Op-Ed: To Transform Bus Networks, Understand Networks of Power

It will take vision and fortitude to overcome the indifference and hostility to a vital form of transit.

A reviled form of transit will need to make a comeback if we are to have livable cities in America.
A reviled form of transit will need to make a comeback if we are to have livable cities in America.

In forthcoming book, “Better Buses, Better Cities” (Island Press), transit expert Steven Higashide argues that bus transit should the linchpin for fair and vibrant American cities. By reaching into transit deserts and connecting our most vulnerable citizens to jobs and opportunities, bus networks can transform languishing neighborhoods and mitigate the effects of sprawl. Too often, however, those in power ignore this vital form of transit in favor of glossier, attention-getting projects (like ferries). Or they are downright hostile to important infrastructure, such as dedicated bus lanes. In the following article, which is adapted from the book, Higashide provides a road map for activists seeking to build support for buses. Higashide, the director of research at the Transit Center in Manhattan, will speak there about the book on Oct. 15.  

Americans take 4.7 billion trips a year on publicly run buses. Yet most decision-makers barely give buses a second thought. Across the country, public agencies that deliver bus service are run by board members who never use it. Some large cities don’t even employ anyone dedicated to improving trips for bus riders. Business leagues, community foundations, and civic leaders often focus on streetcars, hyperloops, driverless vehicles, and other projects they view as more prestigious or likely to drive development.

Others actively try to stop bus improvements, such as business owners who fight bus shelters that they claim attract “the wrong element,” legislators who ban bus-only lanes on state roads, and Congress members who try to cut federal transit funding every year.

Steven Higashide.
Steven Higashide.

This combination of indifference and hostility leads to a neglect that makes so many bus trips miserable: plodding, unpredictable, uncomfortable, and circuitous. Bus speeds have fallen as city traffic gets worse; bus routes that haven’t changed in decades have become less relevant as job centers change; new transportation modes provide alternatives for those who might otherwise take the bus.

In many cities, the bus system has stood still, even as streets, neighborhoods, and the marketplace have been transformed. No wonder, then, that U.S. bus ridership has experienced a lost decade, falling by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018.

It doesn’t have to be this way

In defiance of the national trend, bus ridership has grown in cities as different as Houston, Columbus, San Francisco, Seattle, and Indianapolis. These places share a key similarity: Their leaders have taken forceful action to improve bus service. In these and in many other cities, a rising generation of activists, planners, and elected leaders have recognized the power of better bus service to offer affordable mobility and connect citizens with jobs, schools and healthcare.

They have redrawn bus networks to emphasize frequent routes and redesigned streets to put bus riders first. They have created safer walking connections, built dignified places for people to wait for buses, and changed fares so that transit better serves the people who need it most.

In every American city where buses improve, it has happened only through the efforts of reformers working in concert inside and outside of government. That’s because the big barriers to better bus service are not technical or technological — they’re political and institutional.

Who needs to step up?

In an ideal world, responsive politicians and public servants would simply recognize that cities need more and better transit and would deliver it. But broken politics and planning practices repeatedly deliver the wrong results. Formal public engagement tends to privilege more organized and wealthier residents, and informal networks of power reinforce that tendency. In many cities, buses and the people who ride them have been ignored for so long that it takes a fight just to get on the public agenda.

For these reasons, it’s often civic activists who get the conversation started: grassroots volunteers, community organizations, progressive philanthropists, or even business groups who see the link between better buses and bigger labor pools.

In Miami, the organization Transit Alliance has used data, graphic design, and storytelling to reset journalists’ understanding of transit and force politicians to focus on the bus system. The LivableStreets Alliance collected rider stories for weeks to convince the City of Boston to open its first new bus lane in years. In Indianapolis, the Indy Chamber joined forces with progressive faith-based activists and a tea-party mayor to win higher taxes for transit.

To win better buses in more cities, we need more wonky transit blogs, more faith-based organizing, more riders’ unions, and more state budget watchdogs. Local foundations that care about climate change, wealth inequality, and social inclusion must work for more sustainable and equitable public transit.

Strong public agency leaders are essential: In places where transit has improved, public agency leaders were nimble, strategic, and willing to discard the by-the-book practices and processes that hamstring change efforts.

Agencies must do better than “open houses” that draw eight people at the library — and instead get public input that equitably represents bus riders and activates allies throughout the planning process. They must discard ponderous project development processes that result in five-year timelines for bus-lane projects and try tactical approaches that change streets overnight, as Boston-area municipalities have done in recent years.

Delivering better bus service requires public agencies with enough planners to maintain a constant pipeline of transit-improvement projects, enough dispatchers to keep buses on time, and enough communications and outreach staff to bring transit riders’ and stakeholders’ voices into the conversation.

What can be done?

Once there’s a strong political consensus behind better buses, reformers must turn their attention to how an agency’s structure, capacity, processes, and metrics affect its ability to deliver better transit.

This might mean updating an agency’s street-design manual, or the metrics it uses to judge a project’s success. It might mean replicating King County Metro’s in-house speed and reliability unit, a nine-person team that at, at any given time, is working on 20 “spot-improvement” projects to speed buses through intersections. It might mean hiring more dispatchers, or public outreach staff. All of these help create a transit-supportive status quo at public agencies and ensure that future administrations can’t undo the hard work of reform.

“[We] are obsessed with the City of Boston’s hiring process,” Stacy Thompson of the advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance told me. “We want to understand who they’re hiring, what the roles are, and what is the process for project deployment. We get in the weeds; I know we sometimes annoy them. But unless you care about it at that level, you’re going to keep getting one-off projects.”

What are the pitfalls?

Buses can improve quickly. Every major city in America has streets where, if the bus were made more convenient, transit agencies would reap a bumper crop of new riders. But most cities aren’t moving fast enough to realize this potential.

Soon after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, he promised a network of BRT routes across the city; after seven years, the city had built only four miles of bus lanes. Transit planners in Washington, D.C., have been discussing the need for a bus lane on 16th Street NW since the early years of the Obama administration; a lane may finally appear in 2020.

Rapid, sustained transportation change rarely happens without an alliance between creative, fearless, independent advocates; politicians willing to stand up for transit; and visionary bureaucrats who can communicate transit’s value in ways that inspire members of the public and potential political allies.

We need a transit conversation that is large enough to include process and politics, not just technology and policy. Journalists, pundits, and analysts have repeatedly discovered that the bus is a solution to urban transportation problems that is hiding in plain sight. In 2013, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias implored cities to “get on the bus.” In 2017, CNN reported that “cities realize they must fix the sorry state of buses.” The following year, Laura Bliss launched a series in CityLab on buses with the motto, “Love the Bus, Save Your City.”

It seems simple. Yet, the fact that the same article keeps being written shows that it is anything but simple. Reformers must think deeply about transit networks (and how to plan them effectively) and the networks of power (and how to navigate them successfully). To achieve change, you have to understand both.

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