Style over substance

While Edward Glaeser makes some good points about bus service in Boston — that the Silver Line has too many stops, the route isn’t properly dedicated and that buses in general have flexibility and cost savings over train systems — he really drops the ball by focusing on what buses look like and what amenities they should have.

I hate to break it you, Ed, but wi-fi and television are best left for intracity bus service, like Megabus and Grayhound.

While I would love more beauty in our city, I think it’s more important to focus on getting things right first. Venice didn’t start as pretty as it is now, it started out as a couple shacks on some soggy islands. They had to overcome a lot of engineering challenges just to get something they could build on before even thinking about attempting something as ambitious as St. Mark’s or the Rialto Bridge.

Similarly, getting custom-designed and built buses may be a worthy goal, but without actual improvements in service, the MBTA might as well set a pile of money on fire with a page torn out of a Guttenberg Bible with a Stradivarius as kindling for all the good it would do. Glaeser mentions London and not only does the Greater London Authority actually fund Transport for London, unlike the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the British Ministry of Transport hasn’t illegally saddled it with the debt for a useless, enormously overbudget, substandard highway project that did nothing to alleviate the problems it was proposed to solve, again, unlike the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Public transport in London also already had combined higher ridership and fare-recovery than any system in the United States. Between just bus and the Underground, there are 3.4 billion riders in London a year. In Boston, for all modes there are 472.5 million riders a year. That’s an entire damn order of magnitude. New York City compares better, with 2.4 billion trips a year across all modes operated by the Metropolitan Transit Agency, but the bulk of that is the Subway (and London operates at a much reduced level of service at night in comparison with New York). Plus the two cities have similar populations, so London definitely comes out on top.

It should also be remembered that the main reason Transport for London wanted the neo-Routemaster doubledecker bus wasn’t just that they were cool or even that they had become an iconic, instantly recognized international symbol for London like the black Lanchester cabs or the Tube symbol, but that they needed a high capacity bus that could operate on London’s streets, which are narrower and less orthogonal than Boston’s. They had used articulated buses, which were cheaper to purchase, but they were problematic to drive and caused problems for cyclists and the drivers of other vehicles. Boris Johnson was partially elected because he vowed to get rid of them.

Getting rid of stops would speed up buses, as would fare control areas for buses and better dedicated bus lanes, but speed is not the most important issue for bus riders, especially not for local buses. It’s convenience. Bus riders are best served by high frequencies, by easy connections (there are few things worse than getting off a bus only to find that your connection just left and it’s another hour before the next one comes and one of those things is having to cross four or more lanes of traffic to actually get to the stop).

In fact, the chief problem with bus service (in fact with mass transit in the US in general) is that transport planners think purely of commuters and this is Glaeser’s big problem as well: he’s not thinking like someone who doesn’t own or want a car and rides the bus to supplement their walking, he’s thinking like someone who rides the bus to avoid being stuck in traffic on the way to work and back.

Yes, people ride buses to go to and from work. But they also ride them to go and visit friends, to go to the grocery store and back, to explore, to go to school and to do all the other things that involve going further than you can walk or at least walk without getting sweaty.

Bearing that in mind, the best changes to make to a bus don’t involve wi-fi or TV but maximizing space. Buses, therefore should be built with low floors. Instead of forward facing seats, all the seats should be interior facing and be capable of folding up. There should also be a basket above the seats for people to put backpacks, shopping and anything else they might be carrying. With a low floor, the engine will likely have to move to the front and project out for aeordynamic reasons.

These modifications, which will be attractive to other cities, are easy to make, but because planners are stuck in the commuter paradigm (if the experience of my friend in western Masschusetts is anything to go by, it’s probably because they don’t use their own systems), they don’t ask them of manufacturers. But adopting them will make buses more convenient to use and increase their capacity — and damn it, I’ve gone and made them look like they belong on a high speed rail line. How about that — good design is attractive. And not one TV screen in sight.


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