For Joan Gomez, 78, the best part of public transportation is winning at her favorite dice game, Bunco. “I’m getting out all on my own to participate in activities that I hadn’t in years,” she says of Via, the ride-hailing service that West Sacramento began using as an alternative to a city bus. “Now I am attending ceramics class again, where I’ve made a number of very nice pieces, and I’ve started back up at Bunco. And since I started riding Via, I’ve won at Bunco twice.”
Gomez has lived her whole life in the Sacramento region and says she used to get around primarily by car, which she can’t do anymore. When her psychologist told her to get out of the house more, she took up a ceramics class, where another student alerted her to the Via service. In West Sacramento, customers can book a seat in a Via van, and the app will match them with riders going the same way. Now, for $1.75 a trip, a “warm, friendly” driver escorts Gomez to all her activities.
This partnership is just one method cities are employing to deal with the 17 percent decrease in bus ridership since 1990. Even though buses are cheaper to implement than rail, more efficient than trains, and better for the environment than cars, there is an aversion to riding them, so cities are working to create solutions that provide the service of a bus without actually feeling like the bus.
West Sacramento is one of two cities in America where Via is deploying vans to subsidize a bus system. The other is Arlington, Texas, which decommissioned its sole bus last year citing low ridership (only 200 riders per day). Since May, Via’s service in Arlington has gained triple the ridership of the bus.
People don’t like to ride the bus
It’s no secret that America doesn’t value public transportation. However, the bus holds a special stigma that cars and even the train doesn’t. The source of this disdain for the bus may seem obvious at first glance. Buses are often hot, slow, and can get stuck in traffic. But anyone who rides the subway knows these frustrations to be true of the train as well. What city transportation bureaus really have to overcome is the cultural perception that buses are, frankly, gross — also known as the “bus stigma.”
The stigma against taking the bus can be seen everywhere. Articles like Thought Catalog’s 9 Reasons Why Taking the Bus is The Worst, a piece that baselessly claims “statistically on a crowded bus of 40 people there is going to be at least 5 robbers,” riddle the internet. Even less severe pieces, like this one by Lifehacker, cite “weirdos on the bus” as one of the challenges of taking public transportation.
And in movies and television, characters who ride the bus are often down on their luck. The Pursuit of Happyness, 8 Mile, and Superbad all paint the bus as a grimy last choice, not an agreeable option.
On the flipside, there are those who enjoy taking the bus but feel alienated for doing so. One reader on AskaManager.org wrote in with the question, “My office will not stop freaking out that I take the bus to work.” She said that her co-workers were “constantly commenting on the type of people who ride the bus,” remarking on how dangerous their office’s neighborhood was, and also offering her rides. Below the post, a slew of comments from bus-lovers says they’ve dealt with similar reactions to their choice of transit.
Who rides the bus today
Joseph Schwieterman, who studies public transportation, says the decline of bus ridership today has many causes. “It’s been death by a thousand cuts,” he says. “There is no one culprit, which makes fixing the problem frustratingly complex.”
This is often the case with public transit, and can be seen in the history of the bus’s predecessor: the streetcar. In the 1880s, electric streetcars were the most popular form of transit and a profitable business. It’s been largely debunked, but many originally thought that the General Motors Streetcar Scandal — a theory that claimed National City Lines, an organization GM was part of, bought up all the streetcar lines and converted them into bus lanes — led to the downfall of streetcars and rise of buses.
What actually killed streetcars was the proliferation of private cars, which crowded the tracks and kept streetcars from running efficiently, along with the streetcar’s plummeting value of five cents. Streetcar companies were required by law to keep paved roads cleans (which cost more once damage from cars was factored in) and keep their prices at five cents per ride.
After World War I, this became difficult, which led to the demise of the streetcar and made way for buses. In the long term, GM benefited from the demise of mass transit but it was not solely responsible for the end of streetcars.
After the bus gained popularity, it became a symbol of civic unrest and segregation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1955 with Rosa Parks’s civil disobedience — attempting to sit in the front of a segregated bus — and ended with bus desegregation in 1956.
But in June of 1956, during the heat of the boycott, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 allocated $26 billion to pay for the construction of 41,000 miles of highway, many of which leveled low-income neighborhoods and shifted Americans and the government’s focus towards cars.
And in 1967, the Federal Highway Administration was built, solidifying the automobile’s dominance. Highways encouraged wealthier people to abandon cities, buy cars, and live spaciously in shiny new suburbs, thus eliminating the need for them to take or care about public transit, the effects of which reverberate today.
Today, Schwieterman cites the strong economy (meaning people can afford to buy cars), ride-sharing or ride-hailing, the popularity of a work-from-home lifestyle and the bus riders themselves as reasons for a decline in ridership. “I think the clientele on buses is often what people are worried about,” he says.
According to a report by the American Public Transportation Association, which categorizes public transit as either being “bus” or “rail,” a bus includes bus rapid transit and trolleys, and rail includes a commuter train, light rail, subway, or streetcar. The two largest income brackets riding the bus today are those making under $15,000, who account for 30 percent of reported ridership, and those making between $25,000 and $50,000, who account for 23 percent of reported ridership.
On rail, the largest ridership comes from those making more than $100,000, who account for 29 percent of reported ridership; the next largest is those making between $25,000 and $50,000, who account for 21 percent. Overall, the income demographics of riders are spread more evenly on the rail compared to the bus. The report also shows that at least 65 percent of bus riders are not white, but on the rail that number drops down to 55 percent.
Americans live in a society where your socioeconomic class is tied to your possession of a car. The average price of a car in the United States is more than $36,000; for those making under $15,000 that may not be able affordable. According to the American Public Transit Association report, 68 percent of bus riders have no vehicle, but this is true for only 50 percent of rail riders. Increase in ride-sharing and ride-hailing, scooters, and e-bikes have also diminished the demand for buses.
Problems with the bus
Schwieterman says that from a technological standpoint, buses have been stranded. “Running a bus every 30 minutes when the world is going at lightning speed is a recipe for failure,” he explains. “I think in big cities it’s more of a more a question of concerns about the slow speed and long wait times you may wait for the bus. In smaller towns I have been to, I feel there is a strong stigma.”
Amos Haggiag is trying to fix this problem with his company Optibus, a software provider that helps cities optimize their public transit system with algorithms and machine learning. He has worked with cities like Las Vegas and Austin to improve their bus transit, and says America’s lackluster bus infrastructure has to do with the prominence of the automobile and politician’s preference for addressing middle-class constituents.
In America, public transit is often seen as only benefitting low-income populations, groups often ignored by government agencies. “Sometimes you’ll see more budget goes into trains mostly because — it’s a sad reason — but mostly because high-income population use that form of mobility, which is something that is very specific to the US,” Haggiag says. “In China, or Asia in general, or in South America, it’s not the case.” Improving bus lines isn’t the kind of political win that rail improvements can be.
Another problem with US bus systems, Haggiag says, is that it was not implemented properly in the first place, especially in sprawling suburbs, giving car owners no reason to use them. “People will not use the [bus] system because you did not create a system that would work well for them,” he says.
He also notes that many of the buses he sees running in America are just not as nice as the ones that run in other countries, which he speculates may have to do with the Buy America initiative, a program that requires cities to only buy American-made buses.
There are “a very limited amount” of companies you can purchase from, and they tend to be of worse quality, Haggiag says. In other countries, buses can be made by Mercedes or BMW, brands that carry a clout that could chip away at the stigma. Schwieterman says that the Buy America initiative had the unintended consequences of slowing the pace on innovation and driving up costs.
Today, cities spend billions more on the development of rail than they would need to if they invested in buses. The Second Avenue New York subway stop cost $2.5 billion to build, and Citylab reports that subways cost between $200 million and $900 million per mile. But, according to another article, buses cost between $300,000 and $600,000 each and are cheaper to operate per mile.
Haggiag says an investment is buses would be smart, as trains are restricted to rail but buses can reach a wider demographic. “Once you have bus lanes in a congested city, you get to the point where riding a bus is faster than driving in a car, and that’s the tipping point where people understand that it doesn’t make sense to use the car,” Haggiag says.
How cities are reinventing their bus systems
A few cities are trying to improve their bus system by addressing the coverage, frequency, price point, and ambiance toward the bus itself.
In the Bronx, the MTA hosted public forums to ask riders what they need out of their bus system, as ridership has been steadily falling for years. At the meetings, riders debated whether they would rather have more frequency or more coverage, discussed the importance of bus amenities like real-time information, and talked about what their recent bus experiences have been like. This process was first done in Staten Island, where the MTA implemented six new rush-hour trips based on customer feedback.
In 2015, Houston redesigned its bus system by getting rid of lightly used routes and making bus paths straighter and easier to remember. By eliminating stops, they were able to send buses more frequently to densely populated areas, servicing about 1 million Houstonians. Now passengers don’t have to wait more than 15 minutes for a bus.
Washington, DC, is also addressing its lack of bus infrastructure by allocating $2.2 million for the Bus Transformation Project, a committee that will ask riders in the region what role they think the bus should play in DC, then come up with concrete steps to provide better service in the next 10 years.
Seattle is one city that wasn’t subject to the 17 percent bus ridership decline over the past two decades. Just this year, the city announced that its transit system is growing faster than any others in the country. The 191.7 million rides taken in 2017 is the highest it’s ever been in that region.
The city accomplished this by doing a few things: making transfers from light rail to bus easier, implementing bus lanes, optimizing routes so they go to the most congested places, and implementing queue jumps that allow buses to start before other cars at stoplights. All of this costs significantly less than reupping rail.
“Cost for a lot of these projects are fairly inexpensive,” Seattle city traffic engineer Dongho Chang says. “When we put in a bus-only lane, we put in some paint and some signs, which could cost as low as $10,000 to $20,000.” Much of the efforts focus on analyzing high-volume areas and locations with significant delays and trying to solve their issues.
An increase in ridership may also have to do with the bus’s affordability, which Seattle has achieved by giving discounts to seniors and low income riders and letting high schoolers ride for free.
Chang says that it’s key to not only invest in bus routes but also to concentrate employment and housing in urban areas. Today, 97 percent of residents live within a quarter mile of a bus stop and Seattle’s downtown has 262,000 jobs.
“I think what we’re implementing in Seattle is very translatable to smaller cities and other large cities,” Chang says. “It’s really about planning your community so growth and development are predictable and transportation modes have the ability to serve growth as it occurs.”
The rise of micro-transit
But some cities are abandoning the bus altogether and turning to a fairly new concept: micro-transit. Micro-transit combines the familiarity of an automobile with the convenience of a frequent bus — i.e., what Via provides for residents like Joan Gomez in West Sacramento. In cities where people commute using private cars, this is a much softer transition into public transit.
One 2018 study by Schweiterman gathered data on cities where ride-hailing apps worked with public transit. According to his data, these partnerships were practically nonexistent before 2015, but by early 2018, almost two dozen were underway.
In Dayton, Ohio, the transit authority partnered with Lyft to provide free rides between select transit stops. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the city will contribute $4 to every Lyft trip to and from selected light-rail stations. They will do this for up to 40 rides for monthly transit pass holders, and up to two rides for those with non-monthly passes.
And in Vallejo, California, the city partnered with Lyft to provide $2 or $3 rides to the Amtrak station which links Sacramento to San Jose. Rides were limited to those who work in social services, food manufacturing, and hospital organizations.
Via founder Daniel Ramot says his goal was two-fold when working with Arlington, Texas, and West Sacramento: both to provide an alternative to car-owners and to make rides available for more “disadvantaged” residents without cars.
Using ridership data, Ramot says they were able to optimize routes and find out where most of the traffic was coming from and at what time. This allows Via to create a “dense cloud of virtual stops that was more flexible than a bus route but not a private car.”
“For Americans who can afford a car, sometimes they don’t even think about [public transit],” Ramot says. “Breaking that habit is not easy. What we can do with the city is educate residents about this alternative when maybe they weren’t even thinking of the bus as an option.”
But many micro-transit programs don’t make it past the pilot. In 2016, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia partnered with Uber to offer discounted rides to 11 suburban railway stations. But due to a fogginess in how to measure the effectiveness of the program, the offer stopped in September 2017.
In Centennial, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, the city subsidized Lyft rides to a light-rail station that ran service to downtown Denver. The program only ran from August 2016 to February 2017 due to lack of demand. Apparently the city had allotted $400,000 for the program to use by June, but at the time of cancellation only $130,000 had been spent.
As bus systems in America are fighting extinction, some are redesigning completely while others are turning to third-party technologies. For Gomez, micro-transit is better than a bus. It’s on-demand, friendly and luxurious. (“They send a Mercedes Benz van!”)
Even if a bus was available, she says, she wouldn’t have taken it. “You don’t feel that warmth that Via gives you,” she says. “It’s lifted my hopes in life so much.”