Pushing Back on Apathy about Bus Service


If you want to know why your bus system isn’t better, the answer is almost always that not enough people care, and that in particular, not enough influential people care.  Sure, there are other kinds of resistance, but those can all be overcome when civic leaders decide that better bus service is important.

We’ve had two or three decades of architects and developers and other elite voices telling us that rail “matters” and buses don’t.  Now we have Uber, Lyft, and all their peers.  Their role is partly helpful — when they help transit agencies withdraw services that are wildly unproductive for them — but also partly harmful — as their PR can help urban elites feel good about not caring about bus service, or even about transit in general, regardless if that’s the intent.

But most people can’t afford to use Uber/Lyft/taxi all day.  What’s more, not everybody lives on a rail line, and not everybody should.  Some places are just not suited to rail transit.  So if you want to serve your entire city, buses just have to work.  (Buses, remember, are also the ideal tool for building a market to the point where rail transit starts to make sense.)

I’ve been working on this issue — against the enormous forces of apathy — for most of my career in North America and Australia.  Lately, we’re starting to see progress, not just in the newly spectacular bus networks of Europe but also in North America’s denser cities.  (Australia, sad to say, still lags a bit.)

In these places, it’s becoming obvious to everyone, not just to transit geeks, that

  • … car-based travel (including Uber/Lyft/taxi) is hitting a wall of limited street space
  • … rail transit systems, if any, aren’t adequate for everyone’s needs.  (And remember, even cities with very extensive subways — like Paris and Barcelona — end up needing extensive, efficient and attractive bus systems too.)

So bus network redesign and reform is taking off in North America.   I’ve been doing these designs for over 20 years, but only recently has it been politically possible to do really transformative redesigns in big cities, like our recent one in Houston.  Up to now, the political direction has often been: “Don’t make any existing rider unhappy.”  This, of course, is a flat prohibition on transformative design, and it ignores the fact that a lot of existing riders, not to mention potential riders, are unhappy already.

That’s why everyone in North America should be following, and replicating, successful campaigns for better bus service.  For example, TransitCenter in New York is helping spearhead a “Turnaround” campaign to get leaders to pay attention to the city’s bus system.

Their excellent report, which I first wrote about here, is impressive because it talks about what really matters to every transit customer: logical network design and improvements to speed and reliability.  They’re getting traction at City Council, which is impacting local media editorials.

The New York transit agency, MTA, is sounding defensive at first, which is understandable and can be overcome  I try to encourage transit agencies to avoid talking this way, because I think it’s bad for their long term public support, but you should understand why they do. Every senior transit agency staffer in North America has been though endless hearings where people angrily demand things from them but refuse to do anything to help.  (For example, in cases where transit service consistently inadequate everywhere, people spend too much time yelling about how they are being poorly service but everything would be fine if the agency just cut service to those other people.)

These days, most great transit improvements arise from partnerships, where transit agencies, city governments, unions, and key constituent groups, and voters at the ballot box are cooperating to put all the pieces in place.   (There are places where transit agencies must lead, most obviously in network design and service quality, but when I lead service designs I do my best to involve cities and key stakeholders in that too.)   There’s always tension in these relationships, but they get a lot more done that yelling at transit agencies does.

So takeaways:

  • Your city would probably be better off with better bus service.
  • Better bus service for your city is not the same as service micro-designed around your personal needs.
  • If you want better bus service, be confident that there are people inside your transit agency who want the same thing.
  • Still, some transit agencies can sometimes sound resistant and defensive.  This reflects their decades of experience of being bombarded with unrealistic demands, often belligerently expressed.  Yelling at them louder does not make this better.  You have to work with them, take the time to understand their situation, and offer to help.




10 Responses to Pushing Back on Apathy about Bus Service

  1. Dustin Tyler Joyce October 7, 2016 at 10:47 am #

    The apathy about bus service follows the outright disdain so many people have for it. I have friends here in New York who don’t own cars and gladly take the subway everywhere — but won’t set foot on a bus. I think that is the case for many people in my generation (I’m a Millennial, FYI, though toward the older end of the cohort) who are moving to cities and eschewing car ownership for transit, as long as it’s of the rail-based variety. The same goes for many of our political leaders, such as governor Andrew Cuomo, who may have never actually taken a bus, according to Gothamist. I think one of the biggest tasks for transit advocates is to get people over their resistance to riding buses. Of course, that will be tough to do until the bus system improves.

    Chicken, meet egg. Egg, chicken.

    • Jim Gottlieb October 13, 2016 at 10:12 am #

      Due to stopping so often and the achingly slow Metrocard boarding process, buses in New York City are rarely faster than walking.

    • Alika October 24, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

      As one who is at the younger end of the Gen-X spectrum (“Gen-X.1”?), I tend to prefer rail transit and BRT, and both for the same reason: Both transit types generally are not bogged down in mixed traffic congestion. And while I take local buses several times daily, they’re certainly not the most time-efficient way to get around. Now, if they had their own rights-of-way or dedicated lanes….

  2. P October 7, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    Fundamentally I think apathy comes from the fact that people cannot “know it in their hands”.

    Whatever happens inside government is a black box. Engagement and participation is limited to opinion surveys and the like.

    Even politicians who are supposed to manage the various portfolios are highly unlikely to know or even be qualified in whatever they are managing!

    Costs are also hidden away like some taboo secret. Ideally, anybody should be able to see how much things cost quite openly.

    So why do people not care – because who can care for something that they don’t understand and was never explained to them?

    • Adam Tauno Williams October 10, 2016 at 1:04 am #

      “””Whatever happens inside government is a black box. Engagement and participation is limited to opinion surveys and the like.”””

      This is not true. I do not understand why people feel this way.

      Our representatives are people, and they can be approached as such.

      Our policies are public record.

      Meetings are nearly always open to the public.

      “””was never explained to them?”””

      Why would anyone expect the situation to be explained to them? But there are numerous transit advocacy groups willing to help people learn about these issues.

  3. Johnathan Boev October 7, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    Great article! I cannot agree more with Jarrett. I would add that it is incorrect to take care of one type of public transit service it should be the entire system improvement program.BIG LIKE

  4. david vartanoff October 10, 2016 at 9:27 am #

    Decades ago, a now deceased friend commented that being an engaged citizen was equal to a 40hr work week which of course leads to low participation rates. That said, as a semi retired senior, I am now a regular at BOD mtgs of my local transit agency. I describe my work as jousting at stainless steel windmills with balsa wood lances. I will say, I did achieve a very tiny victory in a stop consolidation near the Cal Berkeley campus, but this came in the context of the agency abolishing the express (Rapid) bus service to the single largest trip generator in their service area. Some of the perceived apathy derives from the not altogether false belief that staff don’t ride their own services.
    And, of course, because transit (other than rail mega projects) does not get decent funding, it often is a case of which neighborhood gets the shaft because there simply isn’t enough money. I am minded of a public comment from a fellow citizen who noted that having voted for two separate parcel taxes to support the agency, he lives in an area that has had all service abolished.
    Meanwhile the agency has been spending grant funding on planning a largely useless BRT designed to directly compete with the parallel rapid transit rail agency rather than negotiating cross honoring of fares.

  5. Sean Gillis October 11, 2016 at 8:13 am #

    Hi Jarrett,

    Thank you for this, I think it will be very helpful in our advocacy. It was obviously written with Halifax, NS specifically in mind 😉


  6. s. October 13, 2016 at 6:15 am #

    first that nothing.. This lie & politics… First of all you need to fix rebuilt road & infrastructure , bridge , than fix the bus system & subway system.. That is a politics.. You have 17 or 12 years old bus running in service. At least 15 years old – 18 years old bus need to be replace.. When replace the 1998 – 1999 Nova Bus , 2004 – 2006 Orion7 Hybird Electric. Then rebuilt the bus service.. At least new bus to be purchase…

    • Ray October 14, 2016 at 9:58 am #

      At least it’s not as bad as having a 30 year old bus.