Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Talk of the transportation future is focused on the next shiny thing. But one old technology is central to real transformation.

Consider the bus. What comes to mind? For many Americans, it’s the grumbling, clattering, stuck-in-traffic, when-will-it-come, car’s-in-the-shop mobility mode of last resort. You might not ride it, and if you do, you might not like it.

That’s why we need to talk about it. The bus has rarely needed your love more. And the underdog of transit has never held more heroic potential.

With urban populations and travel on the rise, transportation is now the top contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 90 percent of commuters in this country drive private cars, and in many urban areas traffic congestion—i.e., wasted time, gas, and money—is getting worse. Cities are searching for ways to move people around in fewer vehicles and leave a softer impact on the environment, with light-rail referenda, ride-hailing partnerships, autonomous shuttle pilots, dreams of aerial taxis, and more.

All of these modes have a place in the urban present and future. (Except maybe the helicopters; we can leave those to Die Hard.) But too many cities are ignoring what is arguably the cheapest and most flexible general-purpose option, which happens to be available already: the bus. Buses can carry large numbers of people in a compact amount of road space. They don’t require special rights-of-way (though that’s sometimes ideal). They can be deployed and rerouted as needed. Across modes, they’re the most affordable to cities in terms of capital costs, and often in terms of operations.

And there is no inherent reason that buses must be bottom-shelf transportation. We’ve just treated them that way. Nationwide, federal, state, and local budgets have long systematically prioritized cars over mass transportation. Service cuts that tore up bus networks across the country during the recession haven’t been made up for. That’s largely why bus ridership declined in 31 out of 35 major metros last year. Even some cities on rail-building bonanzas, such as L.A. and Denver, are watching transit ridership decline across the board, in part because investment in buses has trailed so far behind the commitment to trains.

Meanwhile, as the transportation consultant Jarrett Walker often points out, the hype around on-demand apps like Uber, Lyft, and Via fuels the notion that the future of transportation is one where traditional transit has ceased to exist. Where we’re going, we don’t need buses: We’ll take flying Ubers or subterranean Teslas or something even newer and shinier. The venerable bus—which has been around in some form for centuries—is exquisitely vulnerable to the end-is-nigh narrative. Suburban communities in Florida, Texas, California and beyond are replacing old bus routes with subsidies for demand-response services and hoping for the best. Cities like San Francisco and New York are watching 8- to 12-seat, semi-flexible “microtransit” shuttles follow routes almost identical to popular bus lines.

Part of the downturn in bus ridership has been attributed to the rise of ride-hailing, as fewer Americans who can afford other options choose the bus. Who could blame them? In so many cities, buses are painfully slow. They arrive with big gaps or all bunched together. Their routes and schedules can be byzantine and inscrutable, and riders’ ability to track them in real time is woeful. They break down a lot—more than 17 percent of the country’s bus systems have fallen out of good repair, according to the most recent Federal Transit Administration report. In spread-out, unwalkable cities, you’ll usually get there faster if you choose another mode.

Who’s left? The individuals riding buses—to jobs, to shopping, to medical care—tend to be poorer than the average commuter. They are disproportionately people of color, reinforcing the racial stigma associated with the bus in many cities. Some bus riders can’t tap into Uber-ish services because they can’t afford to, or because they use a wheelchair, or don’t own the necessary technology. If your transportation options are limited, you need the bus now, maybe more than ever.

But even if you’re not a regular passenger, you need it, too. It’s not hard to see how the trend of deprioritizing buses will harden in the age of on-demand door-to-door rides. The problem is, your streets can’t fit them. If you care about how well your city moves, how your local economy is faring, and how the planet’s future fares, then you care about your city bus. And you care about making the bus better. You want to see your bus as a piece of social infrastructure that your whole city can take pride in—a sign of prestige, not decay.

Because it turns out that when rubber-tired fleets are treated as a mighty social good, people willingly hop on. See the Minneapolis “A Line,” where buses are essentially held to the standards of rail service: They get first-go at traffic lights, accept boardings at every door, and stop every half mile, rather than every block. Look at all of the cities following the example of Houston, which overhauled its bus route network in 2015 and saw a 15 percent Saturday ridership spike in the first year; Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City are all taking their cues. And look, perhaps most of all, at San Francisco, Phoenix, and Seattle, the only major cities where bus ridership meaningfully ticked up last year. All have city-wide plans to fund and improve service. What’s been missing in most cities is this type of attention.

That’s why CityLab is launching Bus to the Future, an ongoing series that puts public coaches at the center of the transportation future. Most of all, we plan to look at what’s working on bus systems in the U.S., with the belief that there is no inherent reason that buses cannot be great. Which cities are winning the battles to prioritize road space? Where is the gold standard for frequent, fast, and reliable transit being set by buses? And how might that change local visions for the future of transportation?

We also plan to look at how technology can improve bus fundamentals. Automation is coming to transportation, and it could transform surface transit, too. Sharper GPS and smartphone tools can make riding (and waiting for) the bus a happier and more predictable experience. And electric buses could banish the grumble and smoke of the diesel era. The idea is not to be anti-Uber or any other emerging mode. On-demand rides are here. They won’t be banned, nor should they be. But the bus is also here to stay.

After all, it’s telling that, even while transit agencies are being told to be more like Uber and Lyft, Uber and Lyft are increasingly mimicking buses. Both companies now have “shuttle” or “line” services that operate along preset routes with preset stops during peak commuter hours, just like a bus. It’s existential to the future of these start-ups that they stop subsidizing high-end solo rides and instead cram in the maximum number of riders per vehicle—in order words, that they reproduce a bus. The basic model—a big moving container of people on a fixed route—has never stopped working. It’s time to make it work much, much better.

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