Missing the Bus

If you heard that there was a piece of technology that could do away with traffic jams, make cities more equitable, and help us solve climate change, you might think about driverless cars, or hyperloops or any of the other new transportation technologies that get lots of hype these days. But there is a much older, much less sexy piece of machinery that could be the key to making our cities more sustainable, more liveable, and more fair: the humble bus. Steven Higashide is a transit expert, bus champion, and author of a new book called Better Buses Better Cities. And the central thesis of the book is that buses have the power to remake our cities for the better. But he says that if we want the bus to reach its potential, we’re going to have to make the experience riding one, a lot more pleasant.

A Better Way To Travel

Americans take 4.7 billion trips a year on the bus, but many of those trips are miserable. They’re slow and circuitous, and the process of waiting for a bus in the hot sun can be horrible. And yet, the bus remains one of the most efficient ways to move people around cities. Transportation is now the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. This means we have to build cities and neighborhoods where people don’t have to drive as often and are able to make shorter trips. The bus can play a key role in making that happen.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

The typical general-purpose lane of traffic in a city can carry around 1,000-2,000 people per hour. If you create a bus-only lane, that number jumps up to 4,000-8,000 per hour. If you give over more of the street to transit and create a transitway that goes up to 10,000-25,000 people per hour. Higashide says that in cities like London where planners have prioritized public transit, the fastest way to get around is often by bus. That’s rarely true in US cities.

G1 bus on Clairview Road. Photo by Oxyman (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s hard to know exactly why we haven’t embraced the bus in the United States, but Higashide thinks that part of it has to do with our obsession over new transportation technologies and the idea that we will somehow innovate our way out of traffic. For example, Elon Musk proposed a Hyperloop for Chicago that would carry 2,000 people an hour, which is actually much less than you can carry in a regular bus.

Politics of Transit

A lot of it also comes down to political power. Most people who ride buses in the U.S. today are lower-income and people of color. These are people who have always been, to a large extent, shut out of the political system. What it takes to make transit better involves organizing those riders and building a new kind of transportation politics.

In his book, Higashide writes about how in U.S. media, there’s this real class valence to buses. In the FX show, Atlanta, one of the early scenes is the main protagonist on the bus complaining that his life hasn’t gone the way that he wanted it to. We associate the bus with being down and out. When you look at popular media in Asia or Europe that’s just not true. There are a lot of scenes with buses that don’t seem to have any special significance because the bus is just part of the ordinary fabric of life and it doesn’t have some broader connotation.

Better Buses

Higashide says that the most direct way to improve the perception of buses is just to make bus service better. If you make the bus better, then more people start riding the bus, and when more people start riding it changes the perception of the bus. It creates political energy to improve the bus even more and it becomes a virtuous cycle.

One of the most fundamental things that you can do to make the bus better is just to make it run more frequently. In fact, there’s this saying that the transit planner Jarrett Walker often uses, which is that “frequency is freedom.” Imagine if you own a car and there’s a giant wall behind the car that only opens once an hour, and that’s the only time that you can leave your house and go driving. That’s basically what it’s like to live near an hourly bus route.  It’s only when you get to the stage where you have service every five to ten minutes that there’s this sense of freedom, that you don’t have to plan your life around the bus schedule. You can just show up whenever you want and feel confident that the bus is going to be there fairly soon.

People waiting at bus stop in Purchase, New York, moments before the bus arrives. Photo by Frank Hank [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Missed Connections

Another way to make bus travel more desirable is to make it go faster! There’s quite a varied toolkit that cities and transit agencies have when they want to speed up the bus. For example, if the bus stop is in front of a traffic light, that is going to slow the bus down because it’s more likely that the bus is going to get caught by a red light. Whereas if you put the bus stop after the traffic light, that tends to be faster.

Another thing that makes a big difference is how far apart bus stops are from each other. You can even factor in how riders enter and exit the bus to save time. On busy routes, Higashide says that transit planners should do all-door boarding where you can get on at any door.

Bus Only Streets

The biggest thing a city can do to speed up the bus is to separate the bus from traffic. You can do this with bus-only lanes along key routes, or even bus-only streets. In 2019 New York City closed off 14th street to private cars, giving busses the freedom to travel unimpeded. More recently San Francisco has done something similar on Market Street. Steven Higashide says that efforts like these are advertisements for what a city could look like when we prioritize transit over the private automobile.

Safety

A lot of times transit agencies look at survey data showing that people are worried about their personal safety on transit, which is a major reason why people don’t ride the bus. But when transit agencies see that safety is a concern, often they very quickly go to policing as the answer. More police on transit will make some riders feel safe, but it can also make riders feel less safe. Higashide says that cities don’t want to create an environment where people feel like by getting on transit, it could have implications for their immigration status or somehow lead to them being entangled in the criminal justice system. There are a lot of aspects to safety, including lighting station design and also human presence, which may or may not be law enforcement. These are the types of things where conversations have to happen at the community level—conversations about what “safety” looks like to that particular community.

Equitable Transit

When it comes to equity and transit, fares are really important. Lots of transit agencies actually allow for wealthier transit riders to pay less because there’s a discount for a monthly pass, whereas low-income riders can’t afford to pay for that monthly pass upfront. Instead, they’re paying much more than the cost of the monthly pass over time. A few transit agencies have started implementing a system called “fare capping,” where if you’re paying by the ride and you reach the level of a monthly pass, all your rides are free for the remainder of the month. Under this system, no one ends up paying more than the cost of a monthly pass.

Higashide thinks it’s really important to take a customer-focused approach when evaluating something like fare evasion. You have to confront the fact that in most places, it’s actually hard to pay for the bus. If you pay in cash on some systems, you have to pay via exact change. It can also be very unclear about where to buy a transit pass. When researchers looked at this in Washington, D.C., they found that the neighborhoods where rates of fare evasion were the highest were places where there was a lot of poverty and also no store where transit passes were sold. This shows us that if you criminalize fare evasion, to some extent, you are criminalizing poverty which isn’t equitable.

Quick Fix

Steven Higashide says that we talk so much about technological innovation in transportation when the real innovation that is needed is innovation in governance or innovation in the public process so that we can build transit projects much more quickly. Something Higashide covers in his book is the unfortunate fact that a lot of bus lane projects are designed like a highway mega-project with multiple rounds of design and dozens of public meetings. You end up with a situation where it can take 6-10 years to put a bus lane on the street—which is much too long if we want our cities to be sustainable. There’s a lot of innovation that can happen in the public process to make these products happen more quickly. In fact, cities like Boston and Washington, D.C. are adopting something called “tactical transit,” where they will put some cones on the street or just paint the street and test out a bus lane and measure the actual performance and survey riders. This whole process takes maybe a few weeks or a few months instead of multiple years. One of the great advantages of the bus is that it is quite flexible as a design solution.

The bus lane in East Arlington during the October pilot using the parking and bike lanes to speed bus transit. Photo via Word on the Street

If cities want to become more sustainable and more equitable, they have all the tools they need today to prioritize transit and to make it a great service for people. Higashide believes there’s a secret reason why a lot of people in the transportation space focus on technological innovation, and it’s because they’re shying away from their own responsibility and they’re hoping that the private market is going to solve the problem. But what private transportation companies have given us are boutique services for the well-off. What cities actually need is affordable, widespread transit, which requires public champions.

 

Houston, We Have a Solution

The typical way that bus routes change is incremental—with a tweak here and there—which adds up over the years sometimes into these routes that squiggle all over the place. But Houston, TX recently took a much more radical approach by designing its network from scratch. Transit officials realized that the bus network had become less and less relevant to people in the community over the decades, so it wasn’t really something that was worth building on. Instead, they took into consideration how demographics are changing in Houston, and where the job centers are in Houston today and in the future. What would that system look like? The result was a whole new transit map that put a million additional jobs and a million additional households within walking distance of frequent transit.


Steven Higashide thinks that when it comes to improving transit we have to be open to changes that might seem radical. “I don’t think it’s radical at all to call for tripling or even quadrupling the amount of bus service that we provide in most cities,” he says. “I think the experience elsewhere shows that we could do that and people would use it.”

Credits

Production

This episode was hosted by Roman Mars and edited by Emmett FitzGerald.

  1. Ruth

    As a Londoner I of course, just like Steven noted, have my own gripes about TfL buses BUT as a non-driver I know how lucky I truly am. (It’s a case of complaining to other Londoners but defending it to anyone else!) I do think the way the trains and buses work together in London to get you basically anywhere, is a great feat and the more local, single decker buses, have a proper old school community spirit. Viva La Bus!

  2. When I heard the intro I was so hoping Roman was going to talk about the great Monorail Conspiracy, specifically, how close Los Angeles came in the early ’60s to having a city wide monorail system, built for free by the manufacturer (Alweg) as an example of a mass transit system that wouldn’t run into cars (or people), could be quickly built with reinforced concrete and be radically inexpensive to build and operate. BUT NO!
    Great details at the Monrails.org web site. (I’m not affiliated in any way…just a fan)

  3. Ditto everything you have said for busses in Australia. In our city we are in a once an hour service area. The most recent “innovation” was to re-route our service via another suburb thus lengthening the time it got to the same hub. Duh! In peak hour we used to get three services via one hub to the centre of the city. Those at least were well subscribed. Now they go the longer route they have been abandoned in favour of cars again.

    Weekend service, one bus every two hours!

  4. Stan

    The irony of shifting from fossil-fueled vehicles to electric vehicles is they shift greenhouse gas emissions from the highest source, transportation to the next highest source, electricity generation. More efficient generation and distribution of electricity and increased use of non-greenhouse emitting sources may mitigate this. More efficient end-use of transportation energy would mitigate it even more. Modern electric bus systems do just that. An enormous amount ingenuity, wealth and hype is being lavished on single-passenger electric cars, autonomous vehicles, hyper loop, ride-sharing and colonizing mars. Positive impacts of these endeavors on the rational use of energy and human and environmental conditions are not clearly demonstrable. It does not take a rocket scientist, like Elon Musk, to see the benefits of developing modern electric bus systems vs mass production of electric SUVs.

  5. Great episode, thank you! What was missing from your conversation, though, were the voices of those of us who use public transport. And if there’s one recent innovation that’s made public transport better in Wellington, capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s the electronic signs at train stations and the busier bus stops that tell would-be passengers how long until the next one is due. And if I’m at home and want to know when the next #14 bus will be going along my street, a quick squizz at an app on my laptop or phone tells me when it’s going to be there. Brilliant!

  6. Robbie

    Another Londoner here. I don’t drive (don’t even have a license), but the excellent public transport we have means I can get around the city pretty easily. The buses, trains, and trams in my area are all frequent enough that I can just turn up and go, and everything joins up pretty well. The only real frustration for me is in how much all the taxis, ubers, and single-occupier cars slow down the buses on the roads that don’t have separate bus lanes!

    I think the biggest factor in making it all work so well here is that we have a single integrated transport authority (Transport for London), which oversees the tube, buses, trams, some rail lines, cycling provision, taxi regulation, and many of the roads. This allows them to take a much more holistic look at how the system works, from bus routes to cycle lanes to junction layouts and more.

    Note that in the UK London is very much the exception and not the rule. Elsewhere bus provision was privatised and deregulated, so companies get to choose which services they provide. This mostly means they serve some profitable routes and ignore the rest. There is local government funding theoretically available to provide services to underserved areas, but this has been a casualty of heavy cuts to local government budgets over the past decade or so.

  7. Isadora Rochin

    I’m located in Austin, TX

    Safety was definitely a reason I stopped riding – the bus I took home often attracted people who were mentally unstable, who started yelling or fighting, forcing the driver to stop and extending my ride by an hour or more. The last straw was when a passenger drew out a knife for a fight – I got a car within a week.

    Beyond that, even the non-violent passengers could be very off-putting. There was an offensive man who would proudly display his anti-abortion signs, foul body odor, crying children, and one time a man who kept scootching into my space until I told him to back off. You could argue this is all the cost of sharing space and living in urban environments, but I don’t agree that comfort should be sacrificed THAT much.

    And one last issue – as I mentioned, I live in Austin, TX. In the summer it gets to 100F+ on most days, and most sidewalks outside of neighborhoods (and even quite a lot within them) are not shade-covered. That is a health risk for people who have to walk to and from their stops, you’d need to add A LOT more bus stops and greatly reduce wait time.

    And lastly, the bus-only lanes don’t really resolve traffic issues or reduce transit time, because then the buses get stuck behind the bus in front of them, even if they don’t have a stop.

  8. Gayle Emmich

    I moved from Portland, Oregon to Memphis, Tennessee about five years ago. The number one thing I miss is public transit. So much so, I’ve had a new friend tell me to stop saying that. I am looking to move from Memphis and know that the next city I move to MUST have a good public transit system, or at the very least, be walkable. Memphis is neither. It’s amazing how different cities, neighborhoods, and cultures view public transportation. Thanks for the great episode.

    One thing I saw this morning in my Instagram feed I thought I’d share is Austria rewarding folks for nor driving. https://www.thelocal.at/20200127/austria-environment-transport-lifestyle-vienna-to-reward-car-free-travel-with-concert-tickets

  9. Peter Varley

    A great topic! Until recently I lived in Washington DC and I was a daily bus rider last summer when the southernmost train stations were closed for reconstruction.

    Not mentioned in the show about making buses more inviting is that Americans are too big on average to fit into an 18″ wide seat! (Yes, I took a tape measure one day and measured. The seats on the trains are barely better at 19″ wide.) Surely a huge reason a lot of people won’t even consider riding the bus is the invasion of their personal space. Why is that not obvious to American transit planners?

    The FAA issues directives to the airlines on how to calculate take-off weight and had to significantly increase its 1990s estimates for the average passenger: http://www.iasa.com.au/folders/Safety_Issues/Cabin_Safety/weightier.html. The basic layout of the bus has probably not changed in a century but needs to account for this increase too.

    Since buses can’t be wider, I believe the design of buses should be changed by removing one seat per row and allocating the space to the other three. Each seat would then be 24″ wide; on one side of the bus there would be single seats and the other side would have doubles. Yes there would be nominally fewer seats but in practice a lot of riders sit in the middle of the seat, their bodies flow into the adjacent seat, or they put their bag on the other seat to discourage anyone sitting next to them, so effective capacity may not be reduced that much.

    Caring for the homeless is not the problem of the transit authority but I can tell you from experience that one homeless person on the bus can ruin the experience for everyone. A person with a private car is never forced to squash next to complete strangers, or sit in a seat that was recently vacated by a person that had not washed in weeks.

    Covering the windows with advertising does create extra revenue for the transit authority but makes it hard to see out and tell where you are, especially at night.

    I now live in Lisbon and agree with the comments about frequency of buses means that changing to another bus is relatively seamless. Some buses here also have two readers for the electronic cards and a divider at the entrance to encourage two people to board at once. The driver can also give change! Every bus stop here has a shelter whereas many (most?) in DC do not.

  10. Hal

    Was great listening to this episode (thank you as ever) – felt very proud of my hometown of Edinburgh all throughout which I’m gonna selfishly shout out here. For a city without a metro or inner-city train networks, there’s a lot of pressure on our local bus network to be of a high quality. Serving roughly 120 million customers a year, it really delivers fortunately for us – super frequent services to lots of destinations, contactless card payments, GPS-enabled (for efficient tracking on the free app), free WiFi on all services, USB charger points at each seat on most services. In the past, I’ve definitely lamented the lack of alternative public transit options in the city, but Lothian Buses are very much on it and I felt especially grateful for them whilst listening to this episode. Come by Edinburgh some time to check them out 🚌

  11. Des

    I live in London, and take buses frequently. One issue that annoys me is that they rattle a lot. Show me a luxury car or coach which rattles! It may sound nerdy, but my dream job would be in charge of a team of mechanics who go round adding vibration and rattle reducing rubber pads where required on each bus.

    I did the same thing on my relatively old car, and take great satisfaction when passengers comment without prompting on what a lovely smooth car I have.

  12. April Nowak

    I’m a long time bus rider. First in Baltimore, then Austin, now Denver. We have a driver shortage. Busses and trains are less frequent. This is a inconvenience for office salary workers, but could mean loss of job for the transit dependent. Denver has a very expensive bus fare. Our transit agency RTD has overspent on light and commuter rail and parking garages for those commuting on fancy regional busses and trains. The cost of living has increased so much, that many residents would have a hard time paying for the bus. At what cost is the growth of our City. We have fancy light rail parking garages, yet people on major north-south routes don’t have safe bus stops.

  13. Erlend Andenæs

    This was an interesting episode to listen to from a European perspective. Cities are so much different over here, with buses being absolutely essential to make things run smoothly at all. I can’t even imagine the hellish levels of traffic that would ensue if everyone in my city tried to use their own car to get around all the time.

    The episode seemed to be all about “this and that American city have attempted to create good transit with buses, here’s how we should learn from their attempts to make buses work” while barely mentioning any cities elsewhere in the world where buses have been an integrated part of the cityscape for up to a hundred years now. Bus-only lanes and -streets are mentioned as new, modern, life-changing innovations, whereas they’ve been commonplace elsewhere in the world for decades. The “how to board the bus and pay” video above is from 2015, it might as well have been made in the 1980s in Europe – as a spoof video, because who needs instructions on how to use a bus?

    Judging by the episode, the US appears to be way behind the rest of the western world when it comes to public transport, while the episode framed it as if you were trying to invent it yourself from the ground up. At the beginning of the episode, London was mentioned as an example of a place where buses work great, but instead of learning from how London achieved it, the perspective seems to have been limited to “let’s make it so here as well” without further input from that front. I mean… the design solutions are out there. They have been implemented and evaluated. While it is interesting to see the fledgling attempts to build transit networks in US cities from a US perspective, I sorely missed some reporting from cities where buses are a daily part of the commute for almost everyone. You could go overseas in almost every direction to find examples.

    It was a little like having an episode about sushi featuring a cook who went to Japan once, then tried to make it himself back home, and is now considered a leading expert on how sushi is supposed to be made. Sure, he could be an excellent sushi chef, but a listener would sit there wondering what the Japanese think about sushi, and it would have enriched the episode.

    I realise I might be sounding a little negative here, but don’t worry. I really like the show and the episode was well put together. It was just a little too introspective in this particular case.

  14. Michael Waechter

    It was a bit disingenuous to simply discount all of the bus systems in the US. In Chicago we have a very robust bussing system that seems every bit as decent as bus systems that we’ve used when living in other countries around the world. Could it be better – of course! But no, focus on the hyperloop instead of the actual bus only lanes in the Loop and on busy streets such as Western Ave. The claim that you need more frequent buses is not always the case – simply have them run to an actual schedule first, then figure out if more buses are needed.
    99PI is normally well researched and a joy to listen to, but this episode was terribly under researched, did not provide input from people in the countries and cities he referenced, and in some cases simply made erroneous (false!) assumptions.

  15. aphoid

    The college town I live and work in has buses that are subsidized by the town and university. All local buses are toll free for all riders. Just in the past year or two, they switched to “board all doors” and that has accelerated stops too. There is a large BRT project in the design/federal grant phases and was rated high enough priority that it is eligible to receive funding. The BRT will eventually run along the most highly trafficked corridors, with a “Park and Ride” at each end, residential areas along the way, with downtown and the university in the middle.

    Regional transit is run by a different group, but they have special permission to ride on the interstate highway shoulders during high traffic times. There was a long-time light rail project that was cancelled late last year and some of the funding for that is redirected to the BRT project.

  16. Sidney

    “people are worried about their personal safety on transit, which is a major reason why people don’t ride the bus.”

    “cities don’t want to create an environment where people feel like by getting on transit, it could have implications for their immigration status or somehow lead to them being entangled in the criminal justice system”

    … Transit should not have legal or political stances. If somebody have a problem with law, it’s not the transit company’s problem. If you want to accept people who have problems criminal justice system, of course nobody won’t ride it. I wouldn’t.

    Also, of the problems with US bus and transit systems is they’re trying to stop buses being a “poor people mover” while keeping the target in economic accessibility, not demand.

    Successful transit systems around the world focus on transit (bus, trains or metro) being useful for the city, no matter who is using it. And it returns with transit getting more respected by the citizens, more funded and developed.

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