Making Buses Better

I don’t like to take sides in the bus v. rail food fight – I believe they both have a role to play – but it does seem to me that buses, despite their cost-effectiveness, get the short end of the stick when it comes to investment.

The ASCE study I wrote about on Wednesday also highlights this point. Deficiencies in bus service, the study shows, are more of a financial drain than poor rail service, costing $398 billion by 2020, as opposed to $171 billion for rail. Buses simply carry more people over more miles than trains do. And if we continue to discount the critical role buses play in keeping America moving, we will pay the price.

There’s no question that buses have an image problem. (And when you have influential people like Bill Lind saying “live like a roach, ride a motorcoach,” it sure doesn’t help the cause.) Politicians prefer trains, and quite frankly, a lot of people do, too. But rail is not the appropriate solution for every route. Given that we have already built out an extensive road network, and that cost-effectiveness rules the day, we need to make the most of our buses. And we need to make buses work better.

Right now, the cost-effectiveness of buses is their main selling point. But for buses to really become a force in the transportation network of the future, being “cheap” can’t be their only selling point. We need to make buses more efficient, more reliable and more comfortable.

I’ve already written about swank new intercity bus services, such as Bolt and Megabus, that are helping improve the reputation of bus travel, offering cushy seats, reliable schedules, WiFi, plug points, and affordable fares – all while turning a profit.

Bus travel within metropolitan areas -- including those that are already hard-wired as sprawling jurisdictions with ample swaths of suburbia -- can improve, too. Bus Rapid Transit systems, which I’ve discussed earlier, are slowly making headway in this country. And some regions have found clever and effective ways to improve their bus systems without the major overhaul required by a full-fledged BRT.

Salt Lake City saw a big jump in on-time performance by installing mobile data computers next to drivers, which allowed drivers to see if they were running on schedule. On-time performance jumped from 72 percent in 2007 to almost 90 percent 2010. Riders can also pay their fares instantly by credit or debit card, tapping on and off throughout the entire Utah Transit Authority system, which includes buses, BRT, light rail and trains.

Bus safety is paramount in Iowa, where the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) has drastically reduced rates of even the most minor accidents. DART hired a full-time safety manager, developed an intensive defensive driving program, and makes a policy of recognizing safe drivers.

In San Diego, riders can get real time information on bus arrivals by text message – no more standing around wondering if and when your bus is going to show up.

Safety, convenience, reliability – this is what people want from transportation. There’s no reason that buses can’t deliver the experience people want.

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