The transit workhorse needs more than cheerleading
Something you notice in Hollywood films as a non-US (Australian) watcher - a character hitting their absolute low point in the story is usually the scene where they are forced to catch a public bus. It's a bit odd watching from a city where catching a bus is a pretty mainstream transport option. Maybe positive representation for bus transit on screen needs to get on the progressive agenda #OscarsSoCar
I would like to add that Google Maps and Apple Maps (and others) have made navigating complicated bus lines much easier for the uninitiated. There are nice synergies to mass transit and mobile devices - they make the whole experience more pleasant (podcasts, music, audio books; noise canceling headphones are getting very cheap). While all of this is true of driving, driving is cognitively demanding and, I feel, minimizes enjoyment of whatever preferred media you consume. Using transit leaves me in a much more rested and thoughtful state than driving ever did.
Terrific article as always, but it seems to ignore the tension I suspect is always there between efficiency and equity (other than the discussion of coverage vs density). It seems that in many cases the express goal of politicians is to have some, any transit, however bad, available to people who cannot afford cars or two cars per family. Matt’s analysis seems to omit that constraint.
Like in many cases, it’s not that decision makers don’t understand what’s efficient. It’s just not what matters to them. I think they are ok with buses’ reputation as “poor mans transit” as long as it allows them to provide some service to the disadvantaged population. After all, if waiting 30 minutes is your only option, you’d rather have that than nothing at all.
Paratransit is an interesting wrinkle here. 10 years of riding MUNI in San Francisco has impressed on me the significant tradeoff between inclusivity and efficiency when there is a large population of riders in wheelchairs.
At this point I’ve seen literally thousands of instances where a bus full of otherwise progressive and equity-minded types will audibly groan as we approach a bus stop where a person in a wheelchair is waiting, knowing that the process of deploying the ramp, onboarding the rider, and securing them in the specialized seatbelt can make the difference between being on time for your next bus transfer or clock-in time at an hourly wage job, and being late. Doubly so if the rider is also getting off before your stop, where the seatbelt and ramp process plays out again in reverse.
One might reasonably suggest increasing the number/frequency of buses, but this does nothing to alleviate the social tension (people on the buses with wheelchair riders will still be late unless they shuffle off the bus and onto the one behind them when it catches up) and in the case of buses like the 22-Fillmore, which are electrically powered by tethers on the roof connected to overhead power lines, the faster buses can’t pass the slower ones, and you end up with the very normal occurrence of two buses on the same route, one right behind the other, the first one full and the second one mostly empty, and everyone running late.
The social ideal here would obviously be having an efficient system where everyone rides together and doesn’t exacerbate the existing stigma of “otherness” that comes with disability/reduced mobility, but at this point I’m convinced it’s just not feasible, at least in SF, and some sort of on-demand paratransit or outright Uber/Lyft/Taxi subsidization for wheelchair riders is the better way to go.
(And don’t get me started on the impact of endless elevator outages on wheelchair-bound riders of underground MUNI and BART. It’s appalling)
The title of this post should have been "Build Bus Better".
Yesterday's post was all dry, technocratic wonkery about race, murder and cops. A big yawn, and my eyes glaze over.
So, in order to get people riled up and yelling at each other in the comments section, Yglesias throws us some juicy red meat transit-blogging. That gets the tempers flaring!
Try to play nice, everyone. I mean, it's a gut-punch, reading about European routing protocols and square footage of lane capacity and all. It's no wonder that people have a hard time sticking to facts and reasoned argument when the subject-matter is so inflammatory.
One major disadvantage of bus routes is that there is a very steep learning curve to learning route maps, bus frequency, and transfer mechanisms. Some systems (as well as Google Maps) now have trip planner apps that help with this but the process of just getting from A to B is still needlessly opaque. This system works well for people such as daily commuters who are willing to invest the effort but useless for tourists, out of town business people, and people with random destinations.
Some cities now have Circulator type buses which are frequent and run very busy closed loop circuits. They are often differently themed from commuter buses and may have different fee structures down to and including free. So as I read this article, buses should be more frequent, run fixed routes, and have fewer stops. Street cars. Congratulations, we have invented street cars.
Regarding fares, I’ve always appreciated the approach taken by German and Austrian cities I’ve lived in: everybody is required to buy a time-stamped ticket for a ride, but there is actually no mechanism to check whether you have done so. Fare enforcement is handled completely by “sting” operations, where suddenly five transit employees appear in your bus/train car/subway car, asking to see tickets. No ticket? Instant fine, of (at the time) 65 Euro. Most buy tickets, but many opted to chance it 100% of the time, and they thought they came out ahead, financially!
I don’t know if that would work in the States, but it’s my understanding that fare collection contributes a minor amount of income to transit operations anyway. I’m curious the extent to which fare collection or enforcement mechanisms are costly, and if there is ever a scenario in which we can agree that public transit is a public good that doesn’t need to run an operating profit, or operate like a business, to be a success. Its main function is to remove cars from roadways, which in theory is helpful to everybody.
I'm sad to be the first to comment as I find this topic very compelling.
One substantive comment I have is on the max coverage issue. A problem with that is that the routes become confusing for most people that aren't frequent users. So you end up driving and paying the $10 to park out of fear that the bus will end up going to the wrong place.
For years I commuted via bus from my home in west LA to Santa Monica. And I hated it. Matt's is a great post about how some technical tweaks to bus systems could help improve it (on the margins at least) but unless there's a more systemic change, all these improvements will disappear into the void.
Frequency was not a problem -- during rush hour, buses came every ten minutes (or faster). This still didn't mitigate the frustration when you missed a bus by ten seconds: the ten minutes felt like thirty! Bigger problems were the variability. Three buses might stack up and all appear within five minutes, while at other times there might be twenty minutes between buses. This was a popular route (Blue Bus #7 for the cognoscenti) and was typically *very* crowded, as it served Santa Monica College and Santa Monica High School, so lots of standing and swaying, and intimate knowledge of strangers' bodies on a herky jerky bus which aimed for every pothole on the street.
But the worst thing that was even though you had given up commuting by car, you got to enjoy the benefits of rush hour traffic jams caused by such cars. You crawled. You sat at lights forever (and this even with the "extended greens" that buses were supposed to enjoy but couldn't because of too many cars in front of it). It got to the point that a mile or so from my destination I would just get out and walk the rest of the way.
And then the new rail line opened (the Expo Line). And that was heaven! A smooth ride, with a dependable ten minute transit from my home station (albeit a longer walk from my house) and Santa Monica. And I could usually sit down! Goodbye, bus. And (since the Expo line paralleled the bus route), it looks like everyone else agreed with me, as I noticed the buses now running mostly empty.
I understand that it's hard to get commuting professionals out of their cars (often I was the only one on the bus or the train). And I understand it's a chicken/egg problem: as long as people stay in cars, and light rail doesn't go everywhere you want to go (LA's big problem), you're never going to have the rapid, smooth and comfortable transit commute that might entice them to act otherwise.
LA has toyed with the idea of congestion pricing and the howls have filled the heavens. But that -- combined with serious funding of transit alternatives -- is the only way forward. It has to be carrot and stick. Given my neighbors' open-arms welcome of higher density in our SFH neighborhoods (yes: joke!), my optimism is in the basement.
“you need to make some people mad for the sake of a better overall system”
This struck me as an insightful point. Does getting something (anything?) big done in our system require a Robert Moses or an equivalent like Baron Haussmann?
I think that 10 minutes is really pushing it as far as "can just show up" timing on buses. That means the wait will add an average of 5 minutes to the trip. Additionally, buses have fairly mixed on-time performance. In Portland in 2019 the bus was on-time about 85% of the time, which means if you are a regular commuter you'd have an average of 1.5 late buses a week.
If you require someone to transfer once on a trip, they will hit a late bus (5+ minutes late) 3 times every week on average, and the wait will add an additional 10 minutes to the trip every day. There is also the risk of a much longer wait due to a bus totally not showing up (could add 10+ minutes to the trip).
This is quite a bit given the average commute in the U.S. is only 26 minutes. I think the frequency needed for people really to just show up without checking the schedule is probably about 7 minutes. The frequency needed for people to perform a bus -> bus transfer without worry is 5 minutes or less.
I think that one reason why bus systems emphasize coverage over ridership in many U.S. cities today is that they want to serve disadvantage communities, or at least not further disadvantage them. A bus line that went from the densest residential area to the densest commercial area is probably going from one rich part of town to another.
Furthermore, given the unique setup of American bus systems, the ridership / coverage tradeoff doesn't look like a tradeoff at first. The fact that buses are priced lower than trains because they are "worse" makes them the default option for low-income folks who can't afford cars. The infrequent service also makes them a default for people who have a low opportunity cost of time, i.e. are also more likely to be low-income.
Therefore, you get into a situation where transit planners say "We can't relocate service from a low-income region to a high-income one. The low-income folks both really need the bus AND really use it, while the high-income ones will just drive either way."
The response would be "If we invested in frequent bus service for high-income folks, we could build self-sustaining ridership and gain the rich folks' support for the overall bus system." Matt has said before that a service that is only for poor people can become a poor service. You'd need some vision and some appetite for risk to pull together the money for this, though, and some balls to take on the zoning nazis as well.
This is my favorite Slow Boring yet!
I'd be a pretty early adopter for better bus service - I simply dislike driving (especially parking) and would be willing to have a slower commute to avoid it. A lot of the younger generation is the same, the "American love affair with the automobile" looks to have been generational and is fading. At least in cities and denser suburbs.
But there's a limit to how *much* slower people will accept, and 30 minute intervals with frequent stops just won't cut it. On major trunk lines! What is that even for? I guess it's just supposed to be a last resort for people who can't afford a car? But it would be so easy to be much better, it's extremely frustrating.
This is in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where we have well-funded local government, awful traffic that makes driving stressful, and connections to DC metro and commuter rail. If non-last-resort bus service in the suburbs can work anywhere, it ought to work here.
The ideas outlined here are necessary to make the bus better, but not sufficient. In many places the bus is not enjoyable. It smells. It's not clean. People, disproportionally women, are harassed by strangers. If the bus is uncomfortable to ride, wealthy people will drive cars.
I would really be interested in an American perspective analysis of Toronto's transit system. I grew up there, it is heavily bus-based, has streetcars without dedicated lanes, terrible governance and a slew of white elephants, but it is widely regarded as working rather well, especially for a low-density city. I think one of the crucial aspects is that bus services almost universally serve to get people to the subway, instead of being intended for entire trips. Have any of the prominent transit writers done a comparison with similar US cities?