New from The Atlantic: TheAtlanticCities.com. Because place matters.

The Future of the City

Off the Bus

Conor Friedersdorf

For most of my adult life, I've had an irrational aversion to riding the bus. When would it come? Where did it go? How much would it cost? Did I need exact change? These questions, a Southern California upbringing, and other factors less easily articulated combined to keep me off this form of transportation in more cities than I can count, even in cases where it was easily the best option for getting around.

Nor was I alone in this prejudice. Though buses are touted by planning experts as the cheapest way to improve public transit in a city, the average person has a more favorable opinion of subways, streetcars, trains and monorails.

In part, this is class prejudice, as Christian Lander irreverently suggested in Stuff White People Like (a book as much about class as race).

White people all support the idea of public transportation and will be happy to tell you about how the subways and streetcars/trams have helped to energize cities like Chicago and Portland. They will tell you all about the energy and cost savings of having people abandon their cars for public transportation and how they hope that one day they can live in a city where they will be car-free.

At this point, you are probably thinking about the massive number of buses that serve your city and how you have never seen a white person riding them. To a white person a bus is essentially a giant minivan that continually stops to pick up progressively smellier people. You should never, ever point this out to a white person. It will make them recognize that they might not love public transportation as much as they though, and then they will feel sad.

The notion that bus riders are poorer than folks who take other forms of transportation is true in many places, and changing the perception that only poor people take the bus -- and in some places, that only non-white people take the bus -- is a preoccupation of folks at various public transit agencies, uncomfortable as the implications of that fact may be.

But I suspect class differences in ridership are more of an effect of the general distaste for bus riding than a cause: people with the means to take another form of transportation do, while poor people who must take the bus. That the folks who rely on the bus lack political influence probably makes bus service worse than it would otherwise be. And so whole bus systems are caught in a vicious cycle.

Demographics certainly didn't explain my largely irrational aversion to buses (routes with high crime excepted). I'd happily ride the G Train through Brooklyn along with poor immigrants from every country on earth, but during weekend service shutdowns I'd complain bitterly to my fellow riders about having to take a bus between stations. Traveling from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I'd never take the crosstown bus. In fact, I've never once taken any municipal bus in Manhattan, preferring to spring for a cab or walk or take the shuttle between Grand Central Station and Times Square to get across town, even when it meant going out of my way.

Asked to ride on a bus full of Chanel Number 5 scented rich people or a subway car full of poor people sweating after a day of construction work, I'd prefer the latter every time, even if it cost a bit more and took a bit longer. Put another way, I am the demographic that must drive bus advocates crazy: someone who is enthusiastic about the idea of living someplace where I don't need a car, perfectly willing to take public transportation, and left relatively cold by the idea of buses, despite knowing that they're the cheapest, most cost effective way to move people around a city. 

In fact, my rational side has gradually been won over to buses. So this is an effort to explain my sometimes irrational aversion to bus riding, not to justify it. In this short series of posts I'll air all my grievances against buses. And in a final post, I'll explain how I stopped worrying and learned to love the bus (or at least describe a bus system that I'd happily ride daily and recommend to others). 

We begin in France. The collegiate summer I spent in Paris marked the first time that I lived anyplace without easy access to a car. I stayed at Cite Universitaire, just steps from the stop of the same name on Metro system. Our tuition included a pass for unlimited rides, a system map, and a brief orientation that taught me all I needed to know in a single ride: the lines were color coded, the last stop on either end of a line indicated the appropriate direction, and that's all there was to it. Every station had full maps on the system plastered on multiple walls, so on the street, as long as I could find a Metro station, I could get anywhere else in Paris, or find my way home, without any additional information.

Here is a map of the Paris bus system:

paris bus.jpg

The image alone makes me doubtful that I can quickly figure out what route to take in the comfort of my home, an enormous paper version of the map spread out on my lap. On the street, of course, a bus map would be unwieldy, and outdoor stops don't provide full maps nearly as reliably as subway stations.

There is also the information that isn't on the map: frequency of service. (Don't even get me started on time tables). Metro cars come fairly often, so that wandering into any station, you've got shelter and the promise that you'll be picked up soon. Buses are less reliable, missing scheduled times even when they are posted, which is irregularly.

Finally, it is impossible to take the wrong train at a Paris subway platform, whereas waiting at a bus stop, it would be easy enough to misread which bus you're supposed to take, or to climb aboard the wrong one unwittingly, or to miss your stop -- and once a mistake is made on a bus, reversing it is quite a bit more difficult than getting off a metro car, walking over to the opposite platform, and going back.

I suspect all these factors help explain why Paris guidebooks and restaurant Web sites specify the nearest Metro stop, whereas they seldom mention a bus route. By the time I left Paris I had the Metro wired, and I'd never taken a bus. So I suppose that is my first complain: bus systems are complicated!

I'd be very curious to see if any city has a system of their bus map that is different from the monstrosities I've seen so far. Below, a bonus map, clipped from a larger rendering of the Los Angeles bus system.

la bus map.jpg




Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus
The Florida Report - An 8-part video series with Richard Florida The Burden of Home Ownership

The Burden of Home Ownership

Part 8: Richard Florida argues that Americans need to get over their obsession with real estate More in the series »

The Path to Recovery

The Path to Recovery

The rise of megaregions, the decline of home ownership, the shift away from a car culture - these are among the nation's responses to today's economic turmoil. Adapted from Richard Florida's new book, The Great Reset. More »

High Speed Rail All Aboard!

The future of train travel, with The Atlantic's Derek Thompson