Three P’s of Better Bus: People, Priority, and Partnerships

Transit agencies and cities across the country are doubling down on bus— and it’s about time. Before the pandemic, cities like Houston, Baltimore, and Columbus redesigned their bus networks to improve access to opportunity; create faster more convenient connections; and enhance equity. The Washington, DC region’s Bus Transformation Project identified ways to increase the impact of bus, while Los Angeles and Boston began efforts to redesign their networks to better meet the diverse needs of their communities. These and other initiatives identified critical corridors where bus and its riders would have better stops and stations, as well as faster more frequent service to get people where they needed to go. It was a long overdue acknowledgment that buses—if planned and implemented correctly—could play a key role in improved mobility and accessibility.

During the pandemic, this focus on bus grew as we entered a new reality: changed travel patterns and needs, a renewed focus on the equity implications of transit, a nationwide bus operator shortage, and a much-needed focus on sustainability and climate. New federal funding opportunities are making it easier for communities across the country to invest in bus. As agencies think through the complexities of both redesigning and prioritizing bus, it’s helpful to consider a framework of considerations and practices as a backdrop to the work.


Naturally, the top consideration for improving buses is people. The need for convenient service for riders is paramount and involves planning for service that is reliable, safe, fast, and accessible. This is especially true for equity populations for whom there is often no other realistic travel option—and for whom unreliable or poor service can have devastating impacts on their livelihood in the form of lost wages or job loss. For non-riders or lapsed riders, improving service through better availability, speed, reliability, and amenities, can attract those who are not currently using it. For operators, planning for better bus can be an opportunity to improve their jobs, from the daily duties to their work-life balance. Redesigning bus networks generally includes updating route runtimes to reflect actual conditions, ensuring more breaks and reducing the stress that comes with always feeling behind schedule. It also provides a window to improve operator amenities and layover locations, including adequate space for layover, restroom facilities, and mid-route relief points for swapping drivers. 


Priority for buses—both on the roadways and increasing the focus to meet a region’s goals—is an important tenet to optimizing its value. A key element of nearly all bus network redesigns is identifying high-frequency corridors that are then flagged for bus priority interventions and other capital improvements to make bus faster and more attractive. Cities begin their work identifying corridors and types of investments to make, such as bus only lanes as well as queue jumps, transit signal priorities, and bus bulbs. They also consider investments in amenities, so bus stations become places themselves, with design elements, multimodal connections, and safety features. The simple fact of making projects about wholesale improvements to bus big, communitywide exercises elevates the importance of bus in the minds of stakeholders, elected officials, and the public. It also holds broader benefits, including helping achieve climate change goals, providing access to opportunities, and supporting a robust economy and upward mobility.


No bus system exists in a vacuum. Whether operated by an independent authority or by local or state government, there are many partners who must be included in planning for improved and prioritized bus service. The most obvious are roadway owners who are key to implementing any kind of bus priority treatments and roadside bus station amenities. But partnerships go deeper: local jurisdictions, advocacy groups, and neighborhood associations are just a few considerations. Obtaining input is critical to a successful plan and implementation, and partnerships with organizations that are trusted members of the community—such as social service agencies, nonprofits that work with different immigrant communities, and churches—are equally important. Establishing a strong level of trust with bus operators and their union leadership provides invaluable insight into what works or doesn’t, and builds support for the project as the operator’s first line of customer service when the changes are implemented.

Redesigning a bus network and/or priority bus service is complicated and requires equal parts technical work and engagement with the public and partners. But thinking about them through the lens of the 3Ps— people, priority, and partnerships—can help target the elements needed to successfully plan and implement improvements to bus that can help meet the needs and goals of regions and communities across the country.

Lora Byala, AICP founded Foursquare ITP in 2006 and led the company’s growth from just herself, to a few employees in her living room, to more than 50 staff across several offices. As President & CEO, she is responsible for overseeing Foursquare ITP’s strategic direction, company culture, operations, staff development, and more.

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