Could A Bus With Sleep Pods Replace Airplanes?

Aug 4, 2017
Originally published on August 7, 2017 7:36 am

If you ever have to travel a long distance — say, Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, Detroit to Chicago, San Francisco to Los Angeles — you might be stuck with only bad options: a flight from an airport with chronic delays that's hard to get to, or an Amtrak train ride that costs three times as much as a flight.

Well, now there's a new option on the horizon: a double-decker bus with pods for sleeping. It's called, simply, Cabin. It's an overnight service — like a red-eye — designed for people who love going places, but hate being in transit.

Last weekend, I gave it a try. My goal was to spend all day Sunday enjoying beautiful, warm, sunny Southern California, then get to work in Northern California by 8 a.m. Monday — feeling well-rested, not a train wreck.

Part one went smoothly: I had a bike ride along the beach with a buddy, a hearty Persian dinner, and even caught that new movie Dunkirk (not for the faint of heart).

Part 2 starts at 11 p.m., when I board my Cabin in Santa Monica. The ground floor has table seating, kind of like the dining car in a train. The upper level, however, is like nothing I've ever seen before. On each side of the walkway, there are beds — several across, and stacked in two like bunk beds, only built into the bus.

They're called pods, and crawling into one is jarring. It's not high enough to sit up in, so you have to crawl. And once inside, it feels like being in a cabinet or a coffin (you pick). I inch my way into a top pod, trying not to make noise because a mother and her little girl are sharing the pod below me. Note: Only petite people can share.

This isn't the first bus in the world to offer sleeping quarters. But Cabin is hipster, not hippie. Instead of a dirty mattress tossed on the floor (with beer stains and God knows what else), you get a firm solo mattress, a hypoallergenic comforter and a thick gray curtain you can draw for privacy.

While the dim lights are still on, I crawl back out to talk with fellow Cabineers. I'm literally on my knees, whispering, when I meet Jeff Kateman. He's tucked under his blanket — snug as a bug — as he explains why he paid $115 to travel this way.

"I never liked flying into San Francisco, and if I can avoid flying, I avoid flying," says Kateman, a lawyer who does mergers and acquisitions. "This just seemed better than driving. Someone else is driving for you."

This is what Silicon Valley is betting on: that people don't want to drive. Autonomous cars and the much-hyped (and nonexistent) hyperloop are on the sexier end of the tech industry's efforts to disrupt transportation. This new bus startup is on the practical end — aspiring to be the Uber or Lyft of long trips. (So far they're just offering service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.)

Kateman could get used to traveling this way. He's about 6 feet tall, "but there's more than enough room," he says. "It's actually very comfortable."

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," says 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).

I pack up, take off and make it to work early.

You may be wondering how I slept for so long, since LA to San Francisco is only a six-hour drive. Well, to guarantee a full night's rest, the creators of Cabin turned it into eight hours — by driving slower and using back roads.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So much of travel is about choosing between really bad options. I mean, you can take a flight from a hard-to-get-to airport. You can change planes. You can risk all those delays. Or if you don't want to do that, you can drive bleary-eyed through the night. Might be pretty hard to believe that a bus would be all that much better. But what if it is a bus with hermetically sealed sleeping pods? We should get on board with NPR's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: In Southern California, I have a bike ride with a buddy, Persian dinner, catch that new movie "Dunkirk." It's now 11 p.m. Sunday night. I need to be at work in San Francisco by 8 a.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE)

SHAHANI: This double-decker bus, called Cabin, is my ride. It's an overnight service, like the red-eye. And the promise is you'll be well-rested when you arrive.

Is that carpeted floor? Looks very clean. The lights are off. But from what I can tell, they're white sheets.

Crisp white sheets. I'm on the upper level. And it's like nothing I've ever seen before. On each side of the walkway, there are beds, several across and stacked in two, kind of like bunk beds, only built into the bus. They're called pods. Though it is jarring, the pod is not high enough to set up. And it feels like being in a cabinet or a coffin. You pick. I crawl into a top pod.

(Whispering) I got to make less noise because right below me is a mother and daughter. And they're sharing their pod - really cute.

This isn't the first bus in the world to offer sleeping quarters. But Cabin is hipster, not hippie. Instead of a dirty mattress tossed on the floor with beer stains and God knows what else, you get a firm, solo mattress, a hypoallergenic comforter and a thick, gray curtain you can draw for privacy. I toss my bag and crawl back out.

Let's see. Peoples' curtains are drawn. (Laughter) This is the first time in reporting I'm going to go to people who are in bed and ask if I can talk to them.

I go pod to pod, looking for fellow cabineers (ph).

Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

SHAHANI: I'm a reporter with National Public Radio.

Jeff Kateman is tucked under his blanket, snug as a bug, as he explains why he paid $115 to travel this way.

JEFF KATEMAN: I never liked flying in San Francisco. And if I can avoid flying, I, you know, avoid flying. And this just seemed better than driving. Someone else's driving for you.

SHAHANI: Silicon Valley wants to disrupt transportation. Autonomous cars and the much-hyped but non-existent Hyperloop are on the sexier end of that. The startup Cabin is on the practical end, aspiring to be the Uber or Lyft of long trips. So far, they're just serving Los Angeles, San Francisco. Kateman could get used to traveling this way.

KATEMAN: Yeah, I'm about 6 feet. But there's more than enough room. It's actually very comfortable.

SHAHANI: Back in my pod, I draw the curtains and listen to the announcement, which sounds more like what you'd hear at a spa, not on a bus.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTENDANT: There's LIFEWTR to keep you hydrated. And there are earplugs to keep it quiet. Additionally, there is a shoe bag, so your shoes can sleep, as well.

SHAHANI: 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 seven and a half hours, way more than usual.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER)

SHAHANI: I pack up and take off.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTENDANT: Good morning.

SHAHANI: Good morning. How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ATTENDANT: How'd you sleep?

SHAHANI: I slept really well. thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTENDANT: Oh, that's good.

SHAHANI: Yeah.

Now, you may be wondering how I slept so long, since LA to San Francisco only takes six hours. Well, to guarantee a full night's rest, the creators of Cabin turned it into eight hours by driving slower and using backroads. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS D'S "NOCTILUCA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.