02 December 2009

Laura Strangelove on buses

Laura is in the process of getting a Masters in City Planning with a focus on Transit. She's been into it for years, and has a soft spot for buses in particular. We recently realized that Urban Planning and Digital Strategy have so much in common that we're able to send each other articles, stories and links all the time that sit at the intersection of our respective interests.

Speaking of, Laura recently forwarded me a paper she wrote, and I found it so fascinating that I got her permission to post huge chunks of it here. It's called

Positive Public Perception of Bus Rapid Transit
as Dependent on How Unlike Conventional Bus Riding it Is
Or: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus

and talks about just that – a fairly new type of bus transit that could elevate people's general opinions of bus transit.
The bus is generally considered to be the most loathed form of public transportation. People, as a whole, do not like to ride the bus. A google search for “I love buses” turns up 217,000 results. A google search for “I hate buses” turns up 2,890,000 results. (...) Our culture’s hatred of buses even sneaks its way into our idioms—of late, to “throw [someone] under the bus” is a phrase that means to sacrifice another person for personal gain, even though throwing someone under a train or into the whirling propellers of a helicopter would almost surely result in more gruesome consequences.

To be fair, the bus has rightly earned some of its criticism. There is a plethora of reasons people do not like buses, and while all of them are not present all of the time, some of them are present most of the time. Buses can be unreliable and late, and when they do show up, they sometimes show up in pairs, or more insultingly, in groups of five. Waiting for a bus at a conventional pole-and-sign stop can be a cold, wet, and even dangerous adventure. A bus ride on a heavily-trafficked corridor with many stops is slow and lurching. Hardly any transit mode in the world can be considered more unpleasant than a standing-up ride on an overcrowded bus while carrying six shopping bags or an infant.
Enter Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It's still a bus, but it's operationally different in a lot of ways. For one, dedicated rights-of-way: buses get their own lanes. One result of this is that they are seen as a unique form of transportation, rather than another vehicle sharing the road with everyone else. Dedicated bus lanes are also a lot more efficient (more on this soon).

images of current & proposed BRT systems in St. Petersburg, Florida; Changzhou, China; and Hamilton, Ontario

Another popular feature of BRT is pre-boarding fare collection: everybody pays (or swipes their card) ahead of time, like in the subway. When the bus arrives, everyone is "ready" and can board at once. Also results in more efficiency. Dedicated rights-of-way and pre-boarding fare collection reduce the likelihood of bus bunching, which is one of the most frustrating things in the universe.
Bus bunching occurs when one bus, due to traffic, a late start, or any other reason, is a little behind schedule, and as a result, arrives at each stop to see more people than usual waiting to board. Because it takes longer to board more people, the bus arrives at each subsequent stop more and more behind schedule. Meanwhile, the bus behind it—the next bus running the route—does not have a large number of passengers to pick up because any of those passengers who were early enough to be there when the earlier bus came by in all its lateness boarded it instead. By the end of the route, the second (or, when it’s really bad, third, fourth, or fifth[!]) bus will have caught up with the first bus, and the bus arrives very late and in multiple.
There are other factors that can set BRT apart from regular bus transit as well, to get commuters over the psychological barrier against them. The buses themselves look different, the stations are more sleekly designed (sometimes with modern logos and bright color schemes) and are built to accommodate pre-boarding fare collection. Here's an example from the RIT in Curitiba, Brazil, one of the most successful BRT systems in the world:

image from Wikimedia

A tubular station! That beats standing by a pole in the rain any day.

Does New York need this? Well, the MTA has dabbled in it with their Select Bus Service (SBS), which has a very limited run (bet you don't know where it is). Since the NYC subway system is so advanced & gets you almost anywhere you need to go, Laura sees the SBS as "an example of BRT used in the context of merely making bus service vastly superior" rather than its own, unique form of transportation.

In short, BRT is good for pulling buses out of their perceptual dead zones: the more they resemble – and are seen on par with – rail systems, the more psychologically accepted they will be, and the more passengers the system will attract. Of course it's not all shiny wonderfulness; Laura plays devil's advocate and raises some great questions (including cases of induced demand, which isn't always necessarily a "good" thing). She also writes about how BRT is so characteristically (and operationally) different from buses that people have even talked about removing the "B" from the system:
It is as though people are known to hate buses so deeply and thoroughly that the only way to trick them into riding one—even if it’s a bus with none of the problems of a conventional bus—is to disguise it with an Orwellian name change, a la 1984: But the Ministry of Love is still where people get tortured, and “Commuter Rapid Transit” is still, technically, a bus.
I recently spotted a PSFK article about the MTA investing further in more efficient bus transit, but the link seems to be dead (see? a sad, dead link). I did find This MTA page on their SBS Project that explains BRT really well, and explains how they envision BRT fitting into New York's transit system in the future. Exciting! Maybe it'll turn bus riding reluctance in NY around?

You're not alone, James.
tweet by James

There is a chance that I may have butchered some of Laura's reasoning, as I just tried condensing 18 pages into a single post in just an evening. Stay tuned for edits, as (and if) she corrects me. Thanks, Laura!
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