Red Paint and Policy
Author: Austin Gibble
“How do we make the bus sexy?” That’s a question I field quite frequently in my position. This question comes up along with, “Why aren’t we building rail/subways/elevated trains?” or, “Autonomous vehicles and Hyperloop/The Boring Company are going to change everything, why are we investing in transit at all?”
The United States has long held a cultural obsession with “the next big thing,” despite the history of transportation shifts being long-term and incremental. What has emerged in recent years is an accelerated pace at which these incremental changes occur. In the past decade, there have been changes in the transportation landscape at a rapid pace (however, the viability of these transportation options in the private sector is questionable, as is whether or not their presence is a benefit or detriment to the broader welfare of the public).
Cities across the United States are facing multiple crises simultaneously: Housing, transportation, climate change, street safety, and inequity. Public transportation can’t solve all these challenges, but it does play a major role in addressing these problems and improving urban quality of life. Many cities still find themselves grappling with how to address their public transit needs. A heavy emphasis has been placed on large-scale rail expansion in some of the largest metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles and Seattle. Historically, “the future of transit” in the United States has been focused on heavy rail and light rail systems (think second-generation suburb-to-city rail systems like MARTA, BART, and WMATA).
In many ways, the expansion of rail-based transport is perfectly justifiable. Regions like the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area and Puget Sound are large with corridors of heavy transportation demand. However, even Los Angeles struggles with giving priority to the mode of transportation that can give the biggest impact in the quickest and most cost-effective manner possible: the humble bus.
Despite the historical emphasis and nostalgia for rail-based transportation, the bus is the workhorse of the North American transit system. The only public transit system in the United States that doesn’t have the majority of its ridership come from buses is New York City.
Buses have numerous advantages that make them low-cost and quick to implement. They don’t run on rails which make them flexible and nimble, upgrades to bus routes can be done via the implementation of painted bus-only lanes, nicer waiting areas, bus stop balancing (re-spacing so local bus stops aren’t too close together), and transit signal priority systems.
Unfortunately, the same attributes of buses, namely not running on fixed guideways, makes them easy to ignore. Additionally, it can be easy for local electeds to ignore the bus system while chasing big projects to lure “choice riders.” This is due to most bus riders in the United States, outside of a handful of major metro areas, being of lower-income and are individuals who don’t have the time or resources to make their voices heard.
It’s okay to pursue capital projects with the intent of growing ridership among all classes of a given city, but not at the expense of the local transit network. The local bus network and bus rapid transit or rail lines are co-dependent upon each other, and ensuring that they are both fast, frequent, and easy to use is crucial.
While it sounds simple, minor improvements to local bus networks and/or legacy streetcar systems can be an enormous challenge and heavy lift. Toronto’s King Street is a prime example of this. The King Street streetcar line is part of Toronto’s legacy streetcar network that survived the retirement of most of the remainder of the network in the mid-20th Century. The problem with this streetcar line is that it ran in mixed-traffic, with other motor vehicles mostly carrying one person at a time. This made the streetcar unreliable and slow.
A proposal to make King Street semi-restricted to private motor vehicles, but not a pedestrian mall, was met with fierce opposition from local businesses and motorists. This King Street project was promised as a pilot project; if it failed, the street would return to its previous configuration.
In early April 2019, the report from the King Street pilot was released. Not only did reconfiguring the street to prioritize streetcars reduce travel time and increase ridership, it also increased the total number of people traveling on the street. As a result, the Toronto City Council made the King Street pilot a permanent feature of the city.
Other cities have also deployed minor improvements to their bus systems with major impacts. This includes San Francisco and Seattle, both of whom have deployed transit signal priority, queue jumps, red-painted bus-only lanes, all-door boarding, and bus stops that are comfortable.
New York City recently deployed the 14th Street Busway, which increased weekday ridership by 15% and cut travel times by almost a third. This required little more than paint and new policy implementations for motor vehicle users.
The Flower Street busway in Los Angeles was intended to be a temporary measure while the Blue Line (now A-Line) light rail underwent rehabilitation. This pilot program reduced travel time by bus by as much as 20% and dramatically improved reliability. The Los Angeles MTA has recommended extending the busway pilot for an additional five months.
Although, put quite succinctly, the best bus stops are those which don't need to be occupied for more than a few minutes. Regardless of amenities, the biggest factor in transit ridership is frequency. An individual is typically willing to walk a little farther to access a bus that arrives every 10 to 15 minutes compared to a bus that is arriving every 30 to 60 minutes. This is why several agencies, including Columbus, Kansas City, and Indianapolis (which will be a feature city later this year), are deploying bus network reorganizations that prioritize frequent service on higher demand corridors rather than coverage service (which tries to serve everyone, but does so poorly).
The future of transit is unlikely to be revolutionized by self-driving vehicles or introductions of new modes of transportation in the immediate future. The future of transit is giving physical and political priority to our most humble and one of the most efficient modes of urban transportation – buses. It is ensuring that practice and policy gives our dense areas and vulnerable populations strong considerations for access to jobs, goods, and services. The future of transit is making numerous, incremental adjustments in the bus network to accumulate into a large impact. The future is red paint for bus-only lanes, signal priority, fare collection practices that don’t criminalize offenders, policy that prioritizes more efficient forms of transportation on city streets, and consolidating bus lines and stops for a frequent and speedy experience.
Finally, the future of transit is better land use practices and allowing higher densities of housing, commercial space, and mixes of uses near frequent transit lines; be they buses, light rail, or subways. A more frequent transit system is of limited use if the number of people who can live near transit services are heavily restricted from accessing housing and jobs near them. Transit is not a luxury; for many, it is a need and the form of our cities must treat it as such.
Austin Gibble is a Project Development Planner for the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation and CNU-Midwest Board Member. Austin specializes in tackling urban mobility challenges through strategic planning and project management.