What’s wrong with buses
I’ve now had two posts about bus systems and their issues. This time I want to talk about buses themselves. It is rare, at least in my experience, for there to be frank discussion about why people do not use them. But it is worth discussing why buses have such a negative connotation for most people, and what can perhaps be done about the causes.
Buses stink. With the notable exception of trolleybuses, this has up to now always been true. The exhaust fumes of diesel buses are quite bad. It’s particularly bad when these fumes make their way inside the bus. Newer buses are generally not as bad, but the older ones are still large parts of most systems. Regardless, it is an issue that remains relevant for rider experience and health.
Buses are loud. They’re loud outside, they’re ridiculously loud inside. The newer NovaBuses here are less loud, but that’s only by comparison.
Transit agencies view buses as billboards. This may be okay to an extent, but it is not okay when the ads block most of the view out the window. Not only does that make the ride even less pleasant, but it’s also difficult to see whether the bus is near your stop.
The ride is nauseating and headache-inducing, due to jumpiness of the bus and the sudden stops and starts. Here there is a partial fault of roads, and of the nature of buses. But what I find interesting is the huge difference that the bus driver can make. In my experience, some deliberately make gradual starts and stops, while others will make them very quickly, to the extent that riders get thrown about. A bad bus ride can easily ruin my day. Judging by the huge variance I’ve experienced in Grand River Transit buses, drivers have gone through either little or no training with regards to quality of ride for passengers. I can’t imagine this kind of training cost to be comparable to the money that gets spent on buses themselves. If GRT spent the effort on training, I’m sure it could market it so people took notice.
In transit, less is more
Following up my previous post on the role of perception in transit, I want to discuss the importance of simplicity of routes. In that post I mentioned the relative ease of using a bus that runs frequently. What that omits is the need to know where the bus actually goes. The purpose of most regular bus routes is to provide extensive service for an area, which generally means a winding route with many stops. What immediately follows from this is that it is difficult to be very familiar with more than just the routes you use routinely. This in turn makes it likely that you will simply not use the bus system for getting to somewhere unusual.
I must note that this is not always a predicament in bus systems. In cities with predictable street grids there can be bus routes that go straight along a particular street, or there can be bus routes that follow some important avenue. But inevitably there are common trips that do not follow the obvious streets, and so bus routes evolve to serve those trips.
The complexity of bus routes is a huge part of what makes bus transit a poor way to get people out of cars. A barrier to entry, if you will. If someone is reliant on buses entirely, they have no choice but to take the time to learn the route system, though they might still learn only the part that is relevant to them. Don’t expect people to willingly subject themselves to something difficult and esoteric if they can avoid it.
Though I won’t address it here, some complexity can be mitigated by properly designed information and maps.
The answer is probably some version of Bus Rapid Transit, a term that generally refers to individual lines with separate rights-of-way and express service. I believe bus systems should be holistically planned with BRT ideas in mind, in a way similar to subway systems. This entails simplified routes, limited stops as a matter of course, and maps that make it easy to understand both the overall route system as well as stop locations. Such a system could be parallel to the more comprehensive system. But it would be vastly more usable for most people.
This formulation exposes, however, a serious limitation of even a simplified bus system: the lack of permanent routes. BRT has little infrastructure and its vehicles can travel off route, so it still has this limitation, albeit to a lesser extent. The right way to think about the importance of unchanging routes is probably in terms of temporal simplicity and complexity. A simple bus system that changes over time becomes complex temporally. The effect is that people will still be wary of using the system to inform long-term decisions such as where to live and where to set up a business, as the bus routes could easily change and leave them out in the cold. Here the right sort of Bus Rapid Transit does offer a partial solution, but light rail and subways are and feel more permanent.
On the tipping point of buses
No, we’re not going to go around tipping over buses. Though it would make a great urban legend to counter that rural legend of cow tipping.
There are plenty of bus routes in Kitchener-Waterloo — and in most cities that are not New York, I would imagine — that run every half-hour or less frequently. On the other hand, the “mainline” 7 buses run every 7-8 minutes along their common spine. I claim that the difference between a 30 minute and a 8 minute headway is not just in quantity, but also in quality. This might be obvious.
The difference is in how one may use such routes. For 30-minute buses, on average you’ll wait 15 minutes; but sometimes you have bad luck and the bus is running late, so a worst case is something like 40 minutes. These are 40 minutes that you could have used to walk to your destination. Which is pretty bad, so you get yourself a bus schedule and plan your time around the bus stop time. If you don’t get there sufficiently ahead of time, you still run the risk of the bus arriving early and screwing you over. The obvious way out is to avoid all this hassle with some other means of getting from point A to point B, such as driving.
Why is an 8-minute headway different? The answer should be clear: if you need to take the bus, you go to the bus stop and wait. On average, that’s a 4 minute wait. Worst case, 8 minutes, which is manageable. You don’t need the bus schedule! If you know where the bus goes, then you can just go to a stop and expect the bus to ferry you to your destination. It’s easy, requires no access to schedules or the Internet, and especially requires no advance planning. (With a short headway, the schedule might actually give you a false confidence due to inherent variability in the route.)
The bus headway tipping point is probably somewhere in between 5 and 30 minutes, and is some kind of average of individual patience curves. Around that tipping point, more buses will lead to disproportionately more riders and a more user-friendly bus route. The greater point is that there is a serious qualitative difference between low- and high-frequency service, and this deserves more prominence in discussion of transit.