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Can Americans Learn to Love – and Ride – Bus Transit?

Compared to other forms of transit, public buses are cheap, flexible and plentiful. But policymakers aren’t that interested in buses, and ridership is declining. It’s a problem that needs fixing, argues Steven Higashide.

Austin, Texas, redesigned its bus network in a way that emphasized frequency and increased access to what people could reach.
(Spencer Selvidge/KUT News)
For much of Steven Higashide’s career in public transit advocacy, bus ridership has been falling. Between 2008 and 2018, it dropped by 17 percent across the United States as competition increased from ride-hailing apps and micromobility companies. The falling price of gasoline generally made driving more tempting too. All these additional private vehicles on the road, along with the increased volume of at-home delivery services, slowed bus travel down and made it even more uncompetitive.

But that isn’t the whole story. As Higashide wrote in his 2019 book Better Buses, Better Cities, there are a disparate array of cities where bus ridership surged over the last decade. From Houston, to Seattle, to Columbus, Ohio, local officials reorganized routes to ensure more frequent and direct service. Some cities are even experimenting with fare-free bus transit. Lo and behold, when the bus came on time and took riders to places they wanted to go, more people used it.

As transit agencies continue to grapple with COVID-19, urban bus routes have held up better than their rail-oriented counterparts. Governing talked with Higashide — director of research at TransitCenter — about his book in light of the pandemic, why politicians are usually unconcerned with buses and whether local agencies can expect continued federal support for operating budgets.

Governing: You argue that much of the U.S. is doing transit policy wrong, and that better bus service, especially more frequent bus service, is a fast and cheap way to boost transit ridership. How has the last year of the pandemic affected your thinking?

Steven Higashide: The last year has been really tough and traumatic for both transit riders and people who work at transit agencies. If anything, I have an even greater appreciation for the work that's done by folks inside public agencies. We already expect so much from our transit networks, we already know that transit is such an important part of fighting climate change and creating regions that are equitable. And they just had so much more to deal with over the course of the pandemic. It's really heroic work that those folks do.

On the policy side, I certainly believe that bus service is still the fundamental foundation of a transit system that works for people. Over the past year, we've seen so many people switch to working from home. But transit has remained critical for essential workers and essential industries. It has kept our health-care systems, our food systems and our utilities afloat. A lot of the people providing those services not only are riding transit, but specifically are riding buses. I believe as much as I did when I wrote the book that bus service is critical to U.S. cities and that we still don't have enough service in most cities.

Overcoming Bus Stigma

Governing: In the United States, unlike in a lot of other wealthy countries, buses are stigmatized. It creates a negative feedback loop where policymakers don't pay attention to buses because they don't have a strong constituency, which makes bad service more likely, which means only lower-income folks ride it. How do we break that cycle?

Higashide: It is a self-reinforcing cycle. We have to break it in a few ways. Of course, we need a political understanding at all levels of government that high-quality transit gets us to our climate and equity goals and that buses are essential to high-quality transit. But how do you actually get to that political understanding?

One of the themes that came up again and again when I was researching the book was that agencies can really begin a virtuous cycle by achieving what might seem like small wins at first. Putting a bus shelter at every major stop or redesigning the bus network in a way that increases access for more people. These by themselves can seem like incremental changes, but they start proving to transit riders and to political leaders that when you improve transit more people use it. You prove that the agency is worthy of more trust and more investment.

A good recent example of this is Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, where first they redesigned the bus network in a way that emphasized frequency and increased access to what people could reach. And then, just a few months later, they got the public to vote for a generational investment in high-capacity bus rapid transit and light rail. I think that's in part because they were showing that they're an agency that can deliver. That often begins with showing that you can make the bus a better experience for people, because that's what a lot of agencies can achieve without huge public investment.

Riders vs. the Privileged Class

Governing: But in my experience, many politicians are so uninterested in bus reform. You have examples ranging from Rahm Emanuel backing off bus rapid transit campaign promises to Jumaane Williams blocking a bus route because of a single homeowner’s complaint. Why are opponents privileged above riders so often?

Higashide: So often, at the neighborhood level the people who fight against transit improvements are homeowners or business owners who are concerned about parking. It's people who tend to have more wealth and more access to the local political infrastructure. Someone like a local cafe owner is going to be a lot more likely to show up at the community board meeting than someone who's working the second shift and riding the bus. That's why it's so important to have community organizing turn the lack of urgency around transit into a big political problem for local decision-makers. That can happen through organizing bus riders themselves.

It's also important to put together broad coalitions like, for example, in Indianapolis where voters approved raising the income tax to improve transit service. It took a coalition that went from the Chamber of Commerce to progressive churches, social justice organizers, young professionals' groups, really a wide range of communities representing a lot of different interests.

Governing: Have you seen any particularly successful bus campaigns since you wrote the book? Or has the pandemic put everything on hold?

Higashide: I've seen a lot of essential coalition work across the country to win federal relief funding for transit and on the local level to convince transit agencies and their boards to restore service on a faster timeline than they were originally planning.

Zooming out, one of the most exciting areas for collaboration is closer work between transportation and housing advocates. In Oregon, housing folks have done a lot of work to end bans on apartments. That's going to make transit a more viable solution too. In so many of the biggest cities, the fact that we have a housing crisis is also driving transportation inequity because it's pushing a lot of people further and further away from jobs.

The Pandemic and Bus Policy

Governing: How else has the pandemic affected bus policy? For example, Amazon and ride-share both made buses slower before the pandemic. But there’s been a lot less ride-sharing and a lot more Amazon since.

Higashide: In general, road traffic has come back faster than transit ridership. That creates a real danger. If cities are becoming re-congested, that can slow down transit and slow down the recovery of ridership. There's been a lot of good work in places like Boston, San Francisco and New York to create new street space, new transit priority lanes and carve out space for buses before all the traffic came back. Those are important achievements, but we've got to do even more. Securing space on the street is going to be essential to maintaining the reliability of transit.

Transit provides access to what people need. Over the past year, agencies found a lot of new ways to meet that mandate that are pretty nontraditional. For example, in Sacramento, some buses were repurposed into mobile Wi-Fi hot spots for students who are doing distance learning. In Dallas, transit vehicles were repurposed to deliver groceries to paratransit customers who weren't in a position to travel safely. That speaks to the public service orientation at most agencies, where people were willing to think outside their traditional role and figure out other ways to get access to essential services through the transit system.

Governing: To make buses more equitable, you have to increase frequency. But federal subsidies largely can’t be spent on operational expenses. This changed during the pandemic, but do you expect that to be temporary? Or could it be a lasting change?

Higashide: I think it should be a lasting change. I have been excited to see some new ideas and new energy show up at the federal level. Congress member Hank Johnson, who's from the Atlanta area, recently introduced a bill that would create a $20 billion a year transit operations program. It is designed in a way that incentivizes new service and investment in areas with a lot of need. I can't predict what is going to happen with that bill, but it shows that there are federal decision-makers who are thinking a little differently.

If there's operations funding, that would enable agencies to run a lot more service. I don't know that I've seen a huge emphasis on buses [in the infrastructure debate], but a lot of transit funding is quite flexible. Most transit funding that regions get can pay for new buses or pay for improvements along the bus corridor. The question is, where's the money to operate more service along those corridors?

Avoiding Transit Mode Wars

Governing: You note a finding from the California Air Resources Board, which stated that even if every car in California were electric, and 75 percent of the electricity came from renewable resources, driving would need to decline by 15 percent for the state to reach its climate goals. From that perspective, I could also see an argument against, say, diesel buses and in favor of light rail or subways. Why should this be the transit we focus on?

Higashide: We get into these mode wars or solution wars, where some people are really focused on electric cars, or e-bikes, or transit. Really, we need it all. We're in a climate emergency and there's no single solution that's going to get us to a sustainable world. We have to overhaul transportation, we have to do it quickly, and that means embracing a lot of solutions.

I don't think that buses are superior to trains. We need a lot of investment in trains. We need new subway extensions, commuter rail improvements and more light rail. We also need a lot more bus service to complement that. We need a strong spine of high-capacity transit, and then we have great arteries and bus lines running to many more neighborhoods that have good service today. It's all connected.

Governing: I feel like there's an argument for buses over something like a new subway line in buses are faster to implement, cheaper and more flexible.

Higashide: We are going to need a lot more transit service to make our cities more equitable and if we're going to solve the climate crisis. The fastest way to do that is to run, depending on the region, 50 percent more bus service, or 100 percent, or 200 percent or 300 percent more. The transit network is so sparse in some U.S. cities that it is a mode of last resort. We have got to change that.

Governing: Car dependency reminds me a bit of the employer-based health-care system. Although pretty much everyone agrees it's a terrible way to run a health-care system, once it's in place there are so many stakeholders — including a lot of everyday people — that it is really hard to change. That's particularly true in America. You note that the U.S. is one of the only developed countries where transportation emissions continue to get worse. How realistic is it to believe we can unring this bell?

Higashide: It can be daunting to think about sometimes. But we also know that we can improve transit quickly. That was one of the more heartening lessons from writing and researching the book. It is possible to improve bus service and improve people's lives on a fast time frame.

We can take heart from some of those smaller victories and recognize that it's possible to do even more. We've been scaling up car infrastructure for 75 years at this point. What it's done is leave a lot of people stranded and helped to heat up the planet. We have a moral imperative to do something different. It can be done. We've got to grow the movement of leaders who are working to change this. That takes government investment. It takes interest and resources from philanthropy. It requires hard work and passion from everyday people, transit riders and a wide range of people who care about the future of cities.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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