In Praise of Plain Old Bus Service

Portland Bus Grid. Image via Human Transit

Portland Bus Grid. Image via Human Transit

My recent post on counting the long term costs of building rail transit got a lot of hits – and as expected a lot of pushback.

There are a lot of people out there that are simply committed to the idea of rail transit, no matter how unwarranted a particular line or system might be.

I find it interesting that the place with the most people applying serious skepticism to transit projects seems to be New York – the place with the biggest slam dunk of a case for it of any city.

Lots of people, for example, have critiqued the proposed Brooklyn-Queens light rail line. In a city where there’s a desperate need for more transit, advocates are very focused on making sure the limited capital we have gets spent on useful projects. Not everyone agrees with each other, but there’s a robust debate, focused on the actual merits.

In cities without much experience of transit, there appears to be a huge bias in favor of very expensive rail projects regardless of their merits.

Some have asked me whether I support Bus Rapid Transit. I can, in some circumstances. Though Alon Levy has convinced me that the economics of South American style BRT don’t necessarily transfer to high income countries.

What I do very much support is significantly improved Plain Old Bus Service (POBS).

Most cities in America have pretty awful bus service, with meandering, radial routes that run infrequently and are basically deployed as a social service.

Contrast that with Chicago or LA (or even New York, despite its subway dominance), where we see bus grid networks that run with reasonable frequency.

I define “reasonable frequency” as meaning I can show up at the stop without consulting a schedule or tracker app, confident that my max burn on wait time is at least semi-humane. Ten minute or less headways would be best, but I can live with 15.

Jarrett Walker has highlighted the role of Portland’s high frequency bus grid, launched in 1982, as changing the game there and making the city’s subsequent light rail system actually functional.

Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted.  It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring.

I’m not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I’m talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside.

Pretty much any city could benefit from a better POBS network and higher frequencies.  This is where there is vast opportunity to invest in American transit without breaking the bank.

Yes, buses cost money. I’m not saying its free. This is where I say we should spend more. A solid POBS system is just the basics to be in the game for any city looking to retrofit transit culture.

Even Portland, the city held up as the exemplar for light rail investment, started by getting its bus system right.

from Aaron M. Renn
http://www.urbanophile.com/2016/03/24/in-praise-of-plain-old-bus-service/

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