The Magic Bus?

Photo of Green Bus to Green AcresThe recent plans for metropolitan Paris include many interesting ideas for using trains to integrate outlying neighborhoods into the city. They also helped change my perspective on urban transportation.

I've always favored streetcars, trains, and subways. Maybe it's the poetic qualities alluded to by Mario, or that they move so many people efficiently, with fewer negative ecological impacts than gas-powered autos. It's also nice to be able to relax on the way to work instead of negotiating rush hour traffic.

However, trains aren't available in many areas and new systems require massive political and economic backing. While I agree with Burnham, Brendan, and others who encourage planners to think expansively, small changes can generate momentum behind larger changes. When it comes to public transit, we might start with the city bus.

Buses generally lack the poetry of railways. This may be why there hasn't been a Bus Named Desire or a Soul Bus. I tend to associate buses with congestion, exhaust, delays, noise, and advertisements. They kind of look like giant loaves of Wonderbread. These impressions aren't necessarily justified, but I think they're fairly common. At the same time, bus systems are less expensive and more flexible than trains. If we can make them more appealing, they might become a popular alternative to private vehicles.

Photo of San Francisco streetcarsImprovements to buses can take many forms. Assuring that they're ecologically friendly is essential, and may be less prohibitive than laying new train tracks in dense urban settings. As for delays, programmed traffic lights and dedicated lanes might allow buses to pass quickly through congested streets. There could also be smaller buses with more frequent and extensive routes. Comfort should be a top priority, along with wireless Internet, as found on Google's buses. Great artists and designers could be commissioned to turn buses into beautiful parts of the urban environment, like the vintage streetcars of San Francisco.

Photo of Corgi 1:50 scale Green BusCompared with the rail projects proposed for metropolitan Paris, improving buses can be accomplished swiftly by local government. So why not make them as efficient as trains, comfortable on the inside, and attractive on the outside? This may help reinvigorate public transportation and lead to more expansive change.

(Photo credits: Green Bus to Green Acres by Frank H. Jump; San Francisco streetcars by Will aims to rage; Corgi 1:50 scale Green Bus from JB Diecast)


James Dowden said...

Buses have their limitations, especially in cities with a pre-modern core. Oxford, England, has severe problems with air pollution significantly exceeding the government's limits on Queen Street (this was aggravated by the pedestrianization of Cornmarket Street, but simply reversing the pedestrianization would merely result in both streets having too much air pollution). Oxford has conventionally been thought too small (population c.150,000) for intermediate modes, but nothing else is likely to succeed in environmental terms.

petersigrist said...

That's interesting, James. I wonder if smaller, cleaner buses might work in a place like Oxford?

BK said...

I agree with the underlying idea of this, but what I've run across many times, even still in this economy, is a bit of a stigma against the bus in the US. Many people associate the bus with the poor and crime and can't or won't look past that. Its one of those things that has gone south for so long, it would need a lot of digging out to get its public back in a more favorable light. I think some of the suggestions of smaller, cleaner buses would help, but you would also have to work on bus shelters, cleanliness and general safety etc. There's less infrastructure involved overall, but many more decentralized point locations to worry about maintenance and up keep.

Ari Tamat said...

Good solutions such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems have existed for years. The public image of bus services have been changed for the better in cities where BRT has been adopted, such as Bogota, with the TransMillenio, Santiago (TransSantiago) & Mexico (MetroBus). A good overview can be found at http://www.transportpolicy.org.uk/PublicTransport/AdvancedBuses/AdvancedBuses.htm

petersigrist said...

Definitely. Changing the negative image of buses will take a strong commitment to cleanliness, safety, and maintenance of shelters throughout the city. Thanks for bringing up these considerations.

And thank you for the link, Ari. So many great resources there! It fills in the details that I don't even come close to addressing.

Dan Lorentz said...


Good post on a subject I’ve been thinking about lately, too.

A couple days ago I posted this comment on a post about the superiority of light rail and streetcars over bus transit for Washington, DC in particular and cities in general, on Richard Layman’s Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.

My comment:

“For small cities--say, of about 50,000 to 300,000--are there any street car systems in use?

Assuming such small cities can't afford streetcar systems (is this a valid assumption?), would it be silly to think that a really good bus transit system might have a chance at achieving some of the benefits of a streetcar system? What I'm thinking of is a bus system with clear routes, very frequent service, really cool bus stops and maybe better, fancier buses. Wouldn't investing in and building such a system send the right kind of signals--including a promise of permanency and commitment-to attract sustainable spillover effects?

I'm fully prepared to be disabused of my optimism, my hopefulness about this, but I'd like to hear the arguments and evidence first.”

So far, the only response to my question has been, basically: No, bus transit won’t work that way.

Layman’s blog has lots of other interesting posts about this topic.

Layman's blog: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/

The post I commented on: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/03/biggest-reason-for-dc-to-focus-on.html

petersigrist said...

Dan, Your comment and questions from Richard Layman's blog are very well put. First, questioning the assumption that small cities can't support streetcar systems, and then introducing the possibility of improved bus service as an alternative. It's interesting that convincing arguments against this possibility didn't really come forward. I appreciate the link to that discussion.

petersigrist said...

It's great that you pointed out Layman's blog, as I'm going to attend a conference this weekend on transit-oriented development in DC, with a talk by Michael Sorkin on Friday. I hope it will give some insight into the questions you posed.

Amanda Crowe said...

I love that these Magic Buses are everywhere in Manchester.

beniz said...

I like the idea of having wireless internet on the bus, this is especially good if the bus journey is very long. Good idea James! =D