Sunday, July 18th, 2010

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.

A 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.

And here’s the inside of a tram:

He 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.

31 Comments
Topics: Transportation
Cities: New York, Paris

31 Responses to “It’s Time for America to Get On the Bus”

  1. Wad says:

    Aaron, it’s not enough just to want to like buses. Abstractions are easy to like. It’s easy to say you are for mass transit.

    That’s good for nothing.

    Any discussion about transit service needs to quantify what services are being supplied.

    I discussed this topic on MetroRiderLA in a post entitled “Aspiring to mediocrity.”

    I have assigned a measurable framework of what needs to be in place for a transit system to be “mediocre,” which is a halfway point, not a synonym for low quality.

    Most transit systems in the U.S. are so deprived that they need to work up to mediocrity.

    Here’s how I quantify a basic standard of mediocrity for transit service:
    * A minimum frequency of 30 minutes.
    * Minimum service span of 16 hours a day.
    * Maximum distance between routes of 1 mile bidirectionally.

    This is what every system needs to provide before even thinking about rail, bus rapid transit, or even a high-frequency bus line.

  2. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I think that there is nothing wrong with Light Rail and Metro systems per say.But too often they are poorly planned .Some cities build them simply for the sake of having them without doing any planning.Baltimore’s Metro Train System is a perfect example of this.Its Light Rail System is almost as bad.

    Meanwhile Baltimore’s Buses are severly overcrowded.They often dont have enough room to pick up more passengers so they ride by bus stops. Often passengers must wait 30-60 minutes for a bus and have to watch as overcrowded buses drive by without stopping at the bus stop..

    Not only that but if a person does ride a Baltimore Metro train to a station there are few , if any , buses at the station. The system was designed for people to drive thier cars to the Metro stops and to take the train into town. But almost nobody does. The trains are almost completly empty.

    Some cities do have good Metro and liht rail systems NYC and Washington DC come to mind. In DC’s case at least it was due to good planning. Once you reach a station there are plenty of buses going into various neighborhoods.

    I think the question that should be asked is this.What is a public transit system for? And who is it for?

    Too often many cities build their public transit systmems aound the needs of people who DONT use public transit. While ignoring the needs of those who DO ride public transit.

    Blue collar and low wage workers have to ride in overcrowded buses while lawmakers spend millions of dollars on Light Rail systems that are meant to attract upper-middle class people to abandon their cars for thier daily commute.

    Since most dont want to do this you end up with public transit systems spending money advertising that more people should ride public transit while those that DO ride public transit ride in severly overcrowded buses.

    When i hear someone in Baltimore complain that “People dont ride public transit enough” i know instantly that they havent ever rode it. What they are almost always really saying is that white upper-middle class people like themselves dont ride the bus.Its like that old joke.”Nobody eats at that resturaunt anymore.Its too crowded”. Baltimore’s politicians complain that not enough people ride public transit. But when i ask friends why they dont ride the buses they often cite the overcrowdedness.

    Im not saying that wealthy people shouldnt ride public transit. Im not saying that light rail systems shouldnt be built. But with a limited and finit amount of public transit funds avalible , shouldnt we design our public transit systems for the people who actually DO ride public transit?

    I think that a lot of it has to do with politicians wanting to be photographed cutting ribbons for rail projects.

    I realise my outlook is very Baltimore-centric. But i think that we do need a public debate in America about what we want our public transit systems to achieve .And we need to decide what can be achieved. In many cities i think that it is very hard to convince automobile drivers to not use thier cars for thier daily commute. Should we spend money on futile attempts to get them to take public transit?

    I would like to end by saying that i think each city has different public transit needs. And each city should organise its system to those needs. While some cities can learn from others i think that cities should be wary of building a poorly planned rail system just because another city has one.

  3. Ryan G-S says:

    The problem with buses in the United States is primarily the condition of our roads. Riding the bus in London, or in continental Europe, is much more pleasant than riding the bus in Chicago or LA not only because the interior of the bus is nicer. It’s also because the roads over which the bus travels are much smoother. We’ve simply laid so much more asphalt and concrete in this country that we can’t afford to maintain it at the level it requires. Even bus rapid transit systems that may be smooth and comfortable when new quickly deteriorate with the weight of all those buses pounding over them day after day. Ask anyone in LA who consecutively rides the Orange Line and then the Red Line.

    One can’t disagree that the costs of rail construction are out of line in the US, but it seems easier to legislate that problem out of existence than the laws of physics that control a bus rolling over pavement.

  4. BrianTH says:

    I agree that the poor branding of buses in the U.S. is unfortunate, and that this issue can be addressed with smart investments (another important idea: real time next-bus information at stops).

    That said, I wanted to give a shout out to another promising alternative to light rail, urban gondolas. As another poster alluded to, the fundamental problem with buses is that they need roads, and we have a basic capacity and maintenance issue when it comes to our urban road systems. Urban gondolas can be cheaper than light rail, particularly when light rail would require bridges or tunnels or such, but unlike buses they have the advantage of not needing to use our already over-used urban roads.

  5. It seems that many public bus systems in the US still allow passengers to pay by cash when they board (or, even worse, when they disembark, on some routes in Pittsburgh). This is a huge waste of time that bus passengers have to endure, which rail passengers do not.

  6. Joe C. says:

    For another example, take a look at Seoul did with their bus system overhaul back in 2004 (http://www.nctr.usf.edu/jpt/pdf/JPT%208-5%20Pucher.pdf).

  7. Donna says:

    Hear, hear, Aaron! I completely agree with your friend: “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?”

    I have no idea what light rail for Indianapolis is projected to cost, but I imagine for less than that cost we could have buses every ten minutes on our main roads. Our asphalt network is an enormous existing infrastructure – adding decent bus shelters, signage, even GPS bus location updates etc. can’t possibly cost as much as light rail.

    When I lived in Portland, I took the bus – Plain Old Bus – when I lived on the inner east side and the MAX light rail when I lived way out east. They served different needs, but the bus system – including Fareless Square, back then – was super handy for getting around short distances.

    In Philly, I rode the bus most days – easy, quick, and as to crowded roads during rush hours: those skilled bus drivers could literally part the waters of crowded traffic when they chose too – single occupancy cars knew to get the hell out of the way if a bus was trying to get to the curb to pick up passengers. Note that light rail isn’t without its delays too – it’s not a magic carpet that will always get from A to B on schedule.

    Indianapolis is a small town – we could easily have the best bus transit system in the nation IF it was a goal the city chose to pursue.

  8. Donna says:

    And sorry, Ryan, to be snippy, but buses provided a bumpy ride due to road maintenance issues? Boo-F-hoo, sweetie, but that’s life in the big city. I actually enjoyed the bounce after a long day at work – kind of an all-body massage on the way home!

  9. BrianTH says:

    The road maintenance issue goes to costs. Maintaining roads properly costs money, and to the extent buses cause additional maintenance needs that is a cost to running the bus system in question, even if it doesn’t show up in the relevant transit agency’s budget. You can cheat a bit by deferring maintenance (bumpy roads and such), but then you end up passing the costs along to vehicle owners in the form of increased maintenance and repair bills (including the transit agency that owns the buses).

    This isn’t an anti-bus point per se, but one does need to properly account for these costs when considering the merits of various possible transportation systems.

  10. Thanks for the comments.

    I must confess, the point on street maintenance doesn’t resonate with me. We can’t afford to maintain the streets we already have, so we should build a rail line that we also have to pay to maintain?

    If anything, the logic of we can’t maintain the streets means that we can’t afford to invest in anything new. That’s possible I suppose, but is an implicit acknowledgement that your city is having a slow-motion going out of business sale.

  11. Jennifer says:

    I’ll second the vote in favor of Portland, OR’s bus system. Yes, the light rail is sexy but it didn’t serve me when I lived there except for rare trips, like out to the airport. For the most part it was my bike and the bus that got me around. And the bus was not only just fine, but also packed all the time. Why does the bus system in Portland work so well? Frequent, reliable service; easy-to-understand routes; real-time information available at the bus stops (then on monitors hanging in the shelters; now via mobile phone applications). Portland makes it easy, cheap, and convenient to ride the bus. If other locations did the same, they would see huge increases in bus ridership as well.

    Rails are great, if you live close enough that they are convenient. Buses are great for everyone else, especially if you add express routes with dedicated lanes or signal priority. You’ll only sit in your car in bumper-to-bumper traffic watching the big, clean buses whiz by unhampered before turning in your car keys for a bus pass.

  12. BrianTH says:

    Steel wheels on steel rails can have lower maintenance costs both for the vehicles and the ROW. Heavy vehicles just really beat up pavement (roughly speaking, pavement damage goes up with the fourth power of axle weight), and beat-up pavement then returns the favor to the vehicles. But again, this is not to say buses are never the right technology to use–often they are. The maintenance issue is a serious one, however, and should be properly accounted for when considering public transit alternatives.

    Generally, I don’t think properly accounting for costs means you are saying you can’t afford to pay for anything. Rather, you are trying to figure out how you can get the most transportation benefit given the resources you have available, both now in terms of capital to invest, but also during operations in the future.

    Finally, I would note again there are rapid transit alternatives to buses beside light rail. I mentioned urban gondolas specifically because they have very low maintenance costs, but typically are not nearly as capital-intensive as light rail.

  13. I touched on this last week. The language that’s being tossed around in Sullivan’s article is eerily similar to the language that was being used in Cleveland in the years leading up to the grand opening of the Healthline. Unfortunately, the Healthline has failed to deliver. Now RTA’s data shows that the BRT virtually as slow as the #6 bus it replaced, and the local opinion of the Healthline is not particularly positive.

    Now, here’s the thing – BRT is often discussed as a much less expensive means to achieve what rail transit could; but if we are overly obsessed with getting a transit line with “cheap” as the top priority, it’s not going to live up to the potential that it could if we made the appropriate investments.

  14. david vartanoff says:

    First, yes, buses can do the tasks well in many circumstances. Second I dispute your description of CTA as plain old buses. Beginning with my visits to Chicago as an eleven yr old in the early fifties, it was clear they were trying to do better. The Jeffrey Express got my Grandfather and thousands of others in South Shore, off the IC (now Metra Electric) because it was a competitive service at a better price. On my most recent visit (last July) I used the Museum of Science & Industry express from State St which is again, as fast as the Metra Electric, runs more often, (directly to the Museum) at standard CTA fare. Comparing current CTA routes to the 1950s ex streetcar lines, most are more tightly focused on ridership patterns and needs. And as of last week, they will have FTA $$ for two BRT routes–one a Jeffrey Express uprade.

    As to NYC MTA planning for better designed bus service, again, some may well be a good fit, however the fallback plan for BRT in lieu of the Second Avenue Subway is a travesty. New Yorkers paid for that subway twice already with nothing to show for the money but three tiny tunnels dug before the 1970s insolvency. You are painfully correct about costs, but we have that in BRT too. AC Transit (Berkeley Oakland) wants to spend $250 million on a poorly designed BRT project while they are about to implement service cuts round 2 of this year. The ridiculous costs will not be corrected by substituting bus for rail.

    As to POP, mid bus fare readers, nicer seats, etc, all of this can be done easily, if serious Federal money becomes available. The longer term issue is reclaiming public transit as “civil” space which means beefed up security to control the taggers, freeloaders, et al. Neither the “choice” rider nor their auto using neighbors are happy supporting transit which they perceive as dominated by farebeaters. New York City almost lost the subways to the thug twenty plus years ago, buses are often perceived as lost.

    In the SF bay area many employer and customer shuttles have arisen. Some are wi-fi equipped luxury coaches for the IT elites, others simply vans connecting dispersed pieces of medical groups. Both hurt public transit by removing civil ridership as well as reinforcing the idea that the transit agencies are incapable of adequate service.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, a lot of what NY Mag is saying is just regurgitating JSK’s Powerpoint presentations. A real investigative article would point out just how dysfunctional the buses in New York are. Namely:

    – At the BRT fare inspections, the bus has to stand still.

    – When the MTA asked for bus cameras to help enforce bus lanes, the Albany back room negotiations winnowed it down to just the six approved BRT routes.

    – The BRT routes chosen are not the most important or the ones with the most public support, but the ones in areas Bloomberg cares about. In particular, there’s nothing on 125th even though it’s the busiest, most congested corridor, and the people in Harlem are screaming at the lack of investment in e.g. bike lanes.

    – The proposed smartcard system is a globally unique implementation, rather than any of the off-the-shelf alternatives.

    The high cost of transit in the US isn’t some abstract fact. It follows from severe incompetence at every level, from the middle manager to the top politicians. Nearly everywhere you could save vast amounts of money by replacing the current crop of people who won’t accept any solution that wasn’t invented here.

    For example: mid-bus fare readers cost almost nothing. In Singapore, a single card reader costs about US$600. The cost of putting one at every bus stop in New York and two on every bus is a few million dollars; it would pay for itself immediately in higher average speed, which means fewer buses and bus drivers are required to maintain a given level of service. However, New York doesn’t even try to build them, because they’re not how it decided POP should be done.

    The practice in New York is not to make the buses nicer, as Jarrett proposes. It’s to build a few demonstration bus lines that are differentiated from the rest of the system as much as possible. Thus, the program has all the disadvantages of buses as well as all of those of LRT.

  16. After giving this post a second read-through, I feel like it lacks an important discussion in the role that transit should play in urban development. If the goal of a transit system is to move masses of people from one place to another, all else equal, then buses make a lot of sense on paper. If the goal is to encourage development around very specific sites (like transit stations) then there is somewhat compelling evidence that rail transit can achieve this, but it’s much less clear whether buses have the same capacity.

  17. david vartanoff says:

    Alon’s comments on NYC apply in the SF area as well. One batch of buses came with readers at mid point doors,; they were removed to equip older buses, POP never implemented (AC Transit) In SF the mid point readers, not yet vandalised, are disabled. The few POP inpectors troll in pairs often in the Market St Subway which has barrier fare control. While the planners and consultants continue to “refine” designs for a counter productive subway and inadequate BRT, day to day service is rotting as funding disappears.

  18. There’s clear evidence that light rail promotes economic development. Look at the construction all along the new lines. Look at the LED data out of Minneapolis, where job growth has skyrocketed along the new rail line. Investors aren’t afraid to put down large sums of money if they know a rail line, which isn’t going to move, is located adjacent to their property.

    The development potential of improved bus service is much harder to prove. In part, this is because you’re talking about improving something that already exists.

    Bus advocates need to do a better job making this case if they want to win the battle of bus vs. light rail.

    In the end, light rail projects tend to garner a lot of community support because they can easily be tied in with large development projects and re-envisioned urban places. For whatever reason, that has been harder to do with buses, even though if you did a detail review about the data, there is no doubt that buses would have a compelling story to tell as well.

  19. Donna says:

    The development impetus of light rail is indeed real, and valuable.

    On the road maintenance issue, i agree with your point Aaron, but also want to remind everyone of this graphic from LAist that I’m sure we’ve all seen: http://laist.com/2007/11/04/same_number_of.php

    More buses means fewer cars. The weight is a factor, certainly, but does the damage caused by one bus really equal the damage of 54 cars?

    BrianTH, you said “Finally, I would note again there are rapid transit alternatives to buses beside light rail. I mentioned urban gondolas specifically because they have very low maintenance costs, but typically are not nearly as capital-intensive as light rail.”

    One of the reasons I think lightrail isn’t the right choice (for Naptown, at least) right NOW is the “keeping up with the Jones'” attitude that Aaron mentioned. Why not hold out for the next big thing, a better version of mass transit than we’ve come up with so far?

    Urban gondolas *might* be it, but I have to share this funny comment made by poster FrankLloydMike on an Archinect story about Cities of the Future where gondolas figured big: “Finally, we’ll have some sort of suspended monorail pods, combining the inefficiency of personal travel with the limited range of mass transit. What a brave new world!”

  20. JesryPo says:

    A few things:

    One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned here is the psychological stigma that surrounds bus transit in the United States. Outside of large cities, buses, for lack of a better phrase are seen as transit for poor people. Light rail, as relatively “new” to our cities, does not carry the stigma… I remember the sad bench on the side of the arterial road in my neighborhood (no shelter, no sign), the place where local housewives would pick up and drop off their housekeepers. The impression that the bus was transit of the last resort was not just in the minds of those suburbanites; as soon as our housekeeper saved enough money, she bought a car!

    Another is that bus routes are often confusing and changeable. This speaks both to other posts that mentioned the economic development impact (where a developer has confidence investing in developing property adjacent to light rail because it would be very difficult for that rail to be relocated) as well as the experience of the rider. If you’re using a bus system for a repetitive, daily commute, confusion isn’t much of an issue – you learn your route quickly. But for other uses, shopping before work, visiting a friend after, buses that seem to be chugging along a major thoroughfare and then suddenly make a seemingly arbitrary 90 degree turn away from where you thought you were going are beyond frustrating. Even in NYC, where a trip downtown on a Fifth Avenue bus may take you straight down towards Washington Square or may randomly turn on 33rd Street and stop at Penn Station. You have to study minuscule maps or learn hieroglyphic route numbers to navigate the system. Yes, rail is not perfect in this regard, but the fewer routes and stops, as well as the physical necessity of straighter routes, makes a huge difference.

    And finally, there is traffic. One foolish driver can easily disrupt the commute of hundreds of workers on the buses along that route, and this happens every day in every city. Again, rail is not perfect in this area, either, but to convince people to fund and utilize transit, and then tell them that they’re stuck in the same traffic that they would be if they drove, well, I can see why many don’t bother.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    Donna, road wear is proportional to the fourth power of axle load, which means a 20-ton bus causes 10,000 times the road wear of a 2-ton car.

    Where buses outshine cars is in pollution. First, they are more fuel-efficient than cars measured per passenger-km (though the difference isn’t very large at average loads). Second, they enable a denser urban layout, reducing trip length, which means vastly lower emissions per passenger. And third, the capital cost of buses is smaller than that of the cars they displace, so it’s economic to equip them with all the latest pollution-cutting technologies: for example, 22% of newly sold US buses are hybrids, compared with 7% of cars.

    JesryPo, you should go read Human Transit on the subject. It turns out buses can have a simple map, separate lanes, and sheltered stations. If you’re worried about cars violating the lanes, then you can provide physical separation; it costs the same for buses and LRT. (No, not all LRT is 100% separated. My mom’s accidentally violated the Nice light rail lanes a few times.) It all depends on whether the city cares about the local buses, or wants to provide parallel LRT for rich people instead.

    The operational benefits of LRT over buses are electric traction and higher capacity. Anything else is just a question of whether the city’s politicians give a crap about local bus service or not.

  22. BrianTH says:

    Donna,

    You are absolutely right that when we compare using a bus system to relying on cars to fulfill certain transportation needs, we should properly account for all the relevant costs associated with the cars. Road damage may well still count against the bus, but another poster above did a good job of summarizing some of the other costs associated with cars.

    But of course all I am suggesting is that you have to do the same thing when comparing bus systems to rail systems, or for that matter bus systems to gondola systems, meaning you need to take into account all the associated costs. And again, my point is not that bus systems are always bad–they are very often quite good, and are the best available technology to use in the relevant case. But sometimes there are in fact better alternatives, and we need to understand when and why that is true.

    As for urban gondolas, I would suggest people check out The Gondola Project, a blog devoted to the subject with a wealth of information available in the easily-accessed archives. I know you meant your comment in good fun, but I think there is an awful lot of misinformation and misconceptions about the technology, which that joke regrettably reflects. I might also note that gondolas are already in use for urban transportation, so it is really less a matter of waiting and more a matter of whether we are going to expand the menu of options we are considering in these discussions to all the currently available technologies.

  23. M1EK says:

    The “people will ride buses” argument based on London and Chicago is critically flawed. Both have huge populations of transit-dependent commuters, both willingly and due to lack of choice.

    Try attracting a bunch of drivers to transit in a city like Houston with “better bus”. It’s Not Gonna Happen, because “better bus” means “slightly better than the existing bus” and the existing bus is just god-awful. It will never, ever, ever be anywhere near as good as even the heavily compromised light-rail starter they did – you know, the one that’s overflowing with passengers.

  24. Wad says:

    To the posters who attest to the development prowess of rail construction, let this transit supporter who is favorable of rail warn you: Not so fast there, peeps.

    There is evidence that light rail can positively attract development; there is nothing to suggest that it will attract development.

    I offer the example of the Los Angeles Blue Line. Shameless plug time: On MetroRider, I wrote about what effect the Blue Line has had after it celebrated its 20th year of operations last week.

    http://metroriderla.com/2010/07/15/blue-line-20-year-progress-report/

    As transportation, the Blue Line is a blockbuster success. It may still be the busiest stand-alone light rail line in the U.S. It went from 19,000 rides in 1990 to ridership that fluctuates from 70,000 to 80,000 today.

    The ridership quadrupled, but the Blue Line has done very little for community development. The development it has attracted is concentrated in downtown Los Angeles and downtown Long Beach.

    The transformation of downtown L.A. happened because of the real estate bubble, not for the Blue Line that had been running for a decade and a half. The transformation of downtown Long Beach was set in motion by the Blue Line, yet today that development has shriveled to a small sliver.

    The rest of the Blue Line runs through L.A.’s industrial slums and ghettos. Today, with 20 years of light rail, South L.A., Compton and north Long Beach continue to remain slums and ghettos.

    Is this uniquely an L.A. problem? Probably not. The same problem exists in Chicago’s South Side, inner St. Louis and East St. Louis, Oakland and Richmond BART stations, Miami, Newark, Camden, Trenton and the Bronx and Queens.

    The presence of rail lines didn’t stop community investment from avoiding black neighborhoods. This has been the pattern nationwide.

    Also, for the areas that have attracted development, remember that Portland is the only U.S. city where the transit agency sees any sort of upside from the development transactions. In most other cities, the transit agency sees little to no monetary benefit from the development value it created; those go to other governmental agencies.

    More importantly, what effects have transit-oriented developments had on rail ridership? The Blue Line in L.A. has been a ridership success in spite of no development; the newer Gold Line between L.A. and Pasadena has an incredible gravitational pull for development yet it has been a ridership failure. (The extension to poor Boyle Heights and East L.A. seems to have corrected that.)

  25. Alon Levy says:

    M1EK, it again depends on how good bus service is. Chicago shows us that very slow bus service can work in a transit-dependent city; it says nothing about good buses, with off-board fare collection, dedicated lanes, signal priority, etc. The biggest irony is that Curitiba, where BRT was invented, actually has high car ownership. It has 600-something vehicles per 1,000 people, if I’m not mistaken.

    Now, it’s true that railstitution of bus traffic can lead to increased ridership. Some of the regional rail lines Germany has reopened recently get three times the traffic of the buses they replaced. Even small cities can have successful rail spines, when government regulations don’t make regional rail prohibitively expensive. However, for many lines, buses would be a better solution than rail, as long as the city treated them like transportation rather than like charity.

  26. wkg in bham says:

    So many good points and interesting things to consider. But, RE transit in gerneral and buses in particular: Operating cost are too high and operating revenues are too low. e.g NYC’s MTA op ex/op rev are 12.5/5.7 billion$. of the 5.7 op rev, 1.3 was toll revenue and 4.4 was fare revenue. As near as I can tell, the operating cost of a bus is in the $5-$10/mile range. Revenues are in the $1.5-$3/trip range – often with free transfers. This disparity results, many of which are not very nice. Two of them are:
    1) The ex/rev gap must be bridged by govt. grants, transfers, etc. Thus all decisiions regarding transit are political ones: route selection, route frequency, fares, emplyee compensation, etc. Any relationship to rider service is incendental. Mr Pete so vividly describes this in #2.

    2) In most cases, increasing ridership only results in increasing the gap. Getting to mediocre as described by Mr. Wad #1 is going to be very difficult for most systems.

    One would hope that BRT could be a gap closer by achieving more fares per driver hour. Labor costs appear to be the larges transit cost by far.

  27. Vince says:

    I think the best systems, even in the less-than-completely-hip-and-fabulous cities, are those that mix rail and bus.

    I think Cleveland’s new HealthLine BRT has been a success and think that most who ride it frequently would agree. It is not as much faster than the old 6 as it what supposed to be, but it is faster, and it is infinitely more pleasant. Service is frequent, and there is never a time when it is not running.

    The HealthLine’s advantage over Red Line rail service, which has the same eastern endpoint, is its excellent access to everything along Euclid Ave., a street of many destinations. On the other hand, the Red Line is much faster if you are traveling to the middle of downtown or to the west side.

    I lived in Chicago for many years and dreaded my morning commute on the 151 Sheridan bus. Getting on the bus was a challenge and trying to get off before the end of the line was often a humiliating and frustrating experience. For some reason, the same crowded conditions on the L were not as unpleasant. I think the smoothness of the ride helped.

    As for Indy, I just don’t know where it should even begin. Such a wonderful and surprising city, but its minimal public transit system is a glaring flaw.

  28. Wad says:

    wkg in bham, getting to mediocre is a matter of priming the pump for the people of the transit system’s service area to provide the subsidies.

    It could be sales taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes, parking charges, whatever. Just find the money.

    Try not to rely on state or federal subsidies. For one thing, they require a minimum ridership threshold. Second, state and federal subsidies are not free money. They are very competitive, and the agency loses a significant percentage of the money to administration and compliance.

    A mediocre system is going to cost more, but paradoxically, it’s going to cost less at the same time. Expanding a system will mean paying more in operating costs, yet an expanded system means it becomes more attractive to riders. More riders means the relative cost of carrying the passengers comes down as well.

    Once you have the service, it is also key to get people to ride the system.

  29. ZPS says:

    Let’s be careful not to insist there are too many bus stops. I live in NYC and it seems like the bus stops every block to let a long line of passengers board and swipe their cards one at a time. Most people can handle walking to a subway stop so buses should stop about as often as the subway.

  30. Donna says:

    This is the kind of “next thing in transit” that Indy should be considering instead of jumping blindly on the light rail bandwagon.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/02/3d-express-coach-pictures_n_667452.html?ref=fb&src=sp

    Not really necessarily a car-straddling bus, but that kind of future thinking about how to use our existing infrastructure in better, greener, more accessible way.

  31. Alon Levy says:

    Donna, this thing is vaporware.

    When you’re a third-world city, you shouldn’t have “that kind of future thinking.” You should forget innovating and instead think hard on which first-world transit success you want to emulate. For Indy to do otherwise is like for a middle school student to try to prove open research-level conjectures in math.

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