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It’s Time for America to Get On the Bus

New York magazine recently had a fantastic story on NYC’s plan to focus on improving the quality of its bus system:

Buses are what most people think of when they think of not getting anywhere: senior citizens waiting in lines, guys counting out change, double-parked cars. They are less sexy than subways and tend to be ignored until the MTA announces another round of service cuts. The last time buses were new was in the forties, when they were installed around the city as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to streetcars….But over the last decade, in a few transit-enlightened cities around the world, the bus has received a dramatic makeover. It has been reengineered to load passengers more quickly. It has become much more energy-efficient. And, most important, the bus system–the network of bus lines and its relationship to the city street–has been rethought.

If New York City, the ultimate American city for rail transit, can see the wisdom of reinvigorating its bus system, then every other city in America should as well. No, New York is not cancelling its subway expansions. But it realizes that in a world of financial constraint, New Yorkers can’t wait decades for the relatively small number of projects that it has in the pipe to come online, much less develop new ones.

Too many American transit enthusiasts, especially outside our largest cities, harbor a deep hostility to buses for some reasons. There’s been an interesting alliance for light rail between transit advocates who pooh-pooh buses and the traditional rent seeking interests that brought us things like many local stadium boondoggles. Especially for smaller cities, light rail is, like pro sports teams, just another accoutrement of the “big league city” that they need to have in order prove they are one.

I’ll be the first to admit that some who advocate buses actually don’t like transit much at all. Promoting a bus alternative to a light rail line is simply a convenient way to try to sink the whole thing. Also, the bus in many cities isn’t that great, and isn’t well patronized.

But with the financial realities we face in America, and the need to create an actual network of service, not just a couple of showpiece light rail lines, we ought to be giving bus a hard look. This is doubly the case because rail construction costs are simply out of line in the US versus the rest of the world. No one cares to solve this problem – not the FTA and certainly not the consulting engineers, construction companies and rolling stock vendors who are doing just fine indeed off the current system – so we should really be thinking twice about rail anyway until we can rein in the costs.

NFTAlogo.jpgA friend of mine once said, “People claim folks won’t ride buses. I agree. So why don’t we work on fixing that problem instead of jumping straight to the conclusion that we need to spend a billion dollars on light rail?”

Actually, people will ride the bus. In London, twice as many people ride buses as the famed tube system. In Chicago, despite its well known and extensive L system, more riders take the bus than all CTA and Metra trains put together. And there is nothing even particularly fancy about Chicago’s bus system. It’s what I call “Plain Old Bus Service”.

Still, with poorly designed systems and poor service levels, buses in many cities aren’t well patronized, particularly by discretionary riders. So how do we fix that? Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit has been on fire lately. He always has some of the finest transit writing anywhere, and if you aren’t reading, you’re missing something.

Lately he’s been writing about Paris, and Europe generally, and how their approach to bus design differs from the US. In Converging Vehicles, he writes:

European systems present buses and trams as part of a unified system, with amenity choices that minimize the difference between the bus experience and the tram experience. This is a striking contrast to US “streetcar cities” such as Portland and Seattle, where the streetcar is as differentiated as possible from the bus system, as though it’s expected to serve a different clientele.

In a lot of cities they do seem to be designed for different clienteles. And I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to imagine who those might be.

Jarrett supplies a photo of a bus interior to demonstrate.

bus1.bmpAnd here’s the inside of a tram:

bus2.bmpHe then describes the similarities:

Look again at the [bus] interior above. Note details like the ticket readers next to the first set of doors. Note, just visible in the upper left of the photo, a strip map showing every stop that this bus makes along its route. Note the whole look and feel…. [On the tram] the continuous open space is wonderful. But there’s nothing else about this design, in terms of overall level of amenity, that differs from the bus. This vehicle isn’t trying to serve different people than the bus serves, or to provide a higher quality experience. This vehicle is on rails for one good reason: The corridor it serves needs huge capacity…In Paris, light rail is just what you do when you need a really, really long bus.

In part two, Jarrett goes on to talk about how you can board that Paris bus through any door, with proof of payment just like light rail. The New York magazine piece picks up this theme, talking about the Bx12 Select Bus Service in the Bronx:

All of the sudden, though, here it comes: the Bx12. Right away, you see it’s different. A different paint job–new branding, as the transit people like to say–and bright-blue lights flashing on the header. Buying a ticket is different, too: You pay before you board, from a little box like a MetroCard vending machine that offers you a receipt. In the world of transit planning, boarding time is everything, and the receipt streamlines the process. “You just hold on to it,” a woman offers, shouting from under her earbuds. She smiles. “It’s much faster.” Waiting on the curb, you notice that the bus has its own lane, painted terra-cotta, with signs to deflect non-bus traffic.

The relatively new head of the MTA used to work in London, where he was part of a change that saw a big upswing in bus popularity.

About a year into his tenure at Transport for London, Walder achieved the satisfaction of watching his neighbor, a London business executive, decide to make his primary mode of daily transportation the bus. It was simply the easiest, fastest way to get to work. “He would say to me, ‘Hey, the bus goes where I want to go, and it gets me there, and I’m taking the bus!’ ”

And that’s what a heck of a lot more US cities ought to be doing too. Of course, if there’s a legitimate case for rail, then go for it. I support rail projects ranging from the Second Ave. Subway to the Cincinnati streetcar. But clearly there is enormous opportunity in the US to start transforming the transportation infrastructure of our cities with high quality bus service in a way that is faster, cheaper, and much more pervasive than we’d ever be able to achieve with rail.

As NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, principal architect of that city’s remarkable public space transformation put it, “The bottom line is buses are back.” They need to be back in a whole lot more cities than just Paris, London, and New York.

PS: Again, if you care about transit, you should definitely have Human Transit in your reader. Here’s a link to another piece on Paris, about bus lanes to help convince you.

Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in Chicago. His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications.

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