quote of the week: the neglected american bus

In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean rail network, or ignored bus altogether.

It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Joshua Schank, President CEO,
Eno Center for Transportation
"The Case of the Neglected Bus"

I've certainly noticed, in my own work, that the aggressive, agency-wide commitment to building a complete access-maximizing transit system is stronger in cities that don't have much rail, or where rail is in early stages of development, as in Houston.  Key tools for total network legibility, such as Frequent Network branding, also seem to be spreading much more effectively in the midsized transit authorities than in the gigantic ones.

A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event.  He asked me: "So what's the future of transit.  It's rail, isn't it?"  I wanted to say: "So what's the future of aviation?  It's all intercontinental jumbo jets, isn't it?  

Or is it about people feeling free to go places?  In that case, the future of aviation is a network, where many types of vehicle have an essential role.  

9 Responses to quote of the week: the neglected american bus

  1. Fakey McFakename October 7, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    What would you say about LA? On the one hand, its bus/rail politics are legendary and total bus revenue miles and ridership have been dropping somewhat. On the other, it’s a traditionally low-rail system (although rapidly evolving toward high-rail) with BRT, rapid buses running mostly along grid-style corridors, freeway express buses, and plans to expand high-quality bus service (see: Metro Countywide BRT corridors study; Westside-Valley Express Bus).

  2. EngineerScotty October 7, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event. He asked me: “So what’s the future of transit. It’s rail, isn’t it?”
    Well, said airline CEO isn’t buying jetliners from a European company called Airtrain Industrie, is he? 🙂

  3. EngineerScotty October 7, 2014 at 11:13 am #

    On a more serious note–a big problem is that many political incentives are geared towards big capital development projects: Politicians love ribbon-cuttings, powerful special interests (both labor and capital) stand to make money from construction projects, and the Feds (in the US) will happily fund such things. On the other hand, changes to POBS (plain old bus service) are boring and unsexy for elected officials wanting photo ops, there’s little money in it for capitalists (only labor), and the US Government steadfastly refuses to fund operations.
    And ever since Reagan, we’ve had the attitude in US politics that passing out money to construction firms and such is “economic development”, whereas passing out money to transit workers (and other public employees)–even if in exchange for greater levels of service–is “government waste”; it is often rumored that the reason Uncle Sam won’t fund operations is the fear that such money will be spent on pay raises for bus drivers, not on increased levels of service. Few worry that the funding of capital projects may distort the market for things like design, engineering, and construction services, however. Some ardent transit activists who post here (and otherwise are liberal in their politics) regularly view transit unions as an adversary to be defeated or weakened, and as an obstacle to provision of quality service; but don’t seem anywhere as eager to take the same hard line against engineering firms, contractors, or suppliers of rolling stock.

  4. Tom West October 8, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    What would be nice if every rail project submitted to federal government had to be accompanied by a document showing what could be doen with the bus network for the same money (and how many passengers it would get)

  5. Tom West October 8, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    A seperate issue on rail vs. bus : for bus, annual operating costs are roughly equal to capital costs; for rail, annual OpEx is much lower than CapEx. That makes teh sticker shock of buses’ OpEx much higher.

  6. Jim D. October 8, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Boston is a good example of neglected bus operations. Most routes still follow the paths that the streetcars of its predecessor Boston Elevated Railway took 50 to 75 years ago. Operational discipline is poor and few if any attempts are made to short-turn late buses or proactively react to road conditions. The authority has begun a ‘Key Bus Routes’ initiative in recent years and has taken steps to remove little-used stops to speed up operations but crowding and long waits are often the norm on the busiest routes in the system.
    The MBTA is hamstrung by a lack of garage capacity – there has been only one true expansion (Southampton garage) since the bus fleet was cut back to 1,000 vehicles in the 1970’s. As an MBTA official once told me, it is a zero-sum exercise – any expansion of peak bus service can only come with corresponding cutbacks affecting other routes. There are unfunded long-term plans to replace two older existing garages (Lynn and Fellsway) with one newer garage but no expansion. The MBTA has also been slow to embrace the use of articulated buses which could be a boon to the Key Bus Route initiative.
    The MBTA also had a truly forward-thinking plan to greatly expand crosstown transit options – the Urban Ring project. This would have been a BRT operation to start with a planned future conversion to LRT. Unfortunately there is no political support for even a BRT-lite version of this plan while less-promising but easier to build infill station projects get the green light.

  7. Wanderer October 10, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    As of 2012, 75% of LA Metro’s unlinked trips were taken by bus. That percentage will presumably drop as the rail network builds out, but bus service will remain important in LA for a long time to come.
    Los Angeles has a big downtown, but it’s not large given the size of the metropolitan area. So there are lots of employment/activity centers outside of Downtown–Hollywood, Westwood, Santa Monica, Century City etc. LA’s rail network, as is the case in just about all American cities, is very much radial from Downtown. To serve all the other corridors and make non-downtown connections, LA will continue to need major bus routes.
    While I agree with Schank’s quote, I think he’s a little too sweeping. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the three major transit bus systems have been or will be considering route restructuring in their service areas. Muni in San Francisco is implementing the Transit Effectiveness Project, which includes route restructuring. Muni and AC Transit in Oakland (East Bay) will be building BRT lines, VTA in San Jose is being pushed back more towards rapid lines without dedicated lanes. Still, you can’t say there’s a regional bus plan.

  8. Peaton October 11, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Human Transit,
    I think you might find this article interesting:
    Levine, Jonathan. “Is Bus Versus Rail Investment a Zero-Sum Game? The Misuse of the Opportunity-Cost Concept.” Journal of the American Planning Association 79, no. 1 (2013): 5-15.
    I would be interested to read your opinion on it. On the face of your argument, I agree. Bus service in the US is terrible and neglected, but attention to rail service is not necessarily causing this neglect.

  9. Dexter Wong October 13, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    Buses are associated with the working class so many consider any help given them to be money wasted. This idea has long roots. There is an anecdote about a Huntington Park banker who took Pacific Electric to his office in Los Angeles until PE converted the rail line to bus. The next day he drove his car to work, claiming that buses are not for bankers, but for the poor.

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