.

Cabin began making overnight trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco last month. There’s nothing particularly innovative about packing people into a bus and moving them from one place to another after dark. But Currier argues that the company’s emphasis on providing passengers with a good night’s sleep separates Cabin from other forms of transportation. He says it allows the company to capitalize on Silicon Valley’s belief that a growing number of people will leap at any convenient opportunity to avoid driving as society begins to flirt with autonomous modes of transportation.

He compares the overnight bus ride to “teleportation.”

“We’re taking these 300-500 mile trips and turning them into an experience where you’re basically checking into a hotel in one city and then checking out of a hotel in another city,” Currier said. “And when you combine our service with Uber and Lyft in our destination cities, you’re replacing the need for having a car entirely.”

Cabin is an overnight bus line with sleeping quarters that transports passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Video: Cabin)

The difficulty of traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco has been a source of long-standing frustration for Californians, one that has led to development of smaller airports in both cities and an ongoing effort to build high-speed rail linking the two metropolises. In the absence of that rail — and with airports and roadways increasingly crowded — it’s not surprising that a creative entrepreneur would take a shot at creating an alternative, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

The question facing Cabin, Manville said, is the same one that has hovered around high-speed rail for years: Is this an alternative form of transportation that people actually want to take?

“The distance between the two cities is far enough that, even if you’re comfortable in a pod, it’s still a lot longer than flying,” he said. “How do you want your hassle served to you? In a series of crowds at the airport amid the unpredictable interruption of flight delays, or knowing you’ll be asleep, but it’s going to take nine hours to get to your destination?”

Currier points to early ticket sales from a large pool of people — from young to old, professionals to students — as evidence that people are desperate to avoid long car rides and frustrating flights.

Initially run as a pilot project called Sleep Bus last year, Cabin tickets sold out in three days and the company’s wait-list collected more than 20,000 names. Fast forward to now, and Cabin is operating two, 24-passenger buses at the moment. So far, Currier said, his company has transported hundreds of passengers who pay $115 each way on the West Coast, and he plans to expand to the East Coast one day.

The buses depart around 11 p.m. and arrive at their destination the next day at 7 a.m., the company said. A road trip that could be completed in as little as six hours is actually extended to eight hours so that people are ensured enough time for a full night’s rest, Currier said. Slowing down the drive by using longer routes distinguishes Cabin from red-eye flights, which take less time but tend to disrupt a passenger’s sleep cycle, he said.

“The privacy curtain on each pod is a complete change in how people experience mass transportation,” Currier added, noting that luxury airlines offer seats with similar degrees of privacy for tens of thousands of dollars.

Cabin drivers are trained to use an accelerometer app that measures changes in the vehicle’s speed and vibration. The data from the app is used to test new routes in hopes of creating the smoothest ride possible and enhancing passengers’ sleep.

Once on board, Currier said, passengers can relax on leather chairs in the bus’s lounge or retreat to their pod to rest or watch a movie. Depending on whether passengers want to fall asleep or wake up, camomile tea and espresso are available. Currier said the company’s “obsessive focus” on cleanliness and comfort is more similar to a hotel than an airline or train. An NPR reporter who rode the bus detailed a pleasant communal travel experience, one she labeled “hipster, not hippie.”

Back in my pod, I draw the curtain and listen to the announcement, which sounds more like what you’d hear at a spa — not on a bus.
“There’s life water to keep you hydrated,” the attendant says in a calm, slow cadence. “Additionally there’s a shoe bag, so your shoes can sleep as well.”
Well, my shoes and I both sleep very well. When we pull into a parking lot in San Francisco, I realize I’ve been out 7.5 hours (way more than usual).

The company employs a team of engineers who are developing a new suspension system that would make the buses so smooth passengers would be unable to tell that they’re on the road.

Eventually, he said, the buses could become autonomous.

Manville remained skeptical about how revolutionary a company like Cabin can actually become — especially in the short-term.

He pointed out that we still expect companies like Uber and Lyft to transform the way we get from one place to another overnight. But the reality, he said, is that people are still buying personal vehicles at record numbers at the same time that ride-sharing companies are filling in important gaps in transportation.

Changes that seem sweeping in hindsight are often absorbed incrementally.

“You’re not going to see a switch flip and suddenly everything is moving in the same way, and that’s the same with a bus service,” he said. “If nothing else, people are just used to airports, and people who fly frequently are not a bus traveling people.”

But, he noted, the company doesn’t need to change the world to be successful — they just need to fill their buses with people looking for a travel alternative.

Asked whether a luxury bus line could alter travel across the country, Manville said he didn’t want to strike a discouraging tone, but thinks it’s useful to present speed bumps that offset Silicon Valley’s lofty optimism.

“Ultimately, these sorts of experiments are super important because they are ways to address a real source of travel dissatisfaction,” he said. “The difficulty of traveling between the two cities is a real thing, and if creative people want to explore solutions, that’s something we should encourage.”

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