In popular culture, buses are a mixed bag, symbolic of protest and oppression, of both checking-out and being down-and-out. (Photo: Rosa Park's bus in Montgomery, AL via Wikicommons)

Good Public Transit

Are We Entering the Golden Era of the Bus?

Negative attitudes about the bus prevail, but increasingly urban planners are turning to the lowly bus in their search for sustainable transit.

Ah, the lowly bus. Whenever I write about buses—and there is good reason to, given that Dallas is about to give its entire bus network a rehaul—someone in the comments sounds-off with some version of this critique: people don’t ride buses because buses suck.

It’s a difficult point to argue against. If you have ever ridden a bus, and especially if your experience of bus travel is limited to Dallas, then you know how bouncing around on a bus through this city’s streets can be an excruciating, sometimes nauseating experience. They’re often too hot or too cold; they can feel like a boat heaving on rough seas; their routes wind round and round; they take forever to reach their destination; there are so many stops it can sometimes feel that you could walk faster than a bus that has to scoop up passengers at every street corner and stop at every stoplight. I get it. Buses are often not fun.

I have ridden some nice buses. Chicago has a good bus system, and it ties into the “L” trains seamlessly. London’s buses are incredibly efficient and wonderful complement to the tube, once you get a handle on the routes. Rome’s buses are rough, but they are often all you have to rely on, so you make them work, which is easier in a city that is so dense. My aunt rode the same bus route from Queens, NY to Midtown nearly every day for decades, so much so that the bus became for her a kind of “third place,” and her stories of bickering and kvetching with her fellow bus regulars became a common topic of conversation at family gatherings. This is all to say that, despite their reputation, buses can work.

But why, then, do people harbor such deep–almost irrational–hatred for the bus?

The bus is the real workhorse of American public transit, a form of mobility that provides 4.7 billion rides per year. And it is not just public opinion that is against the bus. Bus systems are typically the forgotten stepchild of federal transportation funding and public transit industry debates. We’d rather talk about the revolutionizing potential of driverless cars and spend billions of public dollars on streetcars. Why no love for the bus?

Steven Higashide tries to tackle this question in a new book, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. In an interview with CityLab, Higashide tries to defend the poor bus against public opinion and make the argument for its rightful place as an important player in American cities. Per usual, when it comes to understanding prejudice against the bus, you have to dive into broader American prejudices:

You really can’t separate the awful status quo of transit and buses from systemic racism in America. It’s obvious when you look at the whole 20th century [in terms of] infrastructure and the built environment, with governments building highways through black and brown neighborhoods. You can’t separate any of that from the fact that in so many regions, public transit—and buses especially—are thought of as a social service. And that’s sort of the reality it creates.

One of the statistics that is telling in the book is that when you look at bus ridership in a place like Germany, the people who ride the bus have the same median income as the average German. In the U.S., they’re much poorer. At the same time, it’s not a service that actually serves low-income people well at all. So is it really for them? It’s really a system for people who don’t have alternatives.

This observation rings true in Dallas, a city that has long treated its public transit system as a kind of mobility welfare, while it steered the vast majority of its capital dollars into light rail projects that were designed more for incentivizing development over reliably moving people. But Higashide reminds us that it isn’t just cities like Dallas that have had this attitude about transit. It’s a nationwide issue.

One of the biggest omissions from federal policy is that federal transportation programs are almost always about building things. But the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground.

Often, you hear decision makers talk of the need for world-class transit—but if you look at great transit systems around the world, they all have much better and more bus service than we have in the U.S. Buses are world-class transit as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation touches on the cultural feedback loops that have helped to create the negative image of bus travel in the U.S. Buses in film and TV are often the domains of the downtrodden or hopeless, people who are left with no options. Think Ratso Rizzo on the bus to Miami.

There’s a cycle between culture and reality. 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.

There’s a whole lot more in the interview, including thoughts on why buses and public transit in general are left outside of the climate conversation (including the proposed Green New Deal). If you are interested in this sort of thing, it is worth a read.

But perhaps what is most striking about the conversation is that it is happening at all. People are talking about buses in cities across the U.S., and many of those cities are thinking about shifting their historical attitudes and approaches to bus service. Dallas is jumping on that bandwagon, and so you can expect these conversations to intensify in the coming months.

For those of us who see buses as the best shot at implementing quality transit in a car-driven city like Dallas, that’s great news. For those who still see buses as uncomfortable welfare mobility, I suggest it may be time to, well, get on the bus. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

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