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The Future of the City

Final Thoughts on the Bus

Conor Friedersdorf

After explaining my partly irrational aversion to bus riding, I wrote a followup post on buses and safety. Its argument is reflected in this excerpt:

Once upon a time, fear about crime on public transit was focused on subway systems. Although I cannot speak for every city in America, that certainly isn't true today in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. In all those cities, underground mass transit has a reputation for being quite safe, whereas it is quite common, on asking a resident why they don't ride the bus, that safety is mentioned as one reason.

This squares with my anecdotal experience. Riding the DC subway everyday to work for roughly a year, I never once witnessed a crime or even felt threatened by another rider, whether on the subway car or on the platform. In contrast, my very limited experience on DC buses -- roughly two dozen trips during my two years in the city -- included witnessing a robbery, a small fight, rowdiness on two occasions that rose to the level of making me uncomfortable (I am not particularly sensitive either), and several instances at bus stops in marginal neighborhoods where I felt far less safe than underground on a subway platform (regardless of its neighborhood).
This turns out to be mostly accurate but misleading. Safety is among the most common reasons people cite for avoiding the bus, but In Washington DC, it turns out that overall the bus is safer than the metro. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to figure out that my own experience on DC buses is very heavily skewed toward what I imagine are relatively dangerous hours -- that is to say, my aversion to buses meant that I rode them a few times when accompanied by a friend or date who favored that method, but mostly I traveled by bus late at night when I had a long distance to travel, the subway was already closed, and I was either someplace where I couldn't find a cab or else traveling someplace that the only drivers I could find refused to take me.

On the question of safety perceptions, I couldn't find data, but heard from readers who agreed and disagreed with me. An example of the latter:

I prefer the bus to the D.C. Metro, which tends to be dark, impersonal, and often fairly empty, except at rush hours. On the bus, there's often a sense of community, more interaction among passengers, and at least slight interaction with the driver, who is a sort of present authority. (I've run into you on the bus in D.C., come to think of it!)

Of course there are incidents on the bus, but I've been harassed more underground than above it, and I've watched bus passengers step in to confront harassers, which I've never seen on the metro.
I also came across this article about renewed fear about crime on the New York City subway. So on the subject of bus safety, I'd like to retreat to this claim: it is one of the most cited factors by folks who don't ride the bus, some people perceive that buses are less safe than the alternative, and changing that perception can help increase bus ridership. Its also worth mentioning that increasing ridership -- and thus the number of people on buses, waiting at bus stops, and walking along bus routes -- does increase safety.

I've already argued for simplified routes, system maps, and route numbering schemes. Other innovations that you should lobby your local bus agency/municipal government to adopt: dedicated bus lanes, express routes, GPS on the bus, estimated time of arrival signs on bus stops that change in real time, clear signage, and easy methods of payment that don't require exact change.

These suggestions are commonly discussed. My last idea is probably already out there too, but I haven't seen it on the blogs (though I have seen it partly implemented in some places). It comes from my time in Spain, when a lot of the buses in El Centro congregated at Plaza Nueva, a public square near the city's cathedral. I forget exactly how things worked since I never actually took the bus, but I know that you could get a bunch of different routes from that one spot.

Were I a city planner trying to improve bus service, I'd try to design or exploit a public square where a lot of buses could meet and people could transfer between lines, and invest heavily in that area as a permanent transportation hub.

It would have dedicated bus lanes going into it and out of it, vendors would be invited to sell goods there in an open air market, coffee shops and bars would be encouraged, food trucks would be permitted to park there, a corner would be dedicated to a skate park, a small police substation would sit at another corner -- basically I'd try to have an area where there were always a bunch of people around, a bunch of different stuff to do, pleasant places to sit, lots of places within walking distance, etc.

And the investment, the permanence it implied, would go some ways toward stoking the kind of development that subway stops bring. In fact, a city like Los Angeles where more subway stops are likely in the future would do well to build a future subway stop location as a bus hub now pending future development.

Finally, as a political matter, I'd encourage transportation advocates at the local level to hound everyone on the city council to ride the bus for one day, or even one week, every year -- and to make good on threats to hound the hell out of them at public meetings and election time if they don't make good on that threat.

It's one thing to make arguments on a blog, as I am doing, but talking to the ruling class about public transit is no substitute for having them experience first hand what their constituents use everyday, and I'll bet that improvements would occur if more public officials used the bus system and talked to fellow riders about their frustrations/ideas. 



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