Month: November 2009


Better Buses: Cutting Dwell Time

A few times a week, I get off the subway and walk one short block down a hill to catch a bus. The bus is going down the hill with me, and sometimes I see it when I get to the top of the subway steps. There are always enough other people waiting at the bus stop so that if I see it at the top of the hill I know I can take my time walking and still make it.

Until one day recently, when I was halfway down the hill and noticed that almost everyone was on the bus. They had all gotten on so quickly that I had to run to catch the bus. What changed? It was one of the new low-floor hybrid buses.

There are many things that make buses slow, and “dwell time” is one of them. I was mildly inconvenienced having to run to catch that bus, but I’d have been pretty happy if I were already down the hill waiting to board, or on the bus waiting for everyone else to get on so the bus could get going.

Level boarding is one of the “features” of BRT, but of course you can have level boarding without any of the other features. Prepayment of fares is another one, so that you don’t have to stand in line while everyone digs through their change or dips their metrocards. NYC Transit has level boarding on lots of buses now, and is testing prepayment on the Select Bus Service on Fordham Road. Maybe soon they’ll roll it out in other locations.

It’d be kind of lame if we had to wait for “BRT” to get pre-payment or proof-of-payment citywide, when bus systems around the world have had it for decades without any of the other “BRT” features. Kind of lame – like waiting for six people to swipe a metrocard before you can get on the bus.

Image: njt4148 / Flickr

Background, Better Buses

Oxford, England, Bus Rider’s Paradise?

Buses on Gloucester Green

(Photo from The Oxford and Chilterns Bus Page.)

I’m writing this from a bus. Nothing particularly special about bringing a laptop on a bus, but in this case my laptop has full AC power from an outlet under the window seat. I was hoping to be able to post it via on-bus broadband wifi, but that doesn’t seem to be working. I have been able to pick up wifi signals from nearby buses, however. The bus is new, comfortable and spacious – particularly spacious because I’m sitting near the wheelchair spot.

You may have heard of the Bolt Buses; this is not one of those, but one of its inspirations. I’m in Barton, Oxfordshire, on the Airline bus from Oxford to Heathrow. On the way here I took the train, but I figured I’d try the bus on the way back. The trip takes almost the same amount of time – an hour and a half – but is cheaper: eighteen pounds, or about thirty-six dollars, versus twenty-two pounds and change for the train. The bus is direct; for the train you have to go into London and take another train back out to Heathrow. After the central bus station there were three stops leading out to a park-and-ride on the outskirts of town.

I actually missed the 10AM bus, but I’m not worried about missing my flight; I just took the 10:20. The frequency of the buses is about the same as the trains: every twenty minutes in the mornings and evenings, every two hours from 10PM to 4AM, and every half hour in between. That’s seven days a week – but on weekends the morning service starts at 6AM instead of 5AM. There are also buses to Gatwick Airport, and express buses direct to London every 5-10 minutes – the latter operated by two competing companies. This bus is about three-quarters full.

While in Oxford I stayed in a room above High Street, one of the main streets in town. Unlike a similar room in the US, there were no honking cars under my window because that part of High Street is restricted to buses and bicycles, and there was a steady stream of them until late in the night. The buses were mostly hybrid, so I didn’t experience the noise and pollution that I used to associate with buses. There were the airport buses, express buses, long-distance buses and local buses. Now, here on the M40 highway, there are numerous buses traveling in both directions. As far as I could tell, they were all privately operated by for-profit companies.

I had come here expecting a fairly limited transportation system, based in part on Kingdom by the Sea, Paul Theroux’s Thatcher-era exploration of the United Kingdom by train, bus, foot and ferry. Judging by what I’ve seen this week, England seems to be recovering from some of that. It obviously has a long way to go – only a few of the eliminated train lines have been reactivated – but public transit in Oxford looks very healthy indeed.

Better Buses, Commentary

Prestige and buses

Despite what some may think, there is a certain amount of prestige attached to riding a bus in New York City. I’ve made that observation in blog comments before, on Streetsblog and more recently on the Overhead Wire, but I think it deserves its own blog post.

Contrary to the way that Peter Smith presents it, I am not claiming that riding the bus here is always a prestigious activity. What I am saying, based on my own observation, is that there are plenty of middle-class and even upper-class New Yorkers who ride the bus. I’m referring here specifically to local public buses; express and long-distance buses have their own idiosyncrasies.

The Upper East Side of Manhattan is one of the most wealthy places in the world. If you ride one of the buses that go through it, you’ll see lots of well-off, well-dressed people, including white people, older adults and women. Many people ride the bus who might be considered “elite”: for example, I once ran into former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern (who has his own car and an illegally reserved parking spot in the middle of Central Park) on the M57.

A middle-aged Asian female friend who lives on the Upper East Side once told me that she avoids the subway; my understanding was that it was because in her mind she has an association between the subway and crime that goes back to the graffiti-covered trains of the 1970s. In any case, she took buses (or sometimes taxis) everywhere she went.

As you get further from the Upper East Side, the prestige of local buses diminishes, and in most of Brooklyn and Queens until in Hempstead or Mount Vernon or Paterson they’re largely used by poor and working-class Black and Latino people – and college students. Further afield, in towns like Kingston and Hartford they’re mostly seen as welfare transportation for the homeless and the mentally disabled.

Let me be clear here: I’m not saying that the bus-riding experience here is necessarily any better (objectively, in terms of speed or comfort) than that in Garden City, or in Syracuse or Denver. I’m saying that here, better-off people are willing to ride the bus; any prestige that attaches to the bus is through association with these relatively prestigious riders. It’s not “bull shit,” and I’m willing to defend the validity of my observation against all comers.

Regardless, why might it be that upper-middle-class people are willing to ride the bus in New York? I think it’s all relative. In Manhattan bus service is pretty frequent, and owning and maintaining a car is an expensive and exhausting proposition. Why would they prefer it to the subway? Because of the daylight and the relatively low historical crime rate, but also because the subway doesn’t really work for travel within the Upper East Side or from Upper East to Upper West. The Second Avenue Subway, when it finally gets built, may change some of that.

This fact has strong implications for bus design and planning. The main one is that convenience, safety and reliability are much more important in attracting riders than any branding strategy. The branding on NYC buses is lame and always has been; the buses have “gotten people out of their cars” (more accurately, prevented them from shifting to cars) simply by being more convenient than a car – and that’s more due to the relative lack of car subsidies than anything the buses have done. Want successful buses? Tear down the bypasses and tear up the parking lots.

The other is that prestigious associations are the best marketing strategy, and we already have that in NYC. NYC Transit is wasting precious money and effort in branding its “Select Bus” routes. Forget the fancy paint job; people will ride the bus if it’s more convenient. They know it’s good enough for the rich folks on Madison Avenue, so why wouldn’t it be good for them? More importantly, don’t think you can skimp on real, honest improvements in convenience, safety and reliability and make up for it through branding. New Yorkers have seen it all.