This interview was originally broadcast on March 29, 2012.
Everyone loves to hate riding the bus — passengers complain about cleanliness, overcrowding, timeliness and inefficiency. In a piece for Salon.com, writer Will Doig argues that disliking the bus is "practically an American pastime," but buses are key to improving mass transit. Doig thinks that rather than spending money on expensive new systems like light rail or streetcars, cities should focus on making buses better.
"I think when people say that they don't like the bus," he tells NPR's Neal Conan, "what they're really saying is that they like the train better than the bus. And there are a lot of really good reasons for that."
Doig (who admits he took the subway to the studio for this interview) says the appeals of trains — design, reliability, comfort and frequency — could easily be incorporated into bus systems. And some cities are already doing that by aiming to employ bus rapid transit, or BRT.
The biggest and most effective approach is removing the bus from traffic. "If you can give it its own lane that's physically separated from cars so that even people who want to drive in the bus lane are unable to, that's the key, and you'll be zipping through the city in no time," says Doig.
Doig explains why buses have an image problem and the things cities around the world are doing to improve bus transit.
On the importance of frequency and predictability
"With BRT, it's much easier to make the bus show up when it's supposed to. And I would say the two biggest issues with the bus tend to be frequency and predictability. They don't tend to run as often as trains, which a lot of people don't like.
"There's a transit consultant named Jarrett Walker who likes to tell drivers about the importance of frequency by saying imagine if you had a gate at the end of your driveway that only opens every 15 minutes."
On making the bus prettier
"People don't like to talk about the aesthetics of the bus because, you know, transit agencies are strapped for cash. Who wants to make the argument that buses should just be prettier? But actually, if you think about it, the average bus costs about half a million dollars. They're very expensive. ... I talked to one design expert who's worked in bus design; he says for just $5,000 more, you could really make the bus a nicer bus itself. And if that gets more people to the fare box, then maybe the expense is worth it."
On the problems with bus schedules
"One of the problems with schedules is not just the schedule, but the actual map which relates to the schedule. First of all, look at a subway map, and it looks fairly clear where everything is going and about how often it's going to arrive. You look at a bus map, and every single route looks not only incomprehensible but exactly the same. And people have suggested redesigning bus maps to make it more visually clear how often your particular bus comes.
"And in fact, not only ... with, say, bolder lines or different colored lines, but things like actually rebranding bus routes as, say, the green line, which is something that they've done in Australia. And that's more one thing that kind of makes it seem more like a train than a bus, which some people might like."
International bus rapid transit systems
"There are cities that have ... made the bus basically a form of what people see as upper-class transit. Bogota, Colombia, has a great BRT system. Guangzhou, China, has an excellent one. And I was actually just in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago checking out their new BRT system there, and it was quite a nice ride. And in fact, Mexico City has an extensive subway system as well. And since they implemented BRT, the BRT system has come to be seen as the upper-class form of transit because it's perceived as safer and cleaner. And I should also just say, during their earthquake last week, the subway system shut down and the BRT system kept running."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Let's face it: Nobody loves the bus. You never know how long you're going to have to wait before the humble workhorse of mass transit arrives. And when it does get there, it's too often crowded, unclean, uncomfortable and slow. Clearly, the future lies with light rail and streetcars. But transportation writer Will Doig argues we don't need those fancy expensive new systems, just better buses; buses that, in fact, are more like trains. What would it take for you to get on the bus?
Just a quick reminder, we're not going to be able to take any new calls on the program today. Will Doig wrote "It's Time to Love the Bus" for Salon.com and joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
WILL DOIG: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you're right there in the heart of midtown Manhattan. Did you take the bus to the studio?
DOIG: I'm embarrassed to say I did not. I took the train.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: The subway train...
CONAN: ...which is probably the easiest way to get around Manhattan. But one of the things you talked about in your article is there are innovations that could be adopted that could make the bus as efficient, as reliable and as pleasant, maybe a lot more pleasant than the IRT?
DOIG: Yeah. I think when people say that they don't like the bus, what they're really saying is that they like the train better than the bus. And there are a lot of really good reasons for that. Trains have a nicer design. They go faster. They have stations instead of shelters. They often run more frequently. They have easier to follow routes. And buses, you know, take forever and then arrive two at a time. So I think there are a lot of those aspects of the train that can be incorporated into bus systems.
And some cities are doing some really innovative things with that. The biggest innovation in bus transit these days is called bus rapid transit, or BRT, which is basically a way of making the bus function more like a train. So that means things like having dedicated lanes that traffic can't go into, paying before you get on, boarding at grade, which means you stop, you know, you walk right onto the bus rather than go upstairs, and also having stations instead of shelters. So there are some cities that are doing some really nice things with that.
CONAN: And posted schedules so you know when the bus is going to get there that are reliable.
DOIG: Yeah. I mean, with BRT, it's much easier to make the bus show up when it's supposed to. And I would say the two biggest issues with the bus tend to be frequency and predictability. They don't tend to run as often as trains, which a lot of people don't like. There's a transit consultant named Jarrett Walker who likes to tell drivers about the importance of frequency by saying imagine if you had a gate at the end of your driveway that only open every 15 minutes.
And then as far as predictability goes, there's a lot of things that you can do beyond BRT. For instance, here in New York, some of the buses are being outfitted with GPS trackers so that you can look on your smartphone and see exactly where the bus is and then just go get it when it's getting close to your stop.
CONAN: You can also look at the sign on the shelter or, as you would have at the station, they would say next bus arrives in three minutes.
DOIG: Yeah. I believe that they're doing something like that in San Francisco.
CONAN: So the innovations - and some of these don't have to be such high-tech things. You said - talked about ideas to authorize the buses during rush hour to drive in the shoulder lanes on the highway.
DOIG: Yeah. There's a lot of low-hanging fruit when it comes to making the bus better. And I think that low-tech fixes are something that bus systems should really think about. So, for instance, like you said, in Chicago during rush hour, they're letting express buses drive on the shoulder. Here in New York, we're putting bus bulbs on the curbs, which basically means building out the curb at bus stops so that the bus doesn't have to pull in and out of traffic, which, obviously, speed things - speeds things up. You know, there are a lot of really easy things that you can start with.
CONAN: And you're going to have to start with two words that a lot of people have a problem with: molded plastic.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DOIG: Yeah. And that's, you know, the funny thing is people don't like to talk about the aesthetics of the bus because, you know, transit agencies are strapped for cash. Who wants to make the argument that buses should just be prettier? But actually if you think about it, the average bus costs about half a million dollars. They're very expensive. For maybe just - I talked to one design expert who's worked in bus design, he says for just $5,000 more, you could really make the bus a nicer bus itself. And if that gets more people to the fare box, then maybe the expense is worth it.
CONAN: And it sounds like a lot of money - $5,000 more - but if more people go to the fare box, as you suggest, it will pay for itself. But what do you do to revive the reputation of this humble vehicle?
Well, I would say that BRT is the best way. Now, obviously, BRT isn't for every city. You have to have a pretty robust transit ridership to justify it. But there are cities that have, you know, made the bus basically a form of what people see as upper-class transit. Bogota, Colombia, has a great BRT system. Guangzhou, China, has an excellent one. And I was actually just in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago checking out their new BRT system there. And it was quite a nice ride. And in fact, Mexico City has an extensive subway system as well. And since they implemented BRT, the BRT system has come to be seen as the upper-class form of transit because it's perceived as safer and cleaner. And I should also just say during their earthquake last week, the subway system shut down and the BRT system kept running.
We're talking with Will Doig, a staff writer for Salon.com about what it'll take to get you on the bus. Robert's on the line, calling us from Chico, California.
ROBERT: Good morning or afternoon, depending on your location. I've been to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico a number of times, and down there riding the bus is a joy. When you get to the bus stop, the buses come frequently. I mean, you'd wait no longer than three minutes between buses. And when you get on a bus, you'd get from point A to point B rather more in a hurry than not, compared to our local transit here in town, which literally, one day when I tried to go five to six miles across town, it took over two hours.
So for me to be on a bus, I want buses to come frequently, and I want buses that get you there quickly. Our transit system goes from the north end of town to a hub in downtown, then you have to transfer buses and go out to, say, the east side. And again, four to five miles took two hours of ridership to get there, and that's not just going to work. Nobody wants to spend an extra two hours waiting for a bus at a bus stop or standing in a transfer station downtown.
CONAN: It's also hard to bring enough antacids onto the bus with you to make up for the time you're wasting there.
ROBERT: Oh, absolutely. You sit and watch the clock go by and, you know, you're wasting - you could waste four hours commuting six miles, which is ridiculous. I mean, the bus system in Mexico, the buses are far more primitive and not very long on, shall we say, creature comforts. They are efficient, and that's what we don't have. We don't have the efficiency of Mexico.
CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
ROBERT: All righty, thank you. Take care.
CONAN: Email from Terry, who says: What would make me take the bus? Two words: decipherable schedules. Will Doig?
DOIG: I think that's a great point. One of the problems with schedules is not just the schedule, but the actual map which relates to the schedule. You look at a bus map - first of all, look at a subway map, and it looks fairly clear where everything is going and about how often it's going to arrive. You look at a bus map and every single route looks not only incomprehensible but exactly the same. And people have suggested redesigning bus maps to make it more visually clear how often your particular bus comes.
And in fact, not only, you know, with, say, bolder lines or different colored lines, but things like actually rebranding bus routes as, say, the green line, which is something that they've done in Australia. And that's more one thing that kind of makes it seem more like a train than a bus, which some people might like.
CONAN: Let's go next to Brian(ph). Brian with us from Portland, Oregon.
BRIAN: Yeah. I just wanted to say, first, I think bus rapid transit is kind of an oxymoron. And picking up on what the guy just said, Boston a while ago added what they call the Silver Line, which is a bus rapid transit, which they tried to pretend was another train. But the train goes so much faster. The train, especially during rush hour, the train is the fastest way you can get around town.
CONAN: The Silver Line connects the train, The T, to the airport.
BRIAN: Right. And the bus - and it goes in traffic. And even though it's got a dedicated lane, there are still people making left turns. There's still people crossing the street. You can't go 35 miles an hour across town in a bus in traffic.
CONAN: Will Doig, how do you overcome the traffic problem?
DOIG: Well, sure, a couple of things about that. First of all, I do think that true bus rapid transit essentially does not exist in the United States. Now, there are some people who would argue that. I think there are about five cities that claim to have BRT, but each one of those is missing some element of what most of the world would consider bus rapid transit. When you go to a city like Bogota, the buses, they have their own - not only do they have their own lane. They literally have their own roadway in certain places, so you are zipping right along. And the same thing was true in Mexico City when I was down there.
I've ridden the Silver Line in Boston. I don't like it either. It doesn't seem to work very well. You have to remove the bus from traffic. That is by far the biggest priority. If you can give it its own lane that's physically separated from cars so that even people who want to drive in the bus lane are unable to, that's the key, and you'll be zipping through the city in no time.
CONAN: Brian, thank you.
BRIAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Email from Matt(ph) in Chapel Hill, which he says has one of the largest free bus systems in the country: Anyone can use buses fare free. They are virtually town-wide. Fare-free systems could definitely encourage more ridership. Is free fares an important element of BRT?
DOIG: I would love it to be. I'm not sure if that's going to happen. There are systems that have extremely low fares, especially in other parts of the world. I think you can ride the bus in Mexico for about 5 pesos, which is something like 40 cents. But, yeah, I think bringing fares down would probably get people on the bus, especially if they had an option to either take a more expensive train or a less expensive bus.
And on that point, I think I should say that I think that BRT works best when its working complimentary to a train system because then you have the option of - like your previous caller from Oregon said, you can take the train if you need to get somewhere far away or really quickly, or you can take the bus, which might be more versatile or easier to use.
Bill in Yorktown, Virginia, writes: What would it take me to get on the bus? The bus would have to come close enough to my house that I could walk to the bus stop like school kids. I live in the suburbs. It's a four-mile drive to the bus stop with a parking lot. If I have to get in a car anyway, how is the bus better? It's only two miles to the nearest stop, but there's nowhere to park.
Yeah, I think that's a good point. And unfortunately, if you live somewhere in the suburbs or somewhere that a bus stop is four miles away from you, you're probably living in a place that's not dense enough to really have a comprehensive rapid transit system, and that's unfortunate. It's sort of a choice that we made in this country a long time ago was to suburbanize. And, you know, there are park-and-ride systems. It sounds like that's what he uses.
DOIG: But for the most part, the buses - it doesn't work very well when you're not in a dense city.
CONAN: Here's an email from Keith in Albany, California. There's a saying in the San Francisco Bay Area: There are lies, damned lies, and next bus.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DOIG: Yeah. I think that that's actually something that, you know, people - or the different systems have struggled with in different places. I think that, you know, even here in New York, I'm assuming he's talking about the countdown clocks that they have there, which tell you when the next bus is arriving. I know that here in New York, when they first installed the countdown clocks in the subway, there were some that were just so out of whack it would tell you the next train was in three minutes and then it wouldn't come for 15 minutes. If you start out doing that and you're - then you're really going to ruin people's faith in finding the next bus. It's probably actually doing more harm than good.
Will Doig, a staff writer for Salon.com. His piece "It's Time to Love the Bus" appeared on March 3rd. He's with us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's talk with Skip, and Skip is with us from Denver.
SKIP: Hi. Longtime listener, first-time caller, that's the cliche for the day.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKIP: I drive all the way from the west side of Denver, downtown, and then I catch the express up to Boulder. It takes me about an hour and 15, hour and 20 minutes. I can take my bicycle on the bus. I get up there. Once I'm there, I don't have to worry about going anywhere in my car. I could just take my bike anywhere I want. I don't have to worry about parking or paying for parking. And it would take me an hour to drive that 50 miles every morning if I just took my car instead. It's wonderful. I love RTD.
CONAN: I commute very much the same way, though I don't get to take my bike on the bus. I lock it up at the park and ride. But, Will Doig, this works.
DOIG: Yeah. I think that that raises a really good point, which is that if you can do things like let people bring their bike on the bus or other perks like put Wi-Fi on the bus, for instance, so that people can work on their way to work, those are huge. There's a - something - well, Google actually has its own sort of private bus system that employees of Google are allowed to use to get to work. And I'm sure that Google did that in part so that people can work on their way to work. A lot of people would rather do that, especially if they have a long-haul commute. And there's really no reason that we can't put Wi-Fi on buses if we can put, you know, GPS trackers on them.
SKIP: Hey, Neal...
SKIP: ...if I just could say also I'm really excited because RTD is building a new light-rail line that goes right past where I live, and it's going to be opened next year.
CONAN: I've seen the construction underway there, and I'm sure you're also looking forward to getting your streets back.
SKIP: I'm - well, my streets are fine. I don't have any trouble with getting around on my bike if I need to or I can take my car. But the thing I like about it is is that I can always put my bike on the bus or the light-rail train.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
SKIP: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Chris, and Chris calling from Oakland.
CHRIS: Hi. I'm director of the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District. And we've already got most of the stuff that you're talking about. We've got Wi-Fi on our trans bay buses. We've got GPS on all of our buses. We've actually got a small fleet of fuel-cell buses that are zero emission. But the real problem is most places, even in our district but certainly in the United States, don't have enough population density to justify the kind of headway to how often the bus comes that make people want to take the bus. Unless you've got headways down below 15 minutes and really down below 10, people aren't going to won't take it. And it takes density like you've got in Manhattan in order to do that.
CONAN: So are the places fundamentally limited, Will Doig, where this could possibly work?
I think so, unfortunately. There's a couple of things that you could possibly, you know, do to deal with that situation. There are certain places where the, you know, in the inner core, the frequency is really fast. So if somebody needs to make a transfer from, say, the suburbs and come in, they can make their transfer quickly. But there's not too much you can do. Again, when you're in the suburbs, buses just don't work very well. And I guess, I should say the dirty little secret of trans advocates is that driving is usually faster than taking the bus or the train because you have to walk to the station and then you have to wait. So it is sort of a choice. It's a tradeoff.
And, Chris, we have this email from Christina(ph): I live in Oakland, and I take the bus regularly. My main concern is the bus is actually kind of expensive - $2.10 a ride. When it's me and my husband going somewhere together, it doesn't make much sense for us to both pay fare each way when we could get there in half the time and just pay the equivalent amount for parking.
CHRIS: Our fare box only covers 18 percent of our operating expenses and zero percent of our capital expenses. So the problem is in that comment is that in the United States, we vastly subsidize the automobile. Our gas is far too cheap, and we require businesses and residential areas to subsidize parking.
CONAN: All right. Chris, I take it by saying gas is much too cheap, you're not running for public office this year. But, anyway, thank...
CHRIS: Yes, I am.
CONAN: Oh, really. Good.
CHRIS: And in the '60s, I argued for a $2-a-gallon gas tax. I'm now arguing for a $4-a-gallon gas tax.
CONAN: Good luck with that.
CHRIS: That's what you get when you're run in Berkeley.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: I see. OK. Will Doig - thank you for the call, Chris. And, Will Doig, thank you for your time.
DOIG: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Will Doig writes for Salon.com, and he joined us from our bureau in New York. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.