Why the Bus Got So Bad, and How to Save It

If you had flicked through the cavernous layers of New York City transit Twitter last Thursday morning (and practically ever since), all you would have seen were buses.

There they are, speeding down Manhattan’s 14th Street on freshly painted red lanes devoid of private car traffic, which is now banned for most hours of the day. This was the first glimpse of a true bus-centric street in America’s largest city, a feat of traffic engineering that fended off civil lawsuits to become a reality. The busway is now over a week old and has already increased the speeds of one of the city’s pokiest routes. In hindsight, its mission statement—give buses priority, and they will move efficiently—seems so painfully obvious, that it now seems difficult to believe it took this long to pull off.

But in another way, the battle to clear 14th Street for the workhorse of mass transit is par for the course. Public buses supply 4.7 billion rides every year in the U.S.*, and get very little respect in return. Buses, anywhere, are typically ignored in the media, in federal funding debates, and in industry discussions on mobility and sustainability. When they are mentioned, it’s usually with a negative association: grueling delays, declining ridership, and service cuts. Given all the buzz about “shared mobility” as the future of transportation—Ubers, scooters, and one day, perhaps, autonomous cars—the mode that’s already helping millions of people split rides gets left out of the conversation.

What’s the matter with the bus, and how can it claim its rightful place in the urban landscape? In his new book, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit (Island Press, out on October 10), Steven Higashide lays out the answer. “Most of what we hear about the bus in the United States is demoralizing,” he writes. But it doesn’t have to be, says the author, who’s the director of research at TransitCenter, the New York-based transit think tank and advocacy organization.

CityLab caught up with Higashide to talk about how federal transportation policy let buses fall behind, what makes a world-class bus system, and what advocates, elected officials, and riders need to do to have their ideas heard and implemented. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In the book, you make the case that the bus systems in cities across America need to get moving again. But how did buses get so bad in the first place?

You really can’t separate the awful status quo of transit and buses from systemic racism in America. It’s obvious when you look at the whole 20th century [in terms of] infrastructure and the built environment, with governments building highways through black and brown neighborhoods. You can’t separate any of that from the fact that in so many regions, public transit—and buses especially—are thought of as a social service. And that’s sort of the reality it creates.

One of the statistics that is telling in the book is that when you look at bus ridership in a place like Germany, the people who ride the bus have the same median income as the average German. In the U.S., they’re much poorer. At the same time, it’s not a service that actually serves low-income people well at all. So is it really for them? It’s really a system for people who don’t have alternatives.

This marginalization of people—and the lack of power that transit riders have—is why it’s so important to change the politics of transit, and why often you don’t see change in cities until there are empowered, energetic advocates who can go ahead, maybe get new elected officials in power, and really start changing who’s at the table.

Where are buses in the conversation at the federal level? Or are they at all?

One of the biggest omissions from federal policy is that federal transportation programs are almost always about building things. But the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground.

Often, you hear decision makers talk of the need for world-class transit—but if you look at great transit systems around the world, they all have much better and more bus service than we have in the U.S. Buses are world-class transit as well.

They’re also sustainable—they emit less carbon moving more people compared to virtually any other mode, save walking and biking. When mass transit systems are mentioned in more progressive infrastructure policy ideas, like the Green New Deal, what is said about buses then?

I think buses have largely been missing from the federal climate change discussion, and that needs to change. In the Green New Deal itself, there is about half a sentence on public transportation. Now, obviously that’s just supposed to be a visionary document, and I hope it creates a space for people to think much more expansively about it. In the work that I do at TransitCenter, my colleagues and I have been engaging with many of the think tanks that are most closely associated with the Green New Deal. We’re really hopeful that we can take this visionary document, and help show people what it really means to rethink federal transportation to encompass the kind of transit we need, which includes buses.

You make a point that the bus often represents rock-bottom in American popular culture. Characters on TV or in movies end up on the bus when they have no other option, while riding in a car is seen as being free and in control. Do you find this image to be a factor into how policymakers think about it?

There’s a cycle between culture and reality. We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.

One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around. You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing. We have this terrible conception of the so-called captive rider in transportation planning, when all the actual data shows that basically everyone has choices, and sometimes those choices can be pretty inconvenient, like having to get a ride with your friends, or having to walk four miles to work. Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

One chapter in the book is dedicated to the accessibility of bus stops—the sidewalks that lead to them, the perception of safety on the roads near them, and the shelters themselves. The way we physically get to and perceive a bus stop has psychological repercussions. What are some of the unique accessibility tactics that cities are undertaking right now?

There are a couple of cities I mention where there are huge sidewalk backlogs, and local policymakers are actually working to find new sources of funding. Nashville is a great example. I tell the story of a local council member, Angie Henderson, who is really the one to champion this issue, and find additional funding for sidewalks. [Henderson sponsored a bill that will require developers to build sidewalks.] I honestly think this points to a much larger inequity in how we think about street infrastructure. Why do we expect sidewalks to be the responsibility of private homeowners? Why do we expect sidewalks to be something that’s optional, while at the same time there’s this huge spigot of funding for state and federal roadways? We design that inequity right into the street, and it’s reinforced by law and regulations and policy.

I also write about how cities like Denver and Houston are working on their sidewalk backlogs, sometimes in innovative ways. But at the same time, you have to acknowledge that all you have to do is cancel one or two highway projects, and you’d have all the money you need to build sidewalks in cities. We need a Green New Deal for sidewalks. We think of sidewalks as something that’s so parochial, but they’re something that can equalize the transportation experience for people, and they shouldn’t be relegated to the side.

Speaking of Nashville—you mention the transit referendum that hit a lot of opposition from the pro-car, business-oriented lobby. But if you go to Nashville, the scooters and e-bikes from private micromobility companies are everywhere. Are these new kids on the block taking attention away from old-school buses?

There’s nothing wrong with cities thinking about micromobility, but one of the things that I heard when I was writing the book is that as activists in Indianapolis and Nashville were talking about the need to provide transit, they kept hearing from state lawmakers and other transit opponents that driverless cars or some other innovation was going to make transit obsolete. Some of these opponents would say things like, “The buses will be obsolete in 12 months.” Which is totally different than anything you’d hear from the actual people in the autonomous vehicle [AV] industry. AV executives say things like, “We may never have full autonomous driving,” and “We may only be able to provide this kind of service in certain types of weather, in certain specially designed neighborhoods.”

Yet there’s this whole coterie of conservative transit opponents who have latched onto technology, and it fits into a pattern that has gone on for many decades. People used to talk about personal rapid transit or high-occupancy toll lanes replacing transit; now driverless cars are the fill-in-the-blank solution. It’s really important for advocates and city leaders to understand that transit is the backbone of urban mobility. While microtransit and micromobility may have some role in filling in the gaps, they can’t replace the technology of buses and trains that can carry thousands or tens of thousands of people per hour. Why wait around for something that may or may not happen when you have such a clear opportunity to make life better for your citizens today?

Last year, I reported a story about the push for better bus service in New York City, where buses move, on average, at a snail-like 5.9 miles per hour through Manhattan. One theme that kept coming up is that if the bus can’t move down the street because of traffic, all of the other efforts by the MTA—making buses more frequent, improving the stops and shelters, adding USB plugs inside buses—are for nothing. You really need that full priority, like we see on 14th Street. That will require taking cars off of the road.

In our congested urban core, it’s almost all about transit priority. When the bus doesn’t have priority on the streets, it’s very slow but also very unreliable. You get incredible bunching issues, and the promise of frequent service starts to become a lie, because buses can’t adhere to the schedule. A lot of it really is about giving buses the space that they and their riders deserve on the street.

That’s a basic equity issue. Are you going to prioritize the 40 or 70 people on the bus? Or are you going to treat them the same as the cars that are carrying one or two or maybe three people?

One of the things that I think is so important is this idea of a new kind of public processes, like tactical transit [the local push for non-permanent or temporary ways to improve transit, such as bus lanes]. We don’t have time to spend four or eight or 12 years to get a bus lane in the street. What’s really exciting about the places that are trying out tactical transit lanes are that many of those become permanent in six months, or less than a year. We need to put faster democracy in our transportation planning, and tactical transit is a promising way to do that.

In the Boston area, a few municipalities tried these tactical transit areas, and they were successes. Then mayors wanted to try more, and some mayors who were iffy on the concept got converted once they saw the success.

You write that you need to have top-level leadership make the case for great bus service. Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker is one example you mention; Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is another. This book is in part a political how-to guide—this is for planners, policymakers, advocates, politicians, and anyone else involved in transit planning. So what would you hope they take away from reading this?

One of the central ideas in the book is that transportation change happens when you have an alliance between transit advocates, champions within the bureaucracy, and elected officials. If you’re missing one of those, think about what you can do to help create it. For example, if you are someone in a public agency who wishes that there was a great advocacy group for transit, do whatever you can to help make that happen. Sound out people you know who care about it outside of work. Figure out if you can perhaps steer a public contract to a community-based organization to do outreach around a bus project. Talk to people you know at foundations.

If you are an advocate frustrated about bad policies at the city council, get involved in electoral politics, and try to elect someone who can be your champion. It’s amazing how much of a difference someone like [Massachusetts Representative] Ayanna Pressley [whose famed campaign ad featured the bus] can make in somewhere like Boston, for example. If you are an advocate or an elected official who’s frustrated that the transit agency doesn’t seem very interested in bus priority, you can put outside pressure on that agency to try and drag them along. But you can also have a lot of side meetings and sound out the people within the agencies who care about this stuff, and you can do what you can to elevate their profile.

The notion of inside-outside power is really central to changing transit in every city. Local foundations also need to think hard about the importance of transit advocacy. When you look around the country, you see foundations sometimes contributing money directly to streetcars, or subsidizing transit operations, when just providing a five-figure or six-figure grant to a transit advocacy group would lead to a sea change in the politics of transit.

One example from the book that’s instructive is the TransitAlliance in Miami; it’s just a handful of scrappy people who, within less than a year, redefined the entire transit conversation in Miami. We see that all the time at TransitCenter, and I saw it a lot in writing this book. If you don’t have that group, and you’re a philanthropist who has the power to change that, that’s one of the most important first steps.

You mention how effective the letter grades for the bus lines are as an advocacy tool in New York. From a reporter’s point of view, it’s so easy and digestible. It seems like the cities that have had success were the ones that can really illustrate those stories of people stuck on the bus, or waiting for an hour at the shelter.

In every city, there are many bus riders who can already tell you what they want to be better. There’s all of this unmet demand for bus service, and the problem is that the politics and the public process doesn’t give enough weight to those demands. We need to change that by changing the public process; we also need advocacy groups to lift up those voices. But the demand is there, and when you make the bus better, you see the results pretty quickly.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect annual bus ridership figure.

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