When I was a child in suburban New Jersey taking the bus was a headache. To figure out where a bus stopped, and when, you had to go to the library and peruse dozens of bus schedules, with their out-of-scale, somewhat abstracted maps to figure out which route you needed. You had to extrapolate when it would get there based on the times listed for a few major stops, and figure out by trial and error exactly which corners it stopped on. You had to carry exact change, and figure out how many zones you were going and hang on to your paper transfer.
It was no wonder that the people who took the bus were by and large the people who had to, and the rest of the car-owning, conscientiously-train-commuting public did not. Need I also mention that there was a racial divide between bus and train users? (There was a big enough one in LA to lead to a civil rights lawsuit in the ‘90s over disparate public transit funding.)
Sometimes I think that many people of my generation haven’t figured out that riding the bus has changed. But it has. Now you open up Google maps, enter your starting and ending points and select the “transit” option. You get multiple options. You get walking directions on either end. In many systems (including CDTA), you can see if the bus is running late and how much. For many systems (including CDTA) you can purchase a reusable card with stored value on it, often with an autofill option—by mail order or in certain retail outlets. It is often usable on both subways and buses. In the Bay Area one card works on at least a dozen systems. CDTA’s comes with the bonus that if you take more than three rides in a day it automatically gives you the all-day pass price. In other places you can buy and display tickets through an app (New Jersey Transit, New Orleans).
I travel for work and have taken the bus around a lot of cities, including famously car-dependent ones like Detroit and LA. They don’t work for everything, but they do a lot more than people often expect.
Meanwhile, a new study is out about “ridehailing” platforms and how they affect transportation behavior. Lo and behold, people are not giving up their cars to use Uber and Lyft, though they are dropping out of car-sharing programs. They are either taking trips they wouldn’t have taken (not necessarily a bad thing) or diverting trips away from walking, biking, and transit. Especially with the extra non-passenger driving happening between rides, this means that far from the environmental boon these companies wanted to make themselves out to be, they are substantially increasing vehicle miles traveled. That’s not what we need right now.
There are lots of things to be said about the gig economy, workers’ rights, ADA compliance, and those companies’ ethical behavior. I’ve said some of them, and others have said more, and we all know it gets heated.
But for now, let’s instead talk about buses. Buses are a low infrastructure, high flexibility form of transit. Bus drivers are usually unionized. They actually stack up quite well compared to streetcars or light rail when you take off cultural blinders. Meanwhile, technology is busily removing some of the big information and convenience strikes against them.
There’s a lot more that could be done to improve them, to be sure, such as true bus rapid transit, off-board payments, and heated bus stops (all of which exist in many places). But the fact is that even right now, in many places, buses are far more practical than many people who have never ridden them understand.
So for now, I want to issue this challenge: consider the bus first (or other transit where it exists). It won’t take you everywhere you want to go, at all times, especially if you live in or are traveling to the suburbs. But you might be surprised. Keep a bus card on you loaded with at least $4. And before you open your taxi-hailing app or get in your car for a short drive where the parking will suck on the other end, open Google Maps and check out your options. See how far a bus could get you. To work? From work to dinner? To that show downtown? To Tulip Fest? From the airport to your hotel? Most of the way somewhere, or one way of a round trip, so you spend less on taxi fare?
It’ll be a lot cheaper without a doubt (even before “ride hailing” prices inevitably rise). You won’t have to haul a car seat along if you’re traveling with a child. You might run into a friend (serendipitous meetings are one of the great joys of urban living). Your tween to teen can take it on their own. You’ll know the person driving you is a pro who has hasn’t driven for 20 of the past 24 hours. And you will be supporting a real sustainable, multi-modal transit system.