In most cases, the better investment is to make the buses better
In SF, where we literally never enforce bus (muni) fares, our favorite limousine socialist, Dean Preston, is trying to run on "free muni". It's not like they want it to be better. They just want something to campaign on.
The only thing that would make muni better is to privatize it and let Google run it. They already run a much nicer fleet of buses here, which get egged by the anti-tech crowd for being "too nice" and "too convenient allowing the workforce here to freely and easily get to work". Dollars to donuts, if you deregulated them, they'd have them self driving, with high speed wifi and Kombucha on tap before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, muni and SF city government spends 6 years painting the center lane of van ness red to make a bus lane.
I am a die hard democrat, but city governance for infrastructure... I can see how people like Bloomberg get elected to fix messes like this.
Writing from a bus in Phoenix here. Homeless folks on free or lightly regulated public transportation are a major roadblock to commuter bus use. I am pro public services for homeless, yet riding the bus all day for free air conditioning is not optional. That's the top comment I hear from peers when people hear I commute on public transportation. There are also crowding and safety concerns with perpetual riders.
Increasing the fare is a useful gate keeping mechanism. The policy on Phoenix is generally fare optional as bus drivers are trained not to force the issue with non paying riders. I'd much prefer some enforcement and more investment in addressing homelessness directly (more homes).
You didn't address what I think is the most salient aspect of making the bus free: passenger load time. I know this would be ameliorated if every passenger were ready with a contactless card when it's their turn, but you know how people are. If it takes an average of 3 fewer seconds per rider to load, that would mean a line with 1k passengers per bus over its whole route can save 50 minutes in start to end journey time. Some of that would be lost in higher ridership, of course.
NYC has actually experimented with this for some of the most delay-plagued crosstown buses, and my understanding is that it makes them go considerably faster.
One thing I also haven't seen discussed is making buses smaller. I know this would mean more drivers, but I think the improvement to service would be considerable. The wideness and unwieldy length of buses, plus their sluggish acceleration and braking, slows them down on traffic-heavy streets; in NYC, I can't count the times I've been on a bus that simply can't get past some double parked car and has to wait for several minutes. In the former Soviet Union and other places, there are minibuses ("marshrutkas" in Russian) which are wonderful because they fill up with passengers and then they simply **don't stop** to pick anyone else up, because they're full. This improves total journey time considerably, as long as there's enough service for all the riders. You could just let natural ageing retire old buses, and replace them with a more compact design. A Chevy Suburban is 19 feet long and under 7 feet wide; an NYC bus is generally 35 feet long and 8.5 feet wide. What if we split the difference?
In the quest for that confluence of factors that allows buses to be frequent enough, and fast enough, to be perceived as a reliable option, fareless loading and smaller buses are important parts of the puzzle!
Any data on how the fear of needing to come up with loose change, or possibly forgetting your transit pass card (or keeping money on it) discourages riders otherwise perfectly willing to pay for the bus (or any public transit)? Serious question. I'm happy to be taxed handsomely for transit in exchange for just being able to hop on and not standing around awkwardly at point of service...
Aren't you making a bit of a logical leap between "bus riders rate low fares low on their list of priorities" and "eliminating fares wouldn't do much to increase bus ridership"? By definition, the survey cited doesn't include people who don't ride the bus now, but might if it was free. And even those surveyed weren't asked "would you ride the bus more or less if it was free". Wouldn't it be more accurate to look at some places that have reduced or eliminated fares, and see what the effect on ridership was? Or compare similar routes or systems with different fare structures?
The Circulator style buses which run frequent schedules on fixed high density loops seem very popular. I've never quite figured out the target market. They seem aimed at tourists and business travellers but the routes are sometimes opaque and tough to figure out.
The problem with buses is the high learning curve. You have to know the routes and the rates and the schedules. This works for people willing or needing to put in the effort but it is very offputting to the casual rider you may only need a bus once a week or less.
I see a lot of people commenting on European style commuting, so I wanted to give my two cents on South Korean style commuting.
1) It's incredibly convenient, mostly due to the money card system, T-money, that almost the whole country's transportation system is based on. Wikipedia gives you some great basic information on it if interested. It is a smart, chip-based card that you reload money onto, and you can purchase it at pretty much any public station or convenience store. It will get you on the bus, the subway, the train (even long distance train along with an additional ticket), and even taxis. Within the past couple of years, there is now an app on your phone you can use. There is little to no delay on getting into your transportation of choice.
2) In the metropolitan areas, there are plenty of buses and routes to get you within walking distance of almost any block you want to go to. There are speed buses, leisure (shopping/tourist oriented) buses, general area buses, and long-distance buses, categorized by color. There is a map and timetable at every stop, and we've been to some rather old, unused stops that had the information as well. It's not perfect - there has been times were we had to wait longer than expected, but compared to the US's bus system in lower density towns, it's a night and day difference.
3) Going back to the T-money card, I cannot stress enough how convenient it is to use one card to transfer from a subway to a train to a bus - then maybe you're tired of the public system? Just catch a taxi that has the T-money sign on the side and that will also get you home with your card. The bus system and subway system is not run by the same specific organization, neither are all buses run solely by the gov't or solely private, but they all use the same money transfer system. This is the key to fast passenger loading and to keeping the time table.
4) Most of the general population uses the public transportation system, as in Europe. It is not a "poor" people thing, like it is the US. To be fair, gasoline is far more expensive there, and the government also planned more dense housing in the metro areas, so public transportation can be a monetarily better choice. However, cars are popular, despite the costs, and congestion can be bad, even in the bus lanes. I've driven in cars and taken public transportation, and I will admit the car got me home faster, probably by 30 minutes based on a 1.5 hour car commute compared to a 2 hour public transport commute. (And you walk more with public transportation, take that for what it is.) That being said, my opinion is that the public system is convenient, relatively safe, competitively fast, and makes more fiscal sense for most of the public than car ownership, hence it's popularity.
4.5) Related to the above point and to the author's original point on free bus rides, there is a discount system for seniors, children, and students, which makes sense in supporting the population as a whole.
What I've found in my discussions with this to others is a reoccuring argument that the Korean people, in general, are more organized that Americans and that it can work for them but it wouldn't work for us. That's simply false, and sort of a caricature generalization I think Americans have about Asians in general. Believe me, regular Korean people are not different from regular Americans. We are all humans with basic reasoning skills - this system can work with everyone. It's the (US) government (fed/state/local) that needs to start looking at public transportation as a whole benefit for all citizens, not just those for lower-income.
The people who advocate for free fares also seem to be the last people who would ever advocate for a bus lane, a bus boarding island, or just about anything that gave the bus space at the expense of the automobile.
I don't know if it would be applicable elsewhere, but in NYC being able to make free transfers between buses and subways *effectively* made many bus rides free... In my part of Brooklyn, it was common to take a bus "sideways" to connect with a proper subway line to get to Manhattan. That system worked pretty well, I thought.
Oh, and having the real-time bus tracking was a much bigger help than one might guess for a couple reasons:
- there might sometimes be two nearby bus lines, and you need to know which one will have a bus arriving next
- if you are close to the bus stop, in bad weather you can time your exit from home to minimize time spent standing outside
Agree with Ben Wheeler. Matt, I used to live in DC and take the bus from Chinatown to the H Street area. It would take longer to load the 30 passengers in line than if I had walked the two miles. Ok, maybe not quite as long, but it was so painfully slow it often discouraged me from taking it.
The consensus among progressive activists (including the “near left,” not just the far left) here in Chicago is that bus drivers are actually hideously underpaid and have insufficient benefits. I’m fairly appalled that you seem not to be outraged by the mere suggestion of busting unions and paying bus drivers less. I grant that you don’t specifically say you agree that it must be done, but you also don’t specifically say that it’s an unacceptable course of action. American progressives are allergic to privatization, but as Europe demonstrates, private bus companies can be regulated and unions can force acceptable pay. But I would appreciate some clarification on your thoughts about hypothetically cutting bus driver pay.
Makes a very convincing case for the rationality (the operative word here) of union-busting or resisting unionization. Tell me why any rational (that word again) business or government entity shouldn't look at the possibility of a 30% reduction in operating expenses and not absolutely go for it. And Matt thought this post was about public transit.
Snark aside, do I think that unions are unproblematic? Of course not, but in a country where a large percentage of the workforce is denied both a living wage and any meaningful benefits, the worker protections and benefits that unions provide point the way, however imperfectly, to how workers should be treated. And always have historically. Absent a much stronger commitment by government to step in and fill some of the role played by unions, like providing providing access to good health care and a secure path to retirement, we have to accept that unions still play a vital, if messy, role in prodding a cut-throat American business class and a mostly passive federal government to deal with workers fairly.
Since moving to Chicago, I take the L whenever I can. When I lived in DC, I took the metro whenever I could. Chicago's subway is configured similarly to DC's, in a spoke-hub setup, so it suffers from a similar problem: areas that aren't on one of the spokes are impossible to access by train.
Still, to get to those off-train areas, I take the bus as rarely as possible, for one reason: it's so damn slow. In the last section, Matt talks about the reforms that would fix this: bus lanes, fewer stops, more buses. These are absolutely essential, in my opinion, to increase ridership. (Chicago has bus lanes, but only in a few areas.)
As an aside, I was in DC back in 2016 when they had to shut down the entire metro because of cable fire concerns. Much like in Chicago, the train is so insanely better than the bus that nobody would take the bus on those routes if they could avoid it. Shifting hundreds of thousands of people from the train to the bus, all on the same day, was predictably terrible. In particular, those bus routes were used so rarely that even the drivers didn't really know what all of their stops were supposed to be.
In NYC at least, it's likely that making the bus free would siphon ridership away from the train, not from cars. The train probably has even fewer negative externalities than the bus; greater economies of scale, no impact on traffic. The idea that the bus should be free because cars are so bad just doesn't make sense here.
"If we don't charge anything for this service, people will be more likely to use it" is tautologically true but not really helpful.
Are there any improved efficiencies with not forcing riders to pay fares or swipe a card? It seems that you could more effectively use multiple entrances on the bus and improve commute times.
>>When you spend a bunch of money building a metro system, but don’t rezone for dense housing near the stations (looking at you, Los Angeles), you don’t get any riders. <<
Thanks for looking at us, Matt! So you've seen the big residential buildings going up near our transit stations partly as a result of the Transit Oriented Communities initiative that permits denser housing on commercial corridors in transit/job-rich areas?
Yep, still a vast amount of SFH-only land. Though as soon as Newsom signs SB 9 and 10 (presumably when it's safe, after Sep. 14) SFH-only zoning will be no more. Granted, it will probably take 30 or 40 years to actually increase density much, given the slow turnover of housing, but that's going to be the case no matter what.
Anyway, thanks for looking at us.