Don’t Push Bus Riders to the Margins

Cleveland's Public Square was the hub of the region's transit system until Mayor Frank Jackson removed buses as part of a redesign. Photo: Julio Gonzalez/Flickr
Cleveland's Public Square was the hub of the region's transit system until Mayor Frank Jackson removed buses as part of a redesign. Photo: Julio Gonzalez/Flickr

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has closed off his downtown’s recently redesigned Public Square to buses, leading to painful delays for riders and higher costs for the region’s already struggling transit agency. The Jackson administration claims that keeping buses out of the square reduces the threat of terrorism (which clearly doesn’t stand up to scrutiny), while critics point to a simpler explanation: The mayor is caving to business interests who object to the presence of bus riders.

Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant who blogs at Human Transit, says he’s seen this situation before, and he has a message for the business leaders who want to push bus riders to the margins:

In the course of transit planning work in several US cities, I’ve been quietly taken aside by a downtown business leader and told that of course those ugly buses have to be gotten off of the main street, and put out on some back street where the loading docks are. And sadly, I have sometimes been told the same by advocates of public space, often credentialed New Urbanists, who insist that their aesthetic disapproval of the bus should outweigh people’s need for useful, reliable transit service. Most of these latter group don’t really understand the impact of those comments, but I see their impacts everywhere.

Now and then someone makes the class-segregation narrative explicit. For example, in one US city where I worked years ago, a downtown business leader explained to me that “those people” waiting for buses on the main street were deterring customers from visiting businesses, and “making people feel unsafe.” The candor was refreshing: the problem isn’t the buses. The problem is unwanted people who do not deserve to be respected by the design of the city — including, of course, many of the business community’s own employees.

This leader also assured me that women would never feel comfortable walking through these crowds — contrary to the view of professional women who were working with us on the project.  The stops in question did have a lot of people waiting at them. Like any busy place they attracted the usual diversity of urban characters, including street preachers, small scale salesmen, and self-styled performing artists, and perhaps one or two petty criminals. But people are rarely attacked in the middle of largely law-abiding crowds.

This problem actually had an easy solution. Robust real-time information, available by text and voice as well as in smartphone apps, encourages people to come to the stop only a few minutes before their bus leaves. Bus stops have become noticeably less crowded in communities that have rolled these out, as you would expect. That also means, business leaders, that people waiting for the bus have more time to patronize nearby businesses.

But in that instance, the business community’s solution was to move the buses onto a deserted street where nobody would see them, and also to “spread buses out” so that no stop would be as busy. This would solve the problem of the “feeling of safety” by creating a problem of actual safety. Bus riders would have to walk to an isolated street and wait in a place with fewer eyes to witness crimes against them. And of course, the other effect would be to make the transit system less attractive, so that fewer people with choices would use them. Connecting from one bus to another, for example, would be harder to figure out and require longer walks.

In many cases, Walker writes, businesses use transit riders as scapegoats when things aren’t going well. Mayors would be wise to ignore those complaints and “welcome the buses and their passengers.”

More recommended reading: Greater Greater Washington makes the case for covering blank walls with public murals. And Plan Philly reports on the confusion surrounding the Trump administration’s infrastructure objectives, including an executive order that supposedly expedited the environmental review process for certain projects.

  • tbatts666

    Like to hear about New Urbanists really knocking buses? I would consider New Urbanists generally to be wholeheartedly for well designed bus systems.

  • Sirinya Matute

    This unfortunately is not uncommon in my municipality. Thanks for sharing.

  • jack cracker

    What if we remove the streets, sidewalks, parking spaces, buses, and any form of access. Won’t that make everything safer? No people (customers), but suuuper safe!

  • laldm109

    New Urbanists are a weird breed, hard to pin down. I also assumed they would be whole-heartedly for historic preservation (I am a preservation professional) and yet I’ve found that the opposite is often true. They are often for the new and shiny over the old and diverse that Jane Jacobs preached for.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’ve seen conflicts where the “new and shiny” projects tend to be denser than the older, historic, but less-dense developments they are set to replace. I’ve found that those situations set up schisms amongst New Urbanists. (Admittedly, I don’t consistently fall on one side of that debate as I can see the benefits and drawbacks of both.)

  • davistrain

    The anti-bus mindset ties in with the “loser cruiser” and “buses are for poor people” attitudes that are all too common here in the US. And the idea that transit riders are scapegoats for businesses that aren’t doing well–my first wife had a small business, and I think in some cases kvetching is part of small business ownership; if you say that things are going well, it may inspire someone else to get into the same line of business and siphon off your customers. And it isn’t just buses–back in the 1980s, when Sacramento was building the first sections of light rail lines, there was a newspaper that lost no opportunity to “slam” the railway project. When one of the businesses on K street went broke, the paper pointed to the railway construction disruption as the cause of the store’s closing, even though the firm was marginal before the work started. I should also mention that the newspaper in question ceased publication not long after this.

  • thielges

    Fortunately San Jose chose to integrate its major downtown bus stops into the core of the city and on major streets. The bus system in particular is the mode of last choice. Anyone who can drive does, leaving the bus system used mostly by folks on the fringes of society: the poor, elderly, disabled, mentally ill, recent immigrants, etc.

    This slice of demographics that doesn’t exactly appeal to business owners but they don’t deserve to be shuffled away to some dark corner of the city. The group of people waiting at a big bus stop might not match a retailer’s idea of prime customers but they’re hardly a threat to public safety. If anything they’re potential victims as well as potential witnesses and first responders.

    The problems downtown businesses face aren’t bus riders. Suburban malls and big box retail compete for their customers. Downtowns should draw on their strengths to attract customers and cities should stop paving greenfields for more and more far flung freeway offramp retail.

  • Flatlander

    I agree. I suspect that comment by Mr. Walker was an exaggeration.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t identify as a New Urbanist, so I feel kind of silly saying what they think, but I’ve seen urban advocates generally split every which way on transit issues. Some seem to be about colonizing suburban transit hubs, which by itself leads to radically different conclusions approached with Wahhabi zeal ranging from supremely anti-bus to thinking buses are carbon-negative and shit artisan fudge or something.

    But I’ve also seen it go the other way: transit advocates who don’t really care very much about urban issues.

  • Mark C

    A (changed) point of view:
    I live in Downtown Los Angeles. There are two major multi bus stops within a stone’s throw from my building. And dozens surround. Everyday (some of ) the humans at the stops urinate or worse, deal drugs, litter, block the sidewalk or are otherwise annoying. In short, many of societies dreg’s end up hanging about causing all manner of problems.

    Unless you experience this situation everyday and night for years, you have no idea how much hassle it is.

    I am a public transportation user exclusively, but wouldn’t really be affected by the following.

    I’ve thought many times that those stops and the busses in general should be moved off of this street and further away. I’m not the only one.

    The point of view of this article has given me another perspective to ponder. And I shall.

    Thanks for the different viewpoint!

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