Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Buses Aren't Best

Like most mid-sized American cities, Spokane once had a lovely streetcar system. The city's small blocks and some remaining tracks are a testament to how Spokanites once got around, from "streetcar suburbs" to downtown for work and play. And like most American streetcar systems, Spokane's was converted to motorized buses with a little help from National City Lines (a front for General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tire).

Now, again like many American cities, Spokane's only public transit consists of buses, which is not a terrible thing, after all. Buses may get a bad rap, but they are less expensive than building rail options, and they do the job. A city building up a transit system may have an easier time affording buses, and buses are flexible - routes can be opened and closed very quickly.

But as you may have guessed, buses aren't my favorite, especially when I'm traveling with kids. Even when buses manage to be clean, convenient, and safe, like the bus routes in our neighborhood, they miss the mark on many features that can make public transit attractive and efficient. And as I'll mention again and again, public transit that is unattractive and inefficient will fall into a cycle of serving only people who have no other choice but to ride the bus, and bus service will suffer from lack of demand (and most likely a seedy reputation).

Buses get caught in traffic, just like cars
Streetcars, trolleys, light rail, subways, and some electric buses and rapid transit buses have the benefit of a dedicated lane or rail, so they are not competing with cars for road space. Commuters in their cars may see a trolley in the next lane zipping by during morning rush hour and think, "Hmm, that looks nice." The result is efficient transit and a built-in motivator for people to give it a try. However, most city buses share lanes with cars and so get stuck in the same traffic jams, leading to unreliable service.

This can especially cause problems during large events, when buses get caught in lines of cars and fall behind. The people smart enough to avoid traffic and parking during events may be punished by arriving late, or, in even sadder cases, being rerouted. My family had the most ridiculous experience last year of taking the bus to the county fair, only to find when we reached our "destination" that the bus had been rerouted around the fairgrounds, specifically because the fair was in session. With our two kids, we had to cross a 4-lane road, a railroad track, and the gargantuan parking lot set aside for all those cars.

Buses feel impermanent
You just never know with a bus. Schedules change, routes change, today there might be a detour because of construction, tomorrow a cancellation because of weather, special events... you just never know. Of course, it's easier than ever with smartphones to keep up on what the bus service is doing, but that's unlikely to attract new bus riders. And there is the always-scary experience of riding a new route for the first time and not knowing where to get off the bus. Do I pull the cord early and risk walking a mile that way, or do I pull it late and risk walking a mile this way? So many choices.

With rail, if you see a rail, chances are very good that a train will come by eventually. If your destination is near one of the train stops, chances are very good that the train will stop there for you, whether or not you pull a cord. That permanence is very reassuring to new transit users and is more likely to attract the diversity and number of riders you need to keep a quality system up and running (and improving).

Buses are above ground level, making strollers, carts, and wheelchairs difficult
When I took the Metro in DC, traveling with a child in a stroller was no big deal: I took the elevator down or up to the platform, rolled my stroller onto the train, and sat comfortably in a seat with my stroller in front of me. If I had bags or purchases in the stroller, they stayed put for the whole ride, making for seamless transitions.

In contrast, on buses in all the cities I've lived in, there has been a policy that strollers must be folded up, their passengers and contents removed and carried by hand, no matter how empty the bus is. I cannot even begin to describe how inconvenient this is, particularly for parents or caregivers traveling with more than one child. I start out well enough from my home: preschooler on foot, baby in stroller, diaper bag, purse, or whatever tucked in the stroller's storage compartment. By the time I get on the bus, I look like a bag lady: bags on one or both shoulders, baby in arms or in a carrier (which helps a wee bit but not much), stroller in the "free" hand, all while trying to corral a 3-year-old with the mere sound of my voice. I often get the comment, "You have your hands full!" which is figuratively true in so many senses, but need not be literally true.

Unfortunately, the stroller problem is compounded in a city that already has limited transit coverage. If I can't get all the way to my destination and have to walk, say, a mile or more at the end of my transit ride, it's even more important that I have a stroller with me to carry a tired kid the rest of the way. What this means for the city as a whole is that parents with young kids will simply not ride transit, unless they have no other choice. The SUV culture prevails.

Buses are rarely sexy
In Happy City, Charles Montgomery talks about Bogotá Mayor Peñalosa's strategies for making public transit sexy: rapid transit with dedicated lanes and new, clean stations, and shiny, lipstick-red buses. People who had to ride the buses felt better about it, and the new buses attracted new riders. It's such a silly thing, but aesthetics do matter to people. A bus that looks a few decades behind in design is unlikely to attract the ridership of a sleek, modern fleet, whether rapid transit bus or rail.

Good cities need good transit
I am all about walkability, but a key part of living a walking/biking lifestyle is being able to get to those out-of-the-way places when you need to, without owning a car just for rare cases. I prefer walking, but I believe in transit.

There is nothing more convenient than being able to hop on transit, travel to the zoo or museum or concert or wherever, and hop off, not worrying about traffic or finding and paying for parking. What could be better than going out for the night with friends and not having to have a designated driver? Families riding transit with kids don't have to worry about car seats, and they can sit next to their kids and have real conversations, rather than having to concentrate on driving.

Public transit can make or break the image of a city, whether for residents, tourists, or potential residents and visitors hoping to open businesses. The best transit can make a city feel connected, safe, and forward-thinking. And modern transit options, especially non-bus modes like trolley and light rail, are the most likely to attract a wide range of people to the city and the transit system.

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