Missing the Bus

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
What if I told you 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 my guest on the show this week has written a whole book about a much older, much less sexy piece of machinery, one that he thinks could be the key to making our cities more sustainable, more livable and more fair. Be humble. Omnibus. We just call it a bus now.

Roman Mars:
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, if we want the bus to reach its potential, we’re going to have to make the experience of riding one a lot more pleasant.

Steven Higashide:
Americans take 4.7 billion trips a year on the bus. But so many of those trips are miserable. They’re slow, they’re circuitous. You’re standing on the side of the road, sometimes not even with a sidewalk or a shelter. So it’s really a miserable experience. And yet public transit is the most efficient way to move people around. It’s essential if we are going to defeat climate change.

Roman Mars:
So why is the bus a key to the issue of climate change and what is its role as an environmental technology as much as the transit technology?

Steven Higashide:
So transportation is now the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US and so that means, on the one hand, it does mean that we have to look at electrifying automobiles. But at the same time, when you look at climate modeling, whether that’s at a municipal level, state level, or national level, you just see that electrification is not going to be enough to meet our climate goals. And that means we have to build cities and neighborhoods where people don’t have to drive as often. And they have to be able to make shorter trips. And so public transit plays a huge role in that and buses play a really essential role in that as well.

Roman Mars:
Can you talk a little bit about how efficient buses can be in terms of moving the most number of people around a city and what are the environmental impacts of that?

Steven Higashide:
So the typical lane of general-purpose traffic in the city – a typical car lane – can carry perhaps a thousand to 2000 people an hour. If you have a bus-only lane that jumps up to four to 8,000 people per hour. So that’s far more efficient. And if you are giving over more of the street to transit and creating a transitway, now we’re talking 10 to 25,000 people per hour. And it’s really that fundamental geometry which makes transit so essential to cities.

Roman Mars:
I think when most people think of a future that’s a more green future, they think of wind farms and solar arrays. They don’t necessarily think of a bus.

Steven Higashide:
Yeah, I mean the bus is very overlooked, but I think that if more people went to cities where bus service was convenient, it’d be pretty eye-opening. I personally was radicalized by taking the bus in London where it seemed like practically every trip I wanted to make, the fastest way to do it was via bus. And sometimes that would be two or even three buses. But the transfers were so convenient. The service was so frequent that I really experienced it as a seamless thing. And you know, maybe that’s a little bit of the rose-colored eyes of someone who is visiting. I know people in London are going to have their complaints about transit. It’s actually really hard to praise transit anywhere because local people know that there are always a lot of problems. But still, it was an eye-opening experience.

Steven Higashide:
We don’t have a huge number of good examples in the US so I think it’s a little hard for Americans to understand. But I’ve had this experience also on some of the buses in Toronto where I open my phone to look at whether I should bike or take Uber or take the bus and so many of the trips there I opened my phone up and taking the bus was faster than Uber, which is so different from when I’m trying to get around in US cities.

Roman Mars:
So why haven’t we embraced the bus in the United States?

Steven Higashide:
I think there are a few reasons for that. The first is that in the US I think often there is this obsession with technology and this idea that we are going to innovate our way out of traffic. And you see that when you see the amount of hype there is for driverless vehicles or Hyperloop. You know Elon Musk proposed a Hyperloop for Chicago that was going to carry 2000 people an hour, which is actually much less than you can carry in a regular bus. And then a lot of it comes down to political power and the fact that most people who ride buses in the US today are lower income. They are people of color. These are folks who have always been, to a large extent, shut out of the political system and a lot of what it takes to make transit better involves organizing those riders and building a new kind of transportation politics.

Roman Mars:
And there also seems to be a bit of an effort to change perception. Like if you watch a movie and something bad happens to a protagonist and they lose a job or something bad happens to them, the next scene might be them on a bus and it’s like a defeat almost.

Steven Higashide:
In US media, there’s this real class valence to buses. In the show “Atlanta”, one of the early scenes is the main protagonist, on the bus, sort of complaining that his life hasn’t gone the way that he wanted it to. And there’s this real association between the bus and not making it. And it’s funny how much that doesn’t exist when you look at popular media in Asia or the UK where the bus is just like a park or a sidewalk. 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 and in a lot of ways that’s where we need to get in the US, where the bus is just something that lots of people use when it happens to work out for them. And because we’ve designed buses well, it works out well for people in a much wider set of circumstances.

Roman Mars:
What do you think is the most direct way to improve that perception of the bus and make people want to ride it?

Steven Higashide:
The most direct way to improve the perception of buses is just to make the buses themselves better.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Steven Higashide:
Because you make buses better and more people start riding. More people start riding, that changes the perception of the bus. It creates the political energy to improve the bus even more and it’s this sort of virtuous cycle. And so I really think it doesn’t start with marketing or communications or some new framing. It starts with actually creating a product that you can sell to people with a straight face.

Roman Mars:
If the way to get more people to ride the bus is to make the bus service better, then city planners would do well to read Steven’s book. It’s basically a manual for how to improve bus systems. Drawing from examples from cities around the country where design decisions made riding the bus better for everyone. Steven says that one of the most fundamental things you can do to improve bus service is just to make the bus run more frequently.

Steven Higashide:
There’s this saying that the transit planner Jared Walker often uses, which is that “frequency is freedom”. Imagine if you own a car and there’s like this 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 if you live near an hourly bus route and it’s not much better if you live near a half-hourly bus route. It’s only when you get to this stage where you have service every 15 minutes, every 10 minutes, every five minutes, that there’s this real sense of freedom that you’re not planning your life around someone else’s schedule anymore. You can just show up whenever you want and feel confident that the bus is going to be there pretty soon. So frequency creates a sort of seamlessness and a kind of freedom that is really important and that frequency is also really important to make networks work.

Steven Higashide:
It’s not really possible to give every single person a door-to-door ride on a bus. That’s sort of the opposite of transit. Transit is taking lots of people from roughly the same place to roughly similar destinations. And one of the ways that you do that really effectively in a network is by creating a grid, by creating frequent connections, where you have to have the confidence that if you get on a bus and you get off somewhere else to transfer, that’s going to be a pretty seamless transfer. You don’t want to have to worry that you’re going to have to get off at some intersection and then be standing around for 25 minutes in who knows what sort of environment. So that’s what makes frequent service so important.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so step one is just to make the bus more frequent. That makes sense. And in the book, step two is also pretty intuitive and that’s to make the bus go faster. Now obviously we’re not talking about giving the bus a stronger engine or making sure the bus drivers speed stop to stop. But you’re talking about freeing the bus from traffic. So how can planners do that?

Steven Higashide:
Yeah, there’s quite a varied toolkit that cities and transit agencies have when they want to speed up the bus. Some very small things like how you place the bus stop makes a big difference. For example, if the bus stop is in front of the traffic light, that is going to tend 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, which I think is pretty intuitive. And then there’s even how riders get on the bus. The general rule of thumb in the US is that people have to line up in this pretty long line, often at the front of the bus and board one by one.

Steven Higashide:
And on busy routes, what transit agencies should be doing is all-door boarding where you can get on at any door. Maybe you tap your card at a reader on the back of the bus and that can cut the delay down from five seconds a person to more like two seconds a person, which really adds up when you’re talking about 20 people getting on at a given stop. And then what we really need in the most congested areas of our cities are bus-only lanes or even bus-only streets, which you’re starting to see in places like New York City and San Francisco and Seattle, where at the busiest times, private automobiles are more or less banned and buses get the right of way.

Roman Mars:
So in terms of bus-only streets, just recently here in the Bay area, San Francisco banned private cars on Market Street and that’s still brand new, but I know they did something similar in Manhattan.

Roman Mars:
Can you describe that effort?

Steven Higashide:
In the last few months, New York City has essentially banned cars on 14th street and this is an enormous advertisement for the bus and it’s an enormous advertisement for what cities can be like when we prioritize transit and don’t give over every bit of street space to the private car. If you walk around 14th Street today and see the bus wait in action, what’s amazing is not only is the transit fast, but the neighborhood is so much nicer. It’s so much quieter without all the cars. You can see ambulances have a clear shot and aren’t getting stuck in traffic. Trucks are allowed on this transitway, so it’s actually very convenient for the businesses that are on this corridor and people feel safe and empowered to cross the street basically anywhere because there’s so much less traffic. So it’s a much more pleasant place to be and we can create more neighborhoods like that when we move the car to the margins and have great transit in its place.

Roman Mars:
Is there always this antagonistic relationship between cars and bus systems?

Steven Higashide:
I do think that there has been and will continue to be tension between cars and the city because, fundamentally, you cannot scale up an automobile-based system of transportation and fit it into a city and have it work for everyone. In the early 20th century, I think a lot of people realized that the car was doing great harm to the fabric of cities. And there’s a lot of important history to read about the ways in which, for example, public opinion was really against automobiles and the violence that they brought into cities. I think we have to keep in mind, sometimes urbanists talk with a little bit of hyperbole about banning cars, which I think is very appropriate right now in specific neighborhoods. But we have to reckon with the fact that in a lot of the sprawling US, transit just doesn’t get you the same access to jobs and opportunities that cars do. And the solution to that is really scaling up and creating great transit. But I do think that there is some tension there and we do have to find ways to roll back the dominance of the automobile in our cities.

Roman Mars:
I think it’s interesting to think about the entire network that hooks into the bus, and one of the things you mentioned is that you also have to make the experience of getting to and from the bus easier and integrate that into the system that we’re talking about. So how does that play a role in creating a vibrant and functional bus system?

Steven Higashide:
The walking experience really matters when it comes to transit. I mean most people are walking on at least one end of their trip. And so the pedestrian experience really is the transit experience, and you can provide someone with a bus that is frequent and fast and reliable, but if their experience when they get off the bus is that they have to cross an eight-lane road and there’s not a sidewalk and there’s nowhere to wait, they’re not going to experience that as a great transit experience.

Steven Higashide:
So this is really important and it also is hard and frustrating because almost always the entity that controls sidewalks and the walking experience is different from the government agency that is providing bus service. So there’s a lot of work that has to happen to develop those relationships, to create some sort of regular process. Walkability is a huge problem in America. You go to Austin, Nashville, Denver, these are all places that have like $1 billion backlog in sidewalks. Where huge amounts of the street network don’t have sidewalks. And even in places like Philadelphia and New York, you see these huge lawsuits because curb ramps aren’t sufficient for people. So I really think walkability is this urban crisis, which we don’t talk about that much and it definitely has an impact on public transit.

Roman Mars:
So another way to improve bus service is to make it more equitable and safe. So how do you go about making it so that everyone feels comfortable riding the bus?

Steven Higashide:
I think 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 or a major reason why people stop riding. But transit agencies see that safety is a concern and often they very quickly go to policing as the answer. And that is one solution that makes some riders feel safe. But, it can also make riders feel less safe and you don’t want to create an environment where people feel like by getting on transit could have implications for their immigration status or it could lead to them being embroiled in the criminal justice system. And there are a lot of aspects of safety, whether that’s lighting, station design, human presence, which may or may not be law enforcement.

Steven Higashide:
These are really things where conversations have to happen at the community level, where you have to have this conversation about what is the community definition of safety and sort of not just assume what the answer is. And then I also think when it comes to equity, fares are really important. How we pay for transit, how much, and whether people are really being treated equally. And let me just give a couple of examples.

Steven Higashide:
So a lot of transit agencies, it actually turns out that wealthier transit riders 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. So instead they’re paying 2.50 every time they get on and it adds up to much more than the cost of the monthly pass over time. So one thing that a few transit agencies have started doing is something called fare capping where, if you’re paying by the ride, once you get to that level where it’s at the same level as the monthly pass, all your rides are free for the rest of the month after that. So it’s like no one ends up paying more than the cost of that monthly pass.

Roman Mars:
You mentioned one of the things about the frequency is everyone getting on all the doors available. And I think this leads to people thinking about fare evasion and is fare evasion really a problem? Part of my brain thinks that this cannot possibly be a problem, like it really costs that much or causes that big of a problem. What is your take on that and how it fits in with the stuff you’ve been thinking about?

Steven Higashide:
Sure. I mean I think it’s really important to take a customer-focused approach to fare evasion. When you look at bus fare evasion, you have to confront the fact that in most places it’s actually kind of hard to pay for the bus. If you pay in cash on some systems, you have to pay via exact change. It can be very unclear where to buy a transit pass. When researchers looked at this in Washington DC, 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 really tells us a couple of things. First that if you criminalize fare evasion, to some extent you are criminalizing poverty, which isn’t equitable and you also oftentimes are punishing people for the shortcomings of your own user experience.

Steven Higashide:
It should be the case that if you want to load your transit pass, it should be really obvious where to do that. Whether that’s on an app, whether that’s at a convenience store, it should be really obvious, but in most places, it isn’t. And I think you also have to ask yourself if people aren’t paying the fare because they literally can’t afford it. It’s not like transit agencies are missing out on huge amounts of revenue. If you crackdown, that just means people aren’t going to ride and it means that they’re not going to get to work or to healthcare or make the trips that they need to make.

Roman Mars:
More about making cities better by having better buses, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
One of the things that struck me when talking to Steven is that we have the technology we need to make our cities more livable and more sustainable, the problem is that we just aren’t making the best use of that technology.

Steven Higashide:
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 the transit projects much more quickly. One of the things that I write about in the book is the unfortunate fact that a lot of bus lane projects are designed in a way that is like a highway megaproject with multiple rounds of design and dozens of public meetings and you end up with a situation where it can take six or eight or in some cases even 10 years to put a bus lane on the street. And we just don’t have that time if we want our cities to be sustainable.

Steven Higashide:
There’s a lot of innovation that can happen in the public process to make these projects happen more quickly. And in fact, cities like Boston and now Washington DC and other places 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. And the whole process takes maybe a few weeks or a few months instead of multiple years.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. That seems to be like one of the great advantages of the bus is that as a design solution, it’s quite flexible, it’s not on rails. It has all the good things that a transit system has. It has lots of capacity for people, but if you need it to turn the corner of one block before the route that you’ve done for the past 10 years, the driver just turns the wheel, it’s a matter of just telling the driver to do it and letting everyone know. It seems like a designer’s dream to have that type of ability to iterate and be flexible.

Steven Higashide:
Yeah. A lot of what we have to do in cities is actually realize that promise. Planners talk about the bus being flexible, but then you look at Columbus not redesigning the bus network in 40 years and you ask yourself, “Well, how flexible is it really?” In the US, I feel like you see a lot of business boosters and economic development advocates call for world-class transit and what they mean is that they want a streetcar or something. And then when you actually go and look at world-class transit networks, it’s robust bus service that then feeds into rail, but buses are sort of like the capillaries of the transit system reaching out to every place.

Roman Mars:
What is the cost of us not investing in the bus system?

Steven Higashide:
The cost of cities not investing in buses is deepening in equality. In new Orleans for example, for folks who live in New Orleans and have access to a car, you can access 80-90% of jobs in the city within a half hour. If you are walking and taking transit that declines to 10%, 15%, 20%. It’s such a smaller life. And if cities don’t invest in buses, if they don’t invest in transit, they really are pushing particularly low-income households into this really hard place where they feel compelled to buy a car because that’s the only way to get access to opportunity, but that car ends up being a financial trap of its own. We are at a point in the US where automobile debt is at the highest levels recorded in history and it’s just not financially sustainable, so there are better ways and the bus is a huge part of it.

Roman Mars:
And even to the extent that because the bus can be so limited, it limits people’s ability to participate in democracy.

Steven Higashide:
In the book, I cite some work that’s been done by Professor Otto, at CUNY, at the City University of New York, and he relates this story where he was talking with some folks on the bus in the Hudson Valley here in New York and there are these plans to change the bus system there and folks on the bus are talking amongst themselves as to whether the changes are going to be good for them and it’s this really rich discussion. So the bus driver says, “Oh, you guys really have some good ideas. You should go to city hall and let them know what you have to say.” And the bus riders just dismiss this immediately, because the buses stop running at a time where if they go to city hall and testify, they’re not going to be able to get back home because the buses aren’t running anymore. And so it’s not just access to jobs that we have to think about, it’s access to civic participation, it’s access to food, it’s access to church, it’s access to libraries, it’s access to all the things that we really need to live our full lives. That’s really what’s at stake here when we talk about buses and public transit.

Roman Mars:
So why don’t we finish up by talking about Houston, one of the cities you profiled in the book. And what struck me about this case study is that the city really dreamed big and really went for it. Can you describe Houston’s approach and how it differs from the way cities usually do things?

Steven Higashide:
Sure. So the typical way that bus routes change is sort of a tweak here and a tweak there, which sort of adds up over the years, sometimes into these routes that squiggle all over the place and there’s not a single person who can really tell you why. What was really radical about the approach taken in Houston, which has been emulated in many other cities at this point, is that they designed the network from scratch. They sort of realized that the bus network had become less and less relevant to people and in a lot of ways hadn’t fundamentally changed in decades so it wasn’t really something that was worth building on. So instead they asked if we were designing this from scratch based on what we know today about how demographics are changing, about where the job centers are in Houston today, what would that system look like? And so they drew it that way and the result was a system that put a million additional jobs and a million additional households within walking distance of frequent transit. It’s really quite an accomplishment.

Roman Mars:
That seems like such an accomplishment that more people should know about it, but all I tend to read about in terms of transportation stories are new fancy things and just new technologies.

Steven Higashide:
I think that there’s a secret reason why a lot of people in the transportation space focus on technological innovation and that’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 and what we need is affordable widespread transit and that requires public champions.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, and also it requires public champions and also an acceptance that it’s never done. I feel like there’s this idea that there’s this technological Holy Grail which will solve the problem and therefore, then the problem is solved. Whereas this isn’t a problem like that. This is just a problem of maintenance and care and thinking about the city and what your constituency is. It just seems like it’s a different mindset than the Silicon Valley mindset.

Steven Higashide:
Yeah, I think that’s a great point. Cities are changing and transit systems have to adapt to meet that and I think a lot of what I write about in the book, a lot of what’s really important is actually the role of the public sector and creating public agencies that are strong and responsive and have the capacity to be able to do something, like build a pipeline of projects, or to plan and implement bus priority projects across the city, or to do public engagement in a way that is real and not check the box and work very closely with neighborhood-based organizations. These all require hiring people and hiring people with skills and undoing this hollowing out of the public sector that I think exists in a lot of places. I think we have to be open to what might seem to some to be radical, but which I don’t think it’s radical at all to call for tripling the amount of bus service or quadrupling the amount of bus service that we provide in most cities. 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.

  17. Mariana S

    I am a big fan of the podcast and have never commented before, But this is a theme close to my heart! Buses have always been a big deal for me as I never owned a car, and a good bus system meant liberty and safety for me. I used to live in a small town where buses were very infrequent, especially during Summer. After living in Barcelona, I vowed to never live in a city without a great night bus system. I now live in London and proudly took the bus to the city hall to get married, as that was so much part of our life here.
    It is in fact a shame that in America, successful examples of public transport systems of most cities in Europe are not studied and applied. In London, when you Build a new building, it is mandatory to show links to public transport and bike parking spaces to get planning approval. So this could start as a matter of city planning!
    Also shocking to realise that there is so much prejudice for the use of a public transport, and I can see from the comments that this also relates with issues of personal space…. that could be improved if people moved more and stopped using the car!

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