More Buses, Fewer Problems?

By: Bridget Clerkin March 28, 2018
Bus ridership is dropping at a time when city officials need to increase public transit ridership.
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Magdalena Reilly doesn’t own a car. Her rainy Pacific Northwest location makes her bike a hit-or-miss option, and her town doesn’t allow Lyft and Uber service. But she never has a problem finding a ride.

Her local Lane Transit District bus can take her wherever she wants to go.

I consciously take the bus more often to save on gas and the stress of driving,” Reilly said. “Where I live in Eugene, Oregon, it rains at no moment’s notice, and I often find a bus available and most convenient when the weather doesn’t allow for walking or biking.”

The routes have been developed enough to carry her to even the remote parts of town, and at just $3 for an all-day pass, the service doesn’t only reduce her stress levels and gas consumption, it significantly lowers her monthly budget.

Plus, there are other benefits whose prices can’t be named.

The bus is a way to enjoy the neighborhood I live in,” Reilly said. “Since I’m not driving or biking, it gives me a chance to look outside the window and learn how the city is mapped out. Oftentimes, I discover something new.”

But her fervor for the mode of transportation—and its observational opportunities—is increasingly rare.

Ridership on public transit is down in 31 of the country’s top 35 major metropolitan areas—including the seven cities traditionally servicing the most rides in the nation, according to the latest numbers compiled by the Federal Transit Administration.

Buses specifically suffered the heaviest loses, as ridership decreased 8.4% nationwide between 2012 and 2016—representing 404 million fewer trips in that time.

Yet the people carriers have perhaps never been more important.

The mode of transportation has fallen out of favor at a moment when experts say more mass transit is needed to beat back creeping pollution ratios, meet future emissions standards, and preserve an already-stressed-out infrastructure. But with gas prices low, car ownership high, and the number of miles Americans drive on the rise, is there any way to save the buses that can help us save ourselves?

Reaching Max Capacity

The move away from public transit has been deemed an emergency by some urban planners—and the numbers back up their claim.

Transportation is now the nation’s leading polluter, surpassing the power sector—which includes coal facilities—to emit one-third of the country’s carbon dioxide in 2016.

Emissions standards on vehicles are tightening, but for every inch of improvement those numbers have made, Americans have taken many miles, far outweighing any benefits the stricter regulations may bring. The country’s motorists drove more than 3.2 trillion miles in 2016, marking the fifth straight year the annual total increased.

The country’s motorists drove more than 3.2 trillion miles in 2016, marking the fifth straight year the annual total increased.

To keep up with pollution reduction goals in the face of the growing trend, Americans won’t just have to drive more efficient autos but also drive far fewer of them, and buses could be an important tool to help curb those numbers. When full, the vehicles are estimated to remove 40 cars from the road, and battery-powered buses being promoted by the Department of Transportation could cut an additional 27 cars’ worth of carbon dioxide each.

A number of studies show a link between larger public transit ridership and smaller carbon footprints, including a 2015 survey of California’s Bay Area which found that San Francisco residents emitted half as much carbon dioxide as those living outside city limits, thanks in part to their greater reliance on buses and subways.

And this is to say nothing of the role autobuses could play in decreasing congestion on roads or alleviating pressure on precarious infrastructure throughout the country.

Still, Californians alone drove more miles in December 2016 than residents of 22 other states combined, and vehicle ownership ticked up in the state’s southern region from 1.7 vehicles per household to 2.4 vehicles between 2000 and 2015. Car culture has a rich history in the state, but it’s far from the only area of the country where Americans are struggling to break their automobile habit.

Worth the Wait?

Bus ridership has decreased dramatically in Manhattan.

The preference for individual car ownership may be deep-seeded, but the current state of public transit affairs isn’t helping the matter, said Michelle Yzaguirre.

She would know. The New Jersey resident has taken the bus round-trip to her New York City job five days a week for the past seven years.

The 25-mile door-to-door commute can be crowded and costly and take upwards of 3 hours, depending on traffic conditions, Yzaguirre said. The lack of technology alerting drivers to current roadway conditions is a factor, and even the dedicated bus lanes, called XBL—or “express bus lanes”—don’t do enough to help.

“The bus lanes, in theory, should be helpful,” Yzaguirre said. “At their best they’re helpful, but the lanes [on some roads] are thin, and the buses are getting wider.

The squeeze is compounded by plastic rods used by the city to control outbound traffic and keep cars away from the bus-only lanes, but “because the buses are so wide and the lane is so curved, bad or inexperienced or careless drivers can easily hit these breakable cones,” she said. “If enough are broken, traffic in the single-lane XBL has to be stopped entirely while a crew manually replaces them. You can imagine this causes insane delays.

The situation is far from rare and leaves bus drivers with few options, including jumping back into the congested flow of regular traffic, a risk taken “at the gratitude or ire of the passengers on the bus, depending entirely on whether or not that gamble pays off,” Yzaguirre said.

Coupled with the less-than-desirable conditions of the bus itself, the frustrations add up to an unwelcome experience—one which an increasing number of Americans have rejected.

New York City alone lost 100 million bus passengers between 2005 and 2016, including a 16% ridership decrease in Manhattan since 2011. Washington, D.C.’s Metro ridership bled 6% of its passengers between 2016 and 2017, and Los Angeles’ bus ridership has decreased by 30% since 2005.

City officials have fought back with initiatives meant to give passengers more control over bus routes and give buses more room on the freeways, but the projects still leave long-time passengers like Yzaguirre—who said her loyalty mostly stems from the abject lack of parking in Manhattan—wanting more.

“If I could change this commute at all, I’d make a crossing exclusive for buses . . . and a place that is actually built and capable of handling the ever-growing demand for public transportation,” she said. “But all of this requires infrastructure investment and construction so large that if an initiative were to go into effect tomorrow, I’d likely never even experience the result as a working adult. I really have no idea how the crossings are going to handle a larger demand. I hope my kids don’t have to put up with this.” Still, at least one city is imagining a transportation transformation at a level that may serve to truly impact the future.

Thinking Bigger in Texas

Houston is one of the few metropolitan areas that has successfully stanched the ridership departure from its public transit system, thanks in part to the redistribution of bus routes and plans to put the people movers at the very center of the city—literally.

A monumental project is underway to transform Houston’s popular Post Oak Boulevard district, fully integrating buses into a healthy ecosystem balancing work, life, and play through mixed-use development and cleverly-placed mass transit options allowing for the free flow of people throughout the city.

Located just 5 miles from Houston’s downtown proper, the Post Oak Boulevard stretch is referred to as “uptown,” an area which “became the spine along which an incredible amount of development occurred,” according to John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, an urban planning group dedicated to fostering growth in the area.

Home not just to offices, but residential and retail units in almost equal measure, the area “by many sources, is one of the largest, if not the largest, non-traditional downtown activity centers in the country,” he said.

The bustling activity there is buoyed by Houston’s thriving economic atmosphere—especially the draw of its major employer, the Texas Medical Center, which is the world’s largest medical complex.

Still, in many ways, the neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city—even after Houston increased its overall bus activity and built 7,500 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes—thanks in part to a lack of bus service catering to uptown, Breeding said.

With just four miles of Post Oak Boulevard separating the area from plugging in to the city’s expanded bus routes, however, neighborhood leaders decided to take their destiny into their own hands.

“The private sector said, ‘My goodness, we need transit service. Why don’t we just do it ourselves?’” Breeding said. “We had significant resources available... so we set out to see what we could do.”

What they wound up with was a new development project placing buses at the heart of the strip, allocating a bus-only lane running along the center of the boulevard, buffered by grassy medians and bus stops, allowing for uninterrupted service at predictable six-minute intervals. (Cars and other vehicles still have access to the road on lanes sandwiching the bus-only route.)

Buses in Houston's Post Oak neighborhood would travel along a dedicated center lane, ensuring timely routes.

If the idea sounds akin to a trolley or light-rail system, that’s because it began its life as one, with the Uptown group originally envisioning a train connecting its mixed-use neighborhood to the greater metropolitan area, but after years of research and failed public bids for the project, the association settled on the idea of bus lanes—which is actually preferable, Breeding said.

“We knew we couldn’t afford light rail, and we weren’t really excited about the overhead electrical system,” he said. “This is taking the bus idea all the way. It’s giving the bus all the advantages that light rail has, and we think, in the end, it’s going to be even better.”

It will also be less costly than light rail. Funded through a $62 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and money collected through a special tax levied on businesses within the zone to improve the area, the $192.5 million project—which is due for early 2019 completion—will pay for itself through a design built to withstand the changing tastes of time, Breeding said.

“The real estate is there forever, so as technology grows, we can evolve with it,” he said. “When you think of the beautiful job that Tesla and other companies have done on designing cars and providing really incredible vehicles that are autonomous or semi-autonomous, I just simply don’t think there’s a reason to do light rail transit when you have tech like that. We call it a bus now, but it will probably quickly evolve beyond that concept.”

Regardless of who—if anyone—is driving the transportation, the urban planning behind it will keep the lanes at the heart of the boulevard’s operations, pumping its residents through the arteries and veins of the city to create an overall healthier circulation of transport.

“It’s creating an ecosystem, but it’s also creating an economic system, and a lifestyle system,” Breeding said. “I don’t want people to walk out of a fine restaurant and walk out and go, ‘Wow, isn’t that a fine transit project.’ I want them to walk out and live within the beautiful context of this downtown, which is also beautiful Post Oak Boulevard.”

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