Love the Bus, Save Your City - City Lab

Consider the bus. What comes to mind? For many Americans, it’s the grumbling, clattering, stuck-in-traffic, when-will-it-come, car’s-in-the-shop mobility mode of last resort. You might not ride it, and if you do, you might not like it.

That’s why we need to talk about it. The bus has rarely needed your love more. And the underdog of transit has never held more heroic potential.

With urban populations and travel on the rise, transportation is now the top contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 90 percent of commuters in this country drive private cars, and in many urban areas traffic congestion—i.e., wasted time, gas, and money—is getting worse. Cities are searching for ways to move people around in fewer vehicles and leave a softer impact on the environment, with light-rail referenda, ride-hailing partnerships, autonomous shuttle pilots, dreams of aerial taxis, and more.

All of these modes have a place in the urban present and future. (Except maybe the helicopters; we can leave those to Die Hard.) But too many cities are ignoring what is arguably the cheapest and most flexible general-purpose option, which happens to be available already: the bus. Buses can carry large numbers of people in a compact amount of road space. They don’t require special rights-of-way (though that’s sometimes ideal). They can be deployed and rerouted as needed. Across modes, they’re the most affordable to cities in terms of capital costs, and often in terms of operations.

And there is no inherent reason that buses must be bottom-shelf transportation. We’ve just treated them that way. Nationwide, federal, state, and local budgets have long systematically prioritized cars over mass transportation. Service cuts that tore up bus networks across the country during the recession haven’t been made up for. That’s largely why bus ridership declined in 31 out of 35 major metros last year. Even some cities on rail-building bonanzas, such as L.A. and Denver, are watching transit ridership decline across the board, in part because investment in buses has trailed so far behind the commitment to trains.

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