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  • Writer's pictureAdhish Gurung

Do not park the bus!

Current transit planning pursues sexy tech but shouldn't it solve for livability instead?

What I do as an urban planner is not always easy to explain, but a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, 99% invisible, does the job for me. In episode 388 titled Missing the Bus, transit expert Steven Higashide explains how the humble bus can remake our cities, but only if city planners can make the experience of riding it a lot more pleasant. In brief, Higashide helps city planners apply pro-public transit initiatives through guides and workshops (which is what I aspire to do). How do we get there? "Please use all doors to enter and exit the bus. Next stop: innovative governance!"


Growing up, I had friends who never took the bus or never wanted to be seen taking the bus. This is not unique to Kathmandu, Nepal. There are cities all over the world where taking public transit, especially the bus, is associated with being poor. In the Netherlands where I currently reside, the Dutch may not fully understand this, but Americans understand it all too well. Generally, many transit riders of inefficient transit systems complain that the bus is slow, unreliable, and dirty. If they have the means or the opportunity, they take an Uber, a taxi, or drive their own car, all of which add to traffic in already congested city streets. Poor transit management is not only a problem for "sustainability" but is also an attack on poverty. Higashide describes how in New Orleans, having access to a car increases the range of job opportunities from around 10% to upwards of 70-80%. When cities do not invest in their bus systems, they are not investing in alleviating poverty.

Fawning over technology

Currently, discussions on transitioning into sustainable mobility usually relate to one thing - more electric cars. This is a flawed feedback loop that cannot truly provide equitable mobility solutions. It definitely cannot solve the problem of congestion either. Similarly, in the United States, Elon Musk of Tesla proposed a Hyperloop solution for Chicago that could carry 2,000 people an hour. A bus-only lane can already carry up to 8,000 people an hour. Convert some more of the street into a transitway and that number jumps up to 25,000 people per hour. The technology to solve our congestion problem is already here.

We are all gullible to wondrous innovation - for example, the Autonomous Vehicle (AV)- or self-driving car - which can supposedly drive us to work while we sit in the backseat answering emails. Proponents of AVs argue that these vehicles can park themselves, curtail accidents, and overall be more energy efficient. However, many of these advancements do not tackle questions about equity or long-term sustainability. Nor will everyone be able to afford their own self-driving car.   

Houston, we have a solution!

Buses are part of a larger transit network and in order to have effective bus routes, thoughtful transit systems need to be developed. Traditionally, bus routes change all the time. Stops are added, removed and they never quite feel direct. This is primarily because bus networks are generally outdated and require an overhaul. The city of Houston in the United States faced this particular issue of outmoded routes and took a radical approach to redraw the entire bus transit system, taking into consideration new business areas and residential zones. As a result, over a million new jobs and a million new households are within walking distance of frequent transit. Being radical is necessary. Proposing bus-only cities can be radical changes that improve our travel experience. City planners and policymakers need to stop day-dreaming about futuristic vehicles and focus on proven, even if slightly unsexy, effective transit options already at their disposal.    

Understanding human behavior is equally crucial in understanding how a bus-only transit method can truly work. Memorably, professor Nick Tyler of University College London explained human behavior with regard to public transit at a planning convention I once attended. While debating having openable windows on their buses, the TFL (London's transit authority) found that when passengers on a hot bus could not open any windows, they blamed the TFL for the unbearable heat. However, when those same passengers could open even just a tiny window, they blamed the weather instead and bore the TFL no ill-will, even though the windows actually made no difference to the internal temperature. Impressions matter! We know now that effective bus-transit systems can truly deliver equitable and sustainable travel for their riders. However, convincing them to take the bus is equally important as having the bus show up at their front door. Investing public capital to research these “behavior drivers” (pun intended) is the first step.          

Find the insightful podcast here.

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