If you had flicked through the cavernous layers of New York City transit Twitter last Thursday morning (and practically ever since), all you would have seen were buses.
There they are, speeding down Manhattan’s 14th Street on freshly painted red lanes devoid of private car traffic, which is now banned for most hours of the day. This was the first glimpse of a true bus-centric street in America’s largest city, a feat of traffic engineering that fended off civil lawsuits to become a reality. The busway is now over a week old and has already increased the speeds of one of the city’s pokiest routes. In hindsight, its mission statement—give buses priority, and they will move efficiently—seems so painfully obvious, that it now seems difficult to believe it took this long to pull off.
But in another way, the battle to clear 14th Street for the workhorse of mass transit is par for the course. Public buses supply 4.7 billion rides every year in the U.S.*, and get very little respect in return. Buses, anywhere, are typically ignored in the media, in federal funding debates, and in industry discussions on mobility and sustainability. When they are mentioned, it’s usually with a negative association: grueling delays, declining ridership, and service cuts. Given all the buzz about “shared mobility” as the future of transportation—Ubers, scooters, and one day, perhaps, autonomous cars—the mode that’s already helping millions of people split rides gets left out of the conversation.
What’s the matter with the bus, and how can it claim its rightful place in the urban landscape? In his new book, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit (Island Press, out on October 10), Steven Higashide lays out the answer. “Most of what we hear about the bus in the United States is demoralizing,” he writes. But it doesn’t have to be, says the author, who’s the director of research at TransitCenter, the New York-based transit think tank and advocacy organization.
CityLab caught up with Higashide to talk about how federal transportation policy let buses fall behind, what makes a world-class bus system, and what advocates, elected officials, and riders need to do to have their ideas heard and implemented. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In the book, you make the case that the bus systems in cities across America need to get moving again. But how did buses get so bad in the first place?
You really can’t separate the awful status quo of transit and buses from systemic racism in America. It’s obvious when you look at the whole 20th century [in terms of] infrastructure and the built environment, with governments building highways through black and brown neighborhoods. You can’t separate any of that from the fact that in so many regions, public transit—and buses especially—are thought of as a social service. And that’s sort of the reality it creates.
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