The Humble Bus – You deserve better

Oh, the humble bus. You get nothing but the ire of transit riders the world over. Even in transit friendly places like Freiburg, Germany and London I have seen and heard people express grief towards buses that is less frequently directed at trams or trains. Oh, the humble bus: you are indeed slow. You bumble along the street, you bounce to the bumps of potholes, and you creep through traffic at a snail’s pace. Riders are left to their own devices when boarding you, woe to those who don’t have shelter in rain or cold, and cross your fingers you have something smaller than a 20 when paying cash upon boarding (no change, no luck). The humble bus: none of this is your fault though, you just don’t get the treatment you deserve.

The bus gets too bad a rap when discussing mass transit. I think even within the transit planning community there is a tendency to shy away from addressing issues surrounding buses and focus on my glamorous options like BRT and streetcars and even high-tech options like autonomous cars. This is a problem though. Rather than take a serious look at the details of what will make bus systems better we let ourselves get distracted by the ephemeral possibilities of the future and the easier to sell, but more expensive options of the present. Buses in almost every city play a big role in linking different communities and transit options together when and where streetcars and subways are unable to do the job. To achieve high transit ridership, buses have to become part of the larger discussion on how to get people out of cars, because more often than not it is the bus that people will use to get to trains.

The whole process of making buses better though shouldn’t be limited to service frequency and the experience riders have solely on board, but rather the door-to-door experience. I would argue it is more the exterior elements of bus trips that discourage riders than the actual time spent in a bus. It’s all in the details and if those are better handled it might be possible to maintain and even increase ridership before investing in things like streetcars and BRT while creating more sustained momentum for more trips on a route. Within certain circles, I think the ideas below might be rather obvious. But I’m choosing to write about them regardless for a few reasons: first, I think its good to maintain a continued discussion on often mundane topics. Second, I think it is good to look at all the possibilities at improving transit in one forum to get a better idea of how the bigger picture works, especially as a system. Third, I hope that this will be read by people who might not think about this. And finally, I really think it is important to think of ways to create change that is outside the realm of just increasing bus frequency, because that fails to address other problems facing riders.

Many of the points I’ll be making reference experiences in Chicago, because the vast majority of my transit experiences are here. However, to try to mix things up I will refer to experiences in Madison, WI; as well as Freiburg and Hamburg, Germany.

1) Before looking at anything else to improve bus transit, agencies must develop schedules and connections that create easy, reliable, and quick transfers. By this I’m not saying that at every intersection where two or more bus routes cross a passenger should see another bus coming immediately, but rather at certain nodes schedules should be planned around making sure riders can easily transfer between services like commuter rail and buses. Often one of these or both have low-frequency service and a delay of a minute or two could either cost a rider a transfer altogether or mean waits of 20 or more minutes.

I think of one particular example in Chicago where this is a very visible problem: in the Northwest Side neighborhood Edgebrook there is a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus terminus close to a Metra commuter rail station (see the image below). The problem here is two-fold: first, the station and bus terminal are not connected except for strip of unpaved path next to the rail bed that is a problem unto itself. The main issue though is the clear lack of scheduled coordination between bus arrival and departure times and the Metra schedule. On more than one occasion I have seen people victim to buses departing from the terminal as commuter trains are just arriving. If the bus departure time was schedule held for 5-10 minutes after trains arrived at the station, this would easily facilitate very easy transfers to an important North Side bus.

Edgebrook Metra/Bus Terminal

A more effective example is the terminal of a streetcar route and bus line in Freiburg, Germany. Pictured in the image below, you can see that the streetcar terminal and bus stop in the Vauban neighborhood share a platform and are well-connected to other modes of transportation (pedestrian and bike paths). Not only do passengers not have to travel far to make a connection, the path they must take is paved. It also allows bus or tram drivers to hold off departure for a moment if they see one mode is about to arrive–it is an inadvertent form of intermodal communication. It also makes schedule coordination easier, because it removes the need to consider the time needed for passengers to get from stop to stop. By simply filling in the gaps like the example from Chicago, transit agencies could build better intermodal networks.

Freiburg Streetcar/Bus Terminal

Ultimately though the important note is schedule coordination. In Freiburg, the trams leave every seven minutes during the four o’clock hour. The number 11 bus heading into the city only twice, but(!) the two are scheduled so the bus leaves two minutes after the tram leaves (since this is a terminal for the tram, that means the bus leaves about 3-5 minutes after it arrives then). And since the tram leaves every seven minutes during this hour, that means even if the tram has already left by the time the bus arrives and departs, the next tram is only 5 minutes away (or at the very least is standing before its scheduled departure). Additionally, the schedules are coordinated so the two hourly buses during the nine and ten o’clock hours at night arrive exactly halfway between two trams, so connections are not more than about seven minutes total. Connections for everyone! Generally, transfer times are not that bad for rush-hour commuters making connections from the Metra at Edgebrook to departing buses, but they still hover around 15 minutes, which is long enough to make the connection, but not that ideal hop-off/hop-on. It is during off-peak hours where things go sour. After about 7:00PM, trains begin running hourly and out-bound train arrive on the hour exactly at Edgebrook, yet buses leave on the hour exactly too and the 30, meaning a 30 minute wait. In-bound passengers are in the same boat as out-bound passengers. Some might make the bus on the hour, but most waits will be 15 plus minutes. Connections for… some.

2) But, no matter how much coordination is put into a system’s transit schedule, not all transfers will be perfect and sometimes people will have to wait–c’est la vie. Whether caused by a bad transfer or simply arriving to late to catch a desired bus, passengers should at least be able to know their wait will have a semblance of comfort, otherwise known as investment in bus shelters. So much emphasis is put on the aesthetics and comforts of passenger rail stations, that it is a wonder the comparatively modest bus shelter is overlooked–it serves the same purpose at a smaller scale. Maybe we view them as less valuable, but investments in better bus shelters are still investments in better transit. The City of Chicago did a great job for the city’s aesthetics by investing in well designed bus shelters from a superficial point of view, but the Chicago example also is a great place to investigate how much better they can be.

First, bus shelters are meant to do exactly what they’re called: provide. Climate needs to be taken into account when designing these. Obviously keeping out the elements is a given in any design, but designs by nature demand appropriateness to the climate. Three walls and a roof might be great in Miami where it is warm year round and you can expect little more than rain, but in the great white North that is the Midwest a fourth (even partial) wall is in order to help keep out cold winds in the winter and support another well deserved function at bus shelters: heating lamps. These are the norm at train stations across the North, but I have never seen them at a bus shelter in either Madison or Chicago and should be a priority investment. The CTA has blamed the extreme winter experienced in 2013/2014 for a drop in ridership on buses, and maybe that should be taken as a cue to invest in more winter ready bus stops. They do indeed exist. Just check out this image of heat lamps at a Minneapolis bus shelter. It might not be a tropical green house in there, but those heat lamps can make a heck of a difference.

This bus shelter in Minneapolis (identical to Chicago's bus shelters in fact) features heat lamps to help riders through the winter months.

This bus shelter in Minneapolis (identical to Chicago’s bus shelters in fact) features heat lamps to help riders through the winter months.

4) That said, big investments should be made where possible at bus termini. While these are sometimes limited to nothing more than a stretch of sidewalk in denser urban areas, they can often be larger plots with turnarounds and ample space for development. The terminals are the prime places for interior waiting areas with heating in the winter. They probably have the physical space for such structures, which can double as mini-break areas for drivers between runs. Additionally, they have the ability to include better information kiosks and the inclusion of fare machines, something which in American cities is usually restricted to rail stations.

5) Alas, not all bus stops have or will accommodate a full-blown shelter and will most likely consist of little more than a sign and patch of concrete. These too mustn’t be uncomfortable areas to the bane of riders. At least benches should be included, because people like to sit (and older riders, pregnant mothers, or parents get by better with a seat). While benches may not be at every of these two things for sure need to be these simple stops: signs and a path for access. Signs can be cheap but highly effective tools in making better transit. Information needs to be clear, comprehensive and details for them to work though. This can include exact schedules, neighborhood information, fare information etc.; but let’s not harp on signs. Go HERE for more (David Levison does a good job talking signs on streets mn). The other issue is access. While not necessarily a problem overall, a good bus system will coordinate with local infrastructure authorities that help guarantee good maintenance so riders don’t have to ever tromp through snow or mud to get to stop or stand on patches of dirt while waiting (see Point 1). Sidewalks shouldn’t end short of bus stops and in inclement weather bus stops should be prioritized for clearing snow and debris.

VAG Karte (Buslinie 11)

The Freiburg bus stops examined are underlined in red; in the Google Map the same stops and tram stops are red circles.

6) Perhaps something can be done about these problematic stops altogether–what if we simply just took some away? I think for some riders this sounds like blasphemy, but bus stops at unreasonably close intervals just slow things down. The Chicago standard (which is similar to what I experienced in Madison, WI) is to have stops at intervals of about 2-3 city blocks. While this does mean easy access to stops all over the city, buses slow significantly because of the constant need to stop. Yet, in other places, there are fewer bus stops and higher ridership. I know in Hamburg this is the case as it is in Freiburg.

On the Route 11 bus in Freiburg the line has only 4 stops in a 0.8 mile stretch in the city’s dense inner core (see above right and below left); this compares to the route 84 bus in Chicago along a 0.5 mile stretch of Caldwell Avenue with 6 stops (see below right). Cut this in half to three stops and there would still be relatively easy access to the bus without the need to stop constantly. Extrapolate this over an entire route and that can add up to (from my calculations of a 3.5 mile route) to about 7-12 minutes more on a 3.5 mile route with 30-35 stops versus 18-20 or so. What cities need to do is design stops to maximize access, transfers and convenience. Yes, this will hurt for passengers by extending the walks necessary to get to stops, but two blocks ads only a few minutes to a walk overall, bike corrals and bike sharing close to or at bus stops could incentivize biking and shorter trips.

Freiburg Bus Route 11

If these proposals seem obvious it’s because they are. The proposals made here are meant to make bus transit better without resorting to the costs and construction times for BRT or rail. Buses belong in a system of transit that is multi-modal and relies on a variety of options, speeds, and accessibility to function well. Yet these options to improve bus transit, while existent in some places–especially overseas–still fail to appear widespread in the United States. As agencies and activist groups seek improvements to existing systems it is worthwhile to ponder how cheaper solutions like the ones above, ones with strong track records and usage in various locales, can improve what already exists in American cities.

Edgerbook (Bus Route 84)It is easy to get enamored with new transit options like BRT and futuristic ideas like autonomous cars, but solving our transit problems and access to mobility requires action for the present with an eye on the future, not action for the future while ignoring the present. The details that often go overlooked or are difficult for passengers to see are some of the easier improvements that agencies can implement. Indeed, those might be most responsible ways of achieving change and taking advantage of the mantra “you have to spend money to make money.” Cash strapped transit systems can’t necessarily go on whims to spend large sums on BRT, trams, or other rail based modes, but at the very least investments like these will be tools to help maintain passenger levels and perhaps create a small boost in ridership. Ultimately, small changes could be intermediate catalysts to larger improvements like BRT.

Strong bases hold up strong systems. The humble bus, despite all the ire it often gets, should be that strong base.