Why can’t buses get no respect?
A great interview with the author of a new book about how to make bus systems better in the United States and, in the process, make better and happier cities.
What he says applies to Canada just as much as it does the US. We are, on this continent, stuck in a culture that thinks buses are for people with no options. Those who can’t afford a car. We don’t call it the proletarian chariot for nothing.
Cars, on the other hand, represent freedom, style, comfort. When we drive, we can leave when we want, carry what we want, take whatever route we choose, and not have to talk to anyone. We swing by the drive-thru for a jolt of caffeine that fits perfectly in the cup holder. Ah. Living the dream.
Buses, meanwhile, are prisoners of a specific itinerary, and if there’s more traffic there than on a different street, well, that’s just too bad. Cup holders are replaced with straphangers, when you’re lucky. Usually you just have to settle for a mass of humanity swaying in relative harmony. Not only do you have to acknowledge and often talk to strangers, you may even have to snuggle against someone definitely not of your choosing.
Subways and trains like the LRT (when they work well), they’re something else. Usually they have better service, more frequent, faster, smoother and they smell better. Buses, especially if they’re running on diesel, can sometimes feel grubby. But that’s not the main reason people who have the option choose to drive instead of riding the chariot.
No, the problem is more serious than that. Bus routes are fixed and not always convenient; if you have to transfer more than once to get where you’re going, you add a lot of time to your commute and your enjoyment level drops to single digits. Worse: Because in most places buses have to share the road with private vehicles, going places takes forever because on top of driving very slowly your bus has to stop regularly to pick up or drop off passengers. Hence a trip that might take you 15 minutes by car can easily stretch to 25 minutes by bus. That’s not an attractive option for most people who have other choices.
Add a steep price to ride, and there go your potential new clients. Back to the drive-thru.
The interview linked at the top of the post goes through many different bus-related topics, and they’re all interesting, but one in particular is crucial: In order for bus services to attract people, you have to get rid of cars and other private vehicles competing for the same space, at the very least during peak periods. If you don’t have a dedicated bus lane, your commute is unbearably long and the benefits of taking the bus evaporate.
Some people suggest congestion pricing in certain areas, charging a fee to private vehicles to enter certain zones, especially downtown, and that usually works well wherever it is tried. I’m hugely in favour. But it annoys people, because we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we already pay for our roads so why pay more to use them.
Dedicated bus lanes annoy motorists, too. You see them sometimes using that stretch of empty road to get through a nasty bit of congestion (on Heron between Riverside and Prince of Wales, most afternoons), and since enforcement is spotty many people figure it’s worth the risk. If only we had cameras for this sort of thing… or automated potato launchers. (I kid. I think.)
On the positive side, especially if you’re a transit user, dedicated lanes make your bus service a lot more reliable because you can expect that the bus will show up at the appointed time, more or less, instead of being stuck in the same unpredictable traffic jam as everyone else.
Having more buses on the road would help, too. But it’s expensive to add routes and/or frequency. Adding dedicated bus lanes is a lot cheaper, and if service is reliably on time most people usually accept lower frequency. It’s when the bus fails to show then three of them show up at once 20 minutes later that transit users get really angry, and for a good reason. If you’re going to pay what is a pretty high price for transit, as we do in Ottawa, the least you should be able to expect is that the 8:07 will be at the stop by 8:07. You can live with a three-minute delay every now and then, sure. What you can’t do is never know, from one day to the next, when that bus will show or whether it will at all. Hoping to win the bus lottery is no way to get to work on a regular basis.
Shooing cars away by adding dedicated bus lanes on all main roads (small residential roads are not where the problems are) would instantly make buses get to their destination faster than cars. Sure, it would annoy drivers. Or maybe, just maybe, it would make them dream of one day being as awesome and privileged as bus riders.
And wouldn’t that be a sea change.