Could Americans be convinced to use buses by new technology?

Technological advances to buses might make them more attractive…or they might not. Here are the five new features:



Minibus/trackless train

Seamless payment


Two things stand out to me from the argument:

  1. Newer technology tends to make things more attractive in society. This does appear to be a general pattern though I am not sure technology alone could overcome misgivings wealthier Americans have about buses.
  2. The shifts described here tend to reduce some of the features that might be less attractive about buses: they would not be as large and they would be less tied to particular routes. This makes them less like traditional buses and more like large vans that have flexibility.

One aspect of mass transit to which I’m surprised there is not more discussion of in this argument is whether these smaller and more flexible buses would be faster for users. If so, this could be a tremendous plus. One of the promises of self-driving vehicles is that traffic flow could be better coordinated and would not be affected by drivers slowing things down.

Bus ridership down in America

Fewer Americans – 13% – are riding buses compared to ten years ago.

I’ve argued before that Americans perceive mass transit options as having different statuses. For those with more resources, trains and subways are preferable. If those are not easily accessible or the person has reached a certain status in life, driving is a must.

At the same time, bus service is relatively cheap for cities and communities to provide. Because American cities are often planned around cars and have spent decades trying to efficiently move vehicles around, adding or subtracting buses to adjust service levels is doable. In contrast, constructing new trains or subways can be incredibly costly and require years of work. It may be that in the long run trains and subways are better options to plan around but that requires a long-term commitment.







Ride the bus for a safer transit experience

A recent study of bus travel in Montreal suggests that it is a much safer experience compared to driving:

By perusing police reports from 2001 to 2010, they found motorists on these routes had more than three times the injury rate of bus passengers. Buses were also safer for people sharing the road. Cars were responsible for 95 percent of pedestrian and 96 percent of cyclist injuries on these arteries, they write in a presentation for this month’s meeting of the Transportation Research Board.

During the same time period in Montreal, nobody was killed while riding the bus, though 668 people were injured. (It’s unknown if that number includes bus operators, who are powerful magnets for abuse.) Meanwhile, auto occupants suffered 19 deaths and 10,892 injuries. Cars were linked to 42 pedestrian and three cyclist deaths, while buses were linked to four and zero, respectively…

In the United States car occupants have a fatality rate 23 times greater than bus passengers, while it’s respectively 11 and 10 times higher in Australia and Europe. They suggest getting more people on public transit could make a large impact on public health.

In terms of public health, the safety argument is compelling: without having to go all the way to self-driving vehicles for all, buses could be an important tool in reducing deaths. Yet, I’ve discussed before that I don’t think many middle- to upper-class Americans would choose to travel by bus in denser areas if they can afford to drive. I don’t know if the safety argument could overcome either (1) the stereotypes of riding the bus and (2) the inconvenience of the bus schedule as opposed to driving a car.

Perhaps what we need is for a city or two to experiment with a public campaign to boost bus membership with a safety campaign. Would residents find it compelling?

Like many cities, Cincinnati once had a thriving streetcar system

Cincinnati was one of numerous big American cities that once heavily relied on the streetcar:

They were everywhere. For nearly a century — from the 1850s through the 1940s — streetcars were the most common way for Cincinnatians to get where they were going.

According to a report to common council in 1887, Cincinnati City Clerk Edwin Henderson said council had filed more than 70 ordinances relating to “street railroads” to date, and Henderson’s report detailed 25 routes in service at the time.

At their peak, Cincinnati’s railway companies offered commuters dozens of streetcar routes with nearly 250 miles of track.

Compared to other transportation options of the time, streetcars had numerous advantages: more consistent and producing less visible waste than horses, they were less noisy and followed street patterns compared to trains, and were faster and offered a larger range than walking. Streetcars opened up all sorts of new areas to development as residents could travel further on their daily commutes or regular trips.

Outside of the occasional attempt to revive a streetcar line, often for tourism purposes, most cities today do not contain visible evidence of the popularity of streetcars. Cincinnati is a city that is trying: a plan is in the works for a 3.6 mile loop that connects employment and residential areas. Still, across the broader city and region, cars reign supreme with their ability to go anywhere and offer drivers individual choices.

Pace wants to “change the suburban transit environment” with new bus routes

Pace has an ambitious proposal intended to link important areas in the Chicago area via bus:

A wide-ranging network of suburban bus routes could transform the way people commute and shop, connecting people to job centers in Naperville, Elgin and Elk Grove Village, according to an ambitious $2.3 billion plan shared by Pace on Tuesday.

Express buses with high-tech amenities would take riders from the south suburbs to O’Hare International Airport. Or from McHenry south to Oswego via Randall Road. Or from Evanston to O’Hare along Dempster Street.

And buses would travel on the shoulder of the Jane Addams and Edens expressways, bypassing car traffic…

Pace has submitted its plan for an innovative suburban Rapid Transit Network to Congress, which asked for candidates for a program called Projects of National and Regional Significance. The agency revealed details of its proposal to the Tribune on Tuesday…

The network is composed of two service types: arterial bus rapid transit and suburban expressway service.

Mass transit that connects suburbs is sorely needed in the Chicago region. The current system of buses does little to add on to the existing hub-and-spoke railway system that connects the suburbs to downtown. New buses provide a flexible form of transport compared to railroads; rather than having a fixed track and sunk infrastructure costs, buses can take advantage of existing important roads and highways.

However, I suspect this plan has a lot of hurdles to overcome even beyond the federal funding they are seeking.

1. How do you get suburbanites to consistently ride the bus? Trains are one thing but buses seem to have a different status.

2. Can schedules between mass transit options be lined up?

3. Can the buses actually get people to places rather quickly and at most times of the day? The current bus system tends to take long amounts of time compared to driving.

4. Perhaps the most important question: is there enough density along the proposed lines to have consistent numbers of riders who need to go where the buses are going? Density contributes to riders which leads to more buses which leads to more options. Going to the airports makes sense – both Chicago airports are busy (O’Hare may just be the busiest in the world again) – as does more highway buses to Chicago but linking residences and businesses is a more difficult task. Downtown Naperville may be lively but how many live near there who would commute by bus elsewhere? Are there concentrations of people living along Randall Road? I wonder if there is any way to encourage denser developments – apartments, condos, townhomes, rowhouses – near such bus lines to help provide more potential riders.

Driverless buses could improve mass transit

Discussion of driverless buses in Britain highlights the efficiency they could offer, leading to improved service:

Claire Perry, the Transport Minister, said that operating buses without drivers could help companies provide “better and more frequent” services, particularly in rural areas.

She also revealed that work is already under way to identify any problematic “regulatory issues” which could prevent the vehicles being rolled out on roads across Britain.

Speaking at the Driverless Vehicles Conference at Thatcham on Wednesday, Mrs Perry said she could “see a future where driverless buses provide better and more frequent services”.

“A major component of rural transport is the cost of the driver – and so a truly driverless bus could transform rural public transport in the future,” she said.

Driverless cars offer safety and commuting convenience but this is a twist: mass transit could be more frequent and cheaper without drivers. It would be interesting to know how much cheaper this could be. Would this mean a 20% increase in bus service for the same price or is it something even more drastic? If so, perhaps this could make buses a lot more attractive, particularly in rural or suburban areas where riders may not necessarily want to ride with a lot of other people and want service that doesn’t inconvenience them much.

Urban streetcars may primarily serve tourists

Streetcars once ruled American cities but more recent projects in many cities may primarily be used by tourists:

Some new figures further strain the connection between streetcars and core city mobility. Florida State planning student Luis Enrique Ramos recently led a comparison of ridership factors on U.S. streetcars versus those on light rail. (The work, not yet published, was presented at a recent conference.) What he found was that streetcar ridership was unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity — the very factors that make light rail attractive to everyday commuters.

In other words, streetcars serve a completely different population of travelers than light rail does. Which population is that? Ramos and collaborators can’t say for sure, but they have a theory: tourists. Just look at the hours of operation for the Tampa streetcar — beginning at noon on weekdays? — and ask yourself who rolls into work after lunch. (And please do let us know, because we want that job.)

None of this is to say that streetcars aren’t necessarily worth it. Commutes make up a fraction of total travel in metro areas. Trolleys can operate very effectively in dense cores by running along a dedicated track, and when they arrive frequently they can promote a lively pedestrian culture. When paired with mixed-use zoning, trolleys can also lead to significant economic development (though arguably less than other modes, like bus-rapid transit).

That leaves emerging streetcar cities with a mostly-tourist attraction they hope will generate business — an amenity that feels similar in spirit to a downtown sports stadium. Again, sometimes city taxpayers conclude that an arena is worth it, and many cities no doubt feel the same about trolleys, cost overruns notwithstanding. But residents who hope the streetcar will improve mobility should be careful to consider whether they’re paying for a ride, or getting taken for one.

Some interesting factors to consider. Tourism is often seen as a significant force in many cities as it is a way to increase tax revenues as well as improve a city’s image. Streetcars can often be viewed in nostalgic terms, something that often fits a community’s appeal to tourists. Yet, if the streetcars aren’t an integrated part of a larger transportation system that serves residents and tourists, is the money spent worth it?

When streetcar use exploded in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a driver of sprawl: it opened up development in new areas because it could cover more territory than railroads by using roads. In other words, the streetcars were pioneers. Today, building new streetcar systems also requires modifying roads and the neighborhoods already exist. The article suggests buses may be a more appropriate modification to the existing streetscape because they are more cost-effective and might better serve residents. At this point in time, streetcars serve very different purposes and it requires work to implement them into a community.