Low-Hanging Fruit: Buses

Photo by Antonio Resendiz on Unsplash

When we think of mass transit in the United States, the first image that pops into our minds is likely that of a subway or a streetcar. It’s a romantic vision, formed out of nostalgia for a time when such things were found in most American cities.

But that vision is far from present day reality.

For the U.S., we ought to be focused on buses. Buses are low-hanging fruit in the transportation system hierarchy. They are highly adaptable, requiring no tracks in the ground, working with the infrastructure already in place.

Small improvements to buses have the ability to yield enormous gains, yet the bus is treated strictly as a second-class citizen.

As Clevelanders for Public Transit, an organization that advocates for affordable, reliable, and equitable public transit in the city, tweeted last year, “Transit service drives demand. Period. RTA fares have doubled while service has been slashed nearly 30% in the last 15 years. No wonder ridership is low.”
The group also provided a graph illustrating the rise of fares in the face of slashed service:

And that was before the pandemic hit the country with full force and further imperiled public transit.

“There’s a cycle between culture and reality,” Steven Higashide, author of the book Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit, told CityLab in a 2019 interview. “We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.”

The bottom line is that buses have the potential to be much more efficient, environmentally-friendly, and equitable to any and all city dwellers than automobiles. But to do so, the negative stigma must be eradicated, and bus services must be given much higher priority among competing transportation options.

“One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around,” Higashide continued. “You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing…Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

“In our congested urban core, it’s almost all about transit priority,” Higashide said. “When the bus doesn’t have priority on the streets, it’s very slow but also very unreliable. You get incredible bunching issues, and the promise of frequent service starts to become a lie, because buses can’t adhere to the schedule. A lot of it really is about giving buses the space that they and their riders deserve on the street.”

Expanding service and frequency is a small measure that can bring about vast improvements within a city’s transportation ecosystem. So, too, is building, maintaining, and improving bus shelters.

Photo by Jorik Kleen on Unsplash

“[T]he price of such a bus shelter is only around $15,000,” David Zipper shared in a CityLab article. “That makes them a cost-effective way of making bus trips seem faster, even if a transit agency lacks the resources to increase service frequency. And it is perception that drives human behavior.”

Zipper points to a study from the University of Minnesota that found that “a five-minute wait at an exposed, ‘pole-in-the-ground’ bus stop will seem like a 13-minute wait. If the transit agency simply offers a bench and some kind of roof, perceived wait time falls to 7.5 minutes.”

Aaron Short, writing for StreetsBlog USA, laments the lack of tactical urbanism methods being employed by cities, saying, “Few places have followed the rubric of tactical urbanism, or making low-cost temporary changes that give residents a taste of what a radical street redesign could look like and planners the ability to scrap something if it isn’t working.

“That involves painting asphalt red, pilot programs, or other methods that don’t stretch across a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he continues. “[T]he perfect should not be the enemy of good, fast transit now.”

Here in the Rust Belt, Short mentions, Cincinnati tried out a tactical approach, introducing “a six-month pilot last year for a dedicated bus lane on Main Street, a project that was so successful the city made it permanent and advocates are suggesting locations for another one.”

All it takes is slapping down some paint to seed the beginnings of an arterial bus rapid transit. Paired with other tweaks, such as signal priority for bus lanes and proof-of-payment for fares, bus systems can see improved efficiency and speed, and increased ridership, relatively quickly.