The Case of the Neglected Transit Bus

Tomorrow Eno will release a new study looking at regional transit governance (Getting to the Route of It: The Role of Governance In Regional Transit). In that study we examined six case study regions to determine where inadequate governance and institutional structures played a role in hindering the performance of regional transit networks. The study identifies flaws in the governance structures of some of these regions and makes generalized suggestions for improvement.

One interesting issue emerged from this analysis that was not related to governance: the attention paid to buses in large metropolitan regions with rail systems. In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean bus network, or ignored bus altogether.

It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).

The reason for the focus on rail over bus have been articulated numerous times: rail is seen as more of an economic development tool, there are concerns that so-called “choice” riders won’t ride buses, rail is “sexier”, and buses are generally perceived (most of the time correctly) as slow vehicles that lumber through traffic and stop every few blocks. Buses in this country have been neglected for so long that this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps there are ways to shift the focus back toward buses. Given the ongoing crisis in funding transit at the federal level, as well as a continued downturn in state and local support for transportation as delineated in a recent Pew Study, there is a strong policy argument for pushing transit agencies and regional planners toward more of a focus on improving bus systems. Given the choices of more young Americans to defer purchasing personal vehicles, and the rise of the shared-use economy, buses could potentially play a larger and more significant role in urban transportation. But in order to do so, they may need more help from policymakers. The following are some ideas:

  1. Open New Starts up to more innovative ideas.

The New Starts program is the largest and most longstanding discretionary grant program for transportation offered by the federal government. It is a highly competitive and popular program that offers funding for new transit lines across the country. Because it is a federal grant program, often seen by localities as “free” money, potential grantees are likely to shape their potential investment choices around eligibility for the program. However, insiders know that the real name of the program is the Capital Investment Grant Program; meaning eligibility is limited to capital grants for rail and bus. This means that there is an unintended bias being perpetuated by the federal government towards new capital for transit improvements across the country, rather than operational changes.

However, operational improvements are sorely needed. Most bus lines in the U.S. operate along some of the same trolley routes that were initially in place over 100 years ago, and updating route structures for modern living and work patterns often proves difficult. Bus systems in major cities remain challenging to navigate or understand, and tend to be tailored toward regular commuters rather than new or occasional users. They are also not necessarily coordinated with existing or planned rail lines. This makes it challenging for buses to compete effectively for passengers.

New Starts could help improve this situation if Congress allowed, and encouraged, potential grantees for new capital projects to bring innovative proposals to the table that include operational improvements. Transit capital investment should be part of a program of larger investments and policies intended to improve public transit. New Starts could help by incentivizing grantees to make sure that new rail and bus capital projects are accompanied by plans to better coordinate all modes of the transit network. New Starts already funds BRT projects, but BRT should ideally be part of a broader rethinking of the bus network, not simply an add-on to what currently exists. By offering grantees more flexibility, while still holding them accountable for the specific goals of New Starts, Congress could potentially encourage some innovative and potentially more cost-effective transportation investments. After all, the goal of New Starts should be to improve public transit networks, not simply to build new infrastructure.

  1. Bring in the private sector.

Sometimes the easiest strategy when it comes to improvements to the bus network can be the creation of a new, separate bus system. For example, the DC Circulator is a separate bus network operating within Washington, DC and is operated by the private sector in partnership with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). It is well branded, much easier to understand and navigate than the bus network operated by the region’s primary transit provider—the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)—and it fills in gaps in the route network that WMATA could not or would not fill on its own. The service is largely seen as a success and has expanded since it began service in 2005.

Contracting out for additional bus service is not the only way to engage the private sector and improve the bus network. While contracting out transit services is typically seen as a method of cost-reduction, it can also be used as a strategy for improving performance by encouraging competition. The taxicab industry provides an excellent example of how this can happen, as the new era competitors such as Uber and Lyft have forced traditional taxicab companies to adapt. In part as a result of competition from less regulated entities, traditional taxi companies are adopting new innovations such as all electronic payment, using phones and GPS to hail vehicles, and providing immediate customer feedback on driver performance.

Similarly, public and private operators in transit could potentially discover numerous innovations that could improve performance and customer service. In transit this is more likely to happen through contracting out of services, but innovation should be a goal across the board. The concept that transit should primarily be a fixed-route fixed-schedule service with large buses is out of date. Transit operators and city DOTs must innovate to survive, and contracting out for services could in many cases be the easiest way to push innovation forward.

  1. Offer competitive partnership grants.

One of the biggest barriers to better bus service, and BRT in particular, is a governance issue. In most major metropolitan areas, the streets are operated by a different government entity than the transit system. This means that in order to make improvements to the bus system that could potentially speed travel times – things like signal prioritization, pre-pay boarding, or bus-only traffic lanes – transit agencies need to work with other local authorities that may have different governance models or constituencies. Sometimes two public authorities have goals that are at cross-purposes and cannot successfully work together.

This barrier can be overcome. For example, in New York City the DOT and the transit authority (MTA) have successfully worked together to create a “select bus service” which is a form of BRT that includes some bus-only lanes, signal prioritization, limited stops, and pre-paid boarding. However, this happened in New York because it was initiated by the city, not the transit authority. Most DOTs do not see themselves as being in the business of improving transit; New York is an exception in large part because of the unusually high transit ridership there.

For other cities, a place to start could be to offer competitive incentives for partnership arrangements that improve transportation. States or the federal government could offer the grants, and the idea would be to reward local authorities that come together to tackle transportation problems. These grants need not be restricted to buses or even public transit – though this does seem a natural place to start – but could be awarded to any planning effort that requires challenging collaboration across agencies. The grants could provide funding for the collaboration itself, as well as a start towards the costs of the project.


Buses continue to suffer from a perception problem. They are perceived as being transportation of last resort for those who have no better alternative. This perception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in major cities, where bus riders are typically treated as second-class citizens within the transit network, often times in places where the transit network is treated as second-class citizen to the road network.

However, buses remain the greatest underutilized resource in transportation today. With simple adjustments to routes, and some low-cost amenities added in, buses could easily compete with private vehicles in more metropolitan regions without any major additional capital investment. In order to do this, buses need to be run with high frequency and reduced delays on routes that people actually want to use. This often proves more challenging in practice than in theory. But with a few small policy changes, such practices could become more common and have a substantial positive impact.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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