The Holy Grail of Transportation Is Right in Front of Us

Farhad Manjoo
Bus - Florian Buettner/laif, via Redux

Mar. 18, 2021


In America, nobody loves the bus. Lots of people ride the bus — we took about 4.6 billion trips by bus in 2019, more than by any other mode of public transportation. But at least 4.5 billion of them must have begun with a deep, dejected sigh of resignation.

Buses are hard to love. Bus systems across the country are chronically underfunded, leading to slow, inconvenient and unreliable service. In New York, America’s most transit-friendly city with by far the nation’s most-used bus system, terrible service regularly causes people to lose jobs, miss medical appointments and squander many hours, sometimes in rain or snow, just waiting.

People have said for years that the bus could be the next big thing in transportation. Now we can make that a reality. With the proper investment, city buses might be transformed into the sort of next-generation transportation service that technology companies and car companies have spent billions over the last decade trying to build — a cheap, accessible, comfortable, sustainable, reliable way to get around town.

How might we come upon this transportation nirvana? Not through some great technological innovation or a grand infrastructure project. The holy grail is right there in front of us; it’s been right there for decades. All we’ve got to do is buy more buses, hire more bus drivers and, in some places, give buses special privileges on the road. All we’ve got to do is care enough to build bus systems that work.

And now is the time to do it. The pandemic has altered Americans’ commuting habits, and there is a sudden political opportunity to remake American transportation. The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress are drawing up a giant infrastructure plan with lots of big projects on the menu — a multibillion-dollar tunnel under the Hudson, an electric car charging network, perhaps high-speed rail.

These may be worthy projects, but it could be years before we realize their benefits. Adequately funding American buses is one of the simplest, cheapest ways to meaningfully improve the daily lives of millions of Americans right now.

“Every major city in America has streets where, if the bus were made more convenient, transit agencies would reap a bumper crop of new riders,” writes the transportation researcher Steven Higashide in his book “Better Buses, Better Cities.” With improved bus service, Higashide adds, “cities would instantly take a step toward becoming more inclusive and sustainable.”

America’s neglected buses are inextricably linked to its larger collective ills. Bus riders wield little political or economic clout; a disproportionate number are people with low incomes.

Like all forms of transit, buses must also contend with America’s addiction to automobiles. About 80 percent of federal spending on transportation is devoted to highways; the sliver that’s left goes to public transit.

It’s likely that few policymakers ride the bus, and many see the world through car-addled eyes, creating quirks in the law unfair to mass transit. For example, much more federal money goes toward building and maintaining transportation projects than to operating them, which tends to be the costliest part of public transit.

Then there’s the bus’s image problem. Buses are old and boring. They rarely attract champions in the media or in government. Even among riders, a kind of hopelessness clings to them. “We’ve lived with subpar service for so long that it’s hard for people to rally around improving it,” an advocate told The Los Angeles Times in 2019.

Until recently, I was of similar mind. Then, on a weeklong visit to London just before the pandemic, I challenged myself to spend my time in the city without ever stepping inside a car. It wasn’t much of a challenge: In addition to a fantastic transit system, London has a congestion-pricing plan that keeps cars from jamming up the entire city.

What I did find surprising, though, was how often I used London’s iconic double-decker buses in addition to, and sometimes instead of, its Underground trains.

For many of my trips, the bus was my best option. In London, buses are given priority on the roads, and traffic signals can detect approaching buses to extend green lights. As a result, I could get to my destination faster by bus than in a taxi or a train.

The buses were clean, comfortable and easy to use. Many of them are either fully electric or powered by hydrogen. I liked that I could pay for my ride with the same card I used for the city’s other modes of transit. And I appreciated that bus stops displayed real-time route information.

But the major innovation in London’s buses is less technological than numerical. The magic is one of scale — there are simply enough buses in London to allow for frequent, reliable service to the parts of the city that people want to travel to.

It wouldn’t take much money to bring high-quality transit service to American cities. The Urban Institute estimates that for about $17 billion annually, every American city with at least 100,000 people could more than double its transit capacity. (By comparison, the federal government spends nearly $50 billion a year on infrastructure meant mainly for cars.)

According to TransitCenter, a transit advocacy organization, this sort of increase would dramatically improve people’s livelihoods. In Atlanta, for example, a 40 percent increase in transit service would give bus passengers access to tens of thousands more jobs within a 30-minute bus ride.

Just throwing a lot of money at buses might sound like too easy an answer. But it’s also something we haven’t ever really tried.

“For my whole career there’s always been a reason transit agencies were spending money on something other than bus service,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit expert who has worked with many cities to improve buses.

But this might be the bus’s big moment. “We can do buses in a way that’s attractive,” Beth Osborne, the director of the advocacy group Transportation for America, told me. “We just have to choose to do it.”

[Top photo: Florian Buettner/laif, via Redux]