"Better Buses, Better Cities is likely the best book ever written on improving bus service in the United States." — Randy Shaw, Beyond Chron "The ultimate roadmap for how to make the bus great again in your city." — Spacing Imagine a bus system that is fast, frequent, and reliable—what would that change about your city? Buses can and should be the cornerstone of urban transportation. They offer affordable mobility and can connect citizens with every aspect of their lives. But in the US, they have long been an afterthought in budgeting and planning. With a compelling narrative and actionable steps, Better Buses, Better Cities inspires us to fix the bus. Transit expert Steven Higashide shows us what a successful bus system looks like with real-world stories of reform—such as Houston redrawing its bus network overnight, Boston making room on its streets to put buses first, and Indianapolis winning better bus service on Election Day. Higashide shows how to marshal the public in support of better buses and how new technologies can keep buses on time and make complex transit systems understandable. Higashide argues that better bus systems will create better cities for all citizens. The consequences of subpar transit service fall most heavily on vulnerable members of society. Transit systems should be planned to be inclusive and provide better service for all. These are difficult tasks that require institutional culture shifts; doing all of them requires resilient organizations and transformational leadership. Better bus service is key to making our cities better for all citizens. Better Buses, Better Cities describes how decision-makers, philanthropists, activists, and public agency leaders can work together to make the bus a win in any city.
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About the Author
Steven Higashide is one of America’s leading experts on public transportation and the people who use it. As director of research for the national foundation TransitCenter, Higashide has authored groundbreaking reports that have redefined how decision makers and journalists understand transit. He has taken the bus in 28 cities around the U.S. and the world.
Read an Excerpt
What Makes People Choose the Bus?
One of the most corrosive ideas in the transportation world, one that shows up in both the technical literature and politicians' attitudes, is the belief that most people who ride the bus have no alternative, and they'll keep riding regardless of how bad the service gets.
To use the technical jargon, the idea I'm referring to is that there are two types of transit customer. Some academic and agency studies define some people as "choice riders," who own cars but choose to ride transit because it's fast or affordable or pleasant. "Captive riders," on the other hand, don't have a car and therefore (according to the definition) are "captive" to transit.
Perhaps you can hear the disdain in the term captive rider. If not, you can certainly hear it in the way the concept is understood by politicians, pundits, and even some transit executives. Writing in the economics blog Freakonomics in 2009, Clemson University associate professor Eric Morris declared, "There are two major constituencies for mass transit ... wealthier workers who commute to jobs in city centers where parking is expensive ... [and] the very poor." The head of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Dorval Carter, even told a reporter, "The people who have to ride CTA will ride CTA. The choice riders are the ones you really covet."
This kind of thinking often results in a two-tiered approach to transit planning: high-end, expensive transit built to the suburbs to "entice people out of their cars" (because it's hard to bag those finicky "choice riders") and terrible bus service for everyone else.
One big problem with this idea is that it isn't true. A great many people without a car have options for getting around besides the local bus. They might use private or informal transit, such as the fleets of jitney minibuses that commuters use to get around northern New Jersey, or the unlicensed taxis that exist in many cities. They might arrange a carpool or a ride from a friend. They might ride a bike for miles, or even walk for 10 miles to their job.
The captive–choice binary doesn't have its roots in a deep sociological study of how people make transportation decisions. Like so much else that has proven harmful in the transportation industry, it comes from reductive computer models. Two Canadian transit researchers, David Crowley and Brendon Hemily, trace the concept of choice and captive riders back to the early 1960s.
When researchers have looked into how "captive" non–car owners really are to transit, they repeatedly find that people do not fit into a neat binary. In 2016, my colleagues at TransitCenter and I surveyed 3,000 people in seventeen U.S. regions about their travel behavior. The resulting report, Who's On Board, found that people who lived near better transit took it more often, regardless of whether they owned a car. A 2003 Transportation Research Board paper found that transportation models often underestimate the mode choices available to transit riders without cars. A Mineta Transportation Institute study of bus riders in Broward County, Florida, found that "rather than being a fixed amount regardless of service quality," transit ridership by people who do not own cars "increases tremendously" if transit becomes faster.
Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of service planning at METRO, the transit agency in Houston, said, "You can provide such horrible bus service that even the poorest of the poor, who have no car, will find a way to get around, whether it be friends, a bike, walking, it will happen. You provide a good service, you'll have customers. You don't, you won't."
People who don't ride transit often assume that no one but poor people will ride a bus. They may believe that people choose transportation modes because they are cool or flashy. In the words of a writer for an Austin alt-weekly, "Everyone knows it, so let's say it: Buses lack sex appeal and yuppie appeal."
Mary Skelton Roberts, co-director of the climate program at the Barr Foundation, said the conflation of buses with poverty "is an American construct — building buses that are low quality in neighborhoods that are already struggling. That does not have to be the reality."
It isn't the reality in places that have good bus service, as professors Ralph Buehler (of Virginia Tech) and John Pucher (of Rutgers) found when they compared the 2009 nationwide travel surveys conducted in the United States and Germany. The typical American bus rider had a household income under $25,000 a year, less than half what the average U.S. household made. In Germany, the average bus rider belonged to a household that made more than $50,000 a year — no different from the typical German family.
We can see the difference in American cities, too. The median income of Los Angeles Metro bus riders is just $16,200; 61 percent live below the poverty line. But does this mean that bus service is "for" poor people? As UCLA professor Michael Manville points out, only 6 percent of poor workers in the Los Angeles region use transit as their primary commute mode. Transit in the L.A. region is used primarily by low-income people, but it doesn't serve them well, and so most low-income people have chosen other ways to get around.
Meanwhile, a third of bus riders in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle) have household annual incomes above $100,000; 27 percent of New York City bus riders make more than $75,000.
Everyone chooses transit more often when it meets their needs. What are those?
What Bus Riders Want
Transit service that is useful to most people satisfies seven basic criteria:
The service goes where you want to go.
The service runs frequently enough that you don't have to think about it.
The service is reasonably fast.
The service is reliable (you don't have to worry about major delays).
You can conveniently walk from the service to your final destination.
The service is comfortable and feels safe.
The service is affordable.
Survey after survey has confirmed the importance of these factors (which are discussed in the following chapters).
When you recognize these criteria, you can understand why attractive, amenity-laden, flashy transit projects fail. Atlanta's streetcar, for example, fails because it gets caught in traffic, and it doesn't connect to enough destinations. The Northstar rail line in the Twin Cities basically runs through open fields to sparsely populated suburbs; there simply isn't enough around to generate ridership.
You also see that there's little use in planning transit based on its technology. Bus and rail lines across the country attract riders under the same circumstances: when they are fast, frequent, and connect many destinations that can be walked to.
David Bragdon, the executive director of TransitCenter, has said that arguing about whether trains are better than buses is like arguing about whether jackets are better than sweaters. You need both to have a full wardrobe, and you should wear whichever is appropriate for the situation you find yourself in. That means when you need to carry many thousands of people an hour, or move them quickly over long distances, you probably need a train. When you want to carry a few thousand people an hour, buses can get the job done if they are designed to be fast and reliable.
We can also dismiss the idea that we "need to make the bus sexy." In March 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the purchase of new buses that had a bold paint scheme, Wi-Fi, and dozens of charging ports for phones and other devices. "It has that European flair to it," he said of a bus rendering. "It has almost a Ferrari-like look."
But New York City's buses are among the slowest in the country. A vehicle that looks "Ferrari-like" but moves at an average speed of 8 miles per hour is not very attractive, one reason why the city has lost bus ridership for several years in a row.
Instead, we need to plan transit networks that maximize opportunity, that let you choose from many jobs, shop at many places, visit many friends and family members. Planners can do this by providing frequent, fast, walkable bus service to as many destinations as possible.
There Are Many Trips for the Bus to Compete For
Note that I didn't say that cities should build bus networks that maximize access to jobs. I said they should maximize access to destinations. That's because more than two-thirds of transit trips (and four-fifths of all trips) are noncommute trips.
For this reason, there are usually more people who use the bus in a city than decisionmakers realize. We tend to talk about "drivers," "cyclists," and "transit riders" as if people only drive, bike, or take transit.
This might be because the U.S. Census and American Community Survey "journey to work" data, which are some of the most ubiquitously cited in transportation discussions, measure only the respondent's primary commuting mode. A woman who drives 3 days a week to a part-time job and takes the bus to a different part-time job is not counted as a transit rider by the census. Neither is someone who takes the bus to college during the week and drives to a weekend job.
This makes transit's constituency look pretty small. In metro Miami, for example, only 4 percent of commuters use primarily transit to get to work. In the Twin Cities region, just 5 percent do. Even in metro Boston, it's just 12 percent. But when you look at surveys that capture the diversity of how people actually get around, you get a bigger picture. According to the census's 2013 American Housing Survey, one in five Miami households include someone who uses transit occasionally. In the Twin Cities, one in four do. And in metro Boston, 56 percent of households have a transit rider.
Most transit systems have a large pool of customers who have experienced transit but have not committed to frequent use. Researchers from UCLA, examining recent transit ridership declines in Los Angeles, have concluded that most of the ridership loss was coming from a few formerly heavy transit users who had left the system. LA Metro could make up the gap just by convincing occasional transit riders to use the system a few more times a week. This means planners should not overfocus service on peak commute times at the expense of midday and weekend service.
Because bus service is so deeply misunderstood by many decisionmakers, simply explaining what makes people choose transit can be enough to start changing places for the better.
Miami's Transit Alliance Rewrites the Story
In 2017, transit ridership in Miami-Dade County, Florida was in freefall. The county's politicians spent plenty of time talking about transit — but nearly all of it took the form of disputes over where to build the next big transit line in the region and what mode it should be. County mayor Carlos Gimenez sought to cancel plans to build rail, suggesting the county should investigate a Chinese-made "trackless train" (a semiautomated bus) instead.
In the meantime, the local bus system, which carried two-thirds of riders, had been steadily eroding. Buses took circuitous routes, were often late, and even suffered from basic reliability issues such as broken fareboxes and hurricane-damaged bus shelters that were not fixed for months. Between 2014 and 2017, bus ridership fell from 77 million boardings to 58 million. Between March 2017 and March 2018, the county made three sets of bus service cuts affecting 38 routes, and the media largely echoed the framing that cuts were needed to achieve budget savings.
This started to change with the emergence of an independent civic organization, the Transit Alliance. Founded by a Miami native, Marta Viciedo, and Azhar Chougle, who came to Miami from New York, the Alliance reset the debate in a matter of months. (Before founding Transit Alliance, Viciedo had started a political action committee that would endorse politicians who supported sustainable transportation policy. But she couldn't find enough candidates worth endorsing.)
In May 2018, the organization launched the "Where's My Bus?" project, a data visualization project that over the course of 5 weeks illustrated problems with the system's reliability, route design, and frequency and the fragmented jurisdiction of transit agencies. The findings of that project began to repeatedly show up in articles written by the Miami Herald and other media outlets.
That fall, the Alliance issued report cards grading the county on its different transportation services. Metrobus got a D, and Transit Alliance won still more media attention.
From there, it was off to the races — to a 24-hour bus marathon, to be exact. In December 2018, Transit Alliance members rode the system for a day straight (two Miami-Dade county commissioners and a Miami city commissioner joined them for part of the ride), an exercise that quickly revealed the fragility of the network.
Transit Alliance's stunts added up to a county-wide education on transit that grabbed the attention of decisionmakers. After Chougle and Viciedo briefed county commissioners on the "Where's My Bus?" project, they began to have more in-depth conversations with Mayor Gimenez.
They asked for — and the county gave them — a $250,000 grant to manage a redesign of Miami-Dade's flawed and neglected bus network. They matched it with another $250,000 they fundraised themselves, and the project kicked off in May 2019, aiming to transform the system over a 2-year period.
A Bus Network Worth Riding
Many cities are like Miami, where decisionmakers treated the bus and the people who rode it as an afterthought, focusing their transportation efforts on higher-profile projects. But this low-energy equilibrium can be quickly disrupted by a high- energy group, such as Transit Alliance, that offers a clear diagnosis of the challenges facing transit in a region and clear solutions.
Organizer Ai-jen Poo wrote that civic groups have many different types of potential power. Some have political power, others economic power, and others the power to disrupt government functions. Transit Alliance, at least at first, didn't seem to have any of these. They were a small group with just a few volunteers, working completely unpaid for 6 months.
And yet they wielded, in abundance, what Poo calls "narrative power": the ability to break the patterns of wrongheaded thinking that had convinced county decisionmakers that where new transit lines went, and what technology they used, were Miami's most pressing transit challenges.
"Everything around the bus system was broken, right?" Chougle said. "The way our elected officials thought and acted on it; the way our transit department did things with the bus system and the way that the media at large perceived what was going on."
Even with a small staff, Transit Alliance was able to use data, graphic design, and storytelling to craft a larger explanation of the region's transportation failure, one that reset journalists' understanding of transit and finally forced a response from politicians.
"'Where's my Bus?' validated a lot of things that people have been experiencing for a very long time," Chougle said. "It puts it in numbers and a format where anyone can sort of understand that these are real issues, and this is what's contributing to ridership decline."
Reimagining the bus network, as Transit Alliance has been tasked to do, can be one of the most important ways to start reversing that decline. To understand why, it's worth learning from some of the places that have done it.CHAPTER 2
Make the Bus Frequent
Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant who has worked around the world, likes to say that "frequency is freedom." The difference between a bus that runs every half hour and a bus that runs every 15 minutes is the difference between planning your life around a schedule and the freedom to show up and leave when you want.
In the 2016 Who's On Board survey I worked on with colleagues at TransitCenter. We asked 3,000 U.S. transit riders to imagine a bus route that was infrequent, slow, crowded, and unpleasant in other ways. We also asked them to rate different improvements an agency could make to the route; overwhelmingly, respondents said that the fix they wanted the most was for the agency to run the bus every 10 minutes. We found similar results in a 2019 survey.
It's especially important for short bus trips. A Los Angeles Metro study of its bus network has found that frequency has the biggest impact on trips under two-and-a-half miles, where people may spend as much time walking to and waiting at the bus stop as they do on the bus itself.
From a rider's perspective, the more frequent the service, the better. Every 15 minutes is good; every 10 is better; every 8 or 5 is fantastic. On some high-capacity "bus rapid transit" systems around the world, buses may come every 2 or 3 minutes.
From a transit agency's perspective, of course, frequent service has to be justified by demand. Across the United States, transit agencies generally define "frequent service" as service that arrives at least every 15 minutes for most of the day, a good standard for local bus service but one that should be considered a floor — the bare minimum for a route to be branded as frequent.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Better Buses, Better Cities"
Copyright © 2019 Steven Higashide.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Preface: My Own Bus Story Acknowledgements Introduction: We Need to Unleash the Bus Chapter 1: What Makes People Choose the Bus? Chapter 2: Make the Bus Frequent Chapter 3: Make the Bus Fast and Reliable Chapter 4: Make the Bus Walkable and Dignified Chapter 5: Make the Bus Fair and Welcoming Chapter 6: Gerrymandering the Bus Chapter 7: Technology Won’t Kill the Bus—Unless We Let It Chapter 8: Building a Transit Nation Conclusion: Winning Mindsets and Growing Movements