It took until 2017 for me to actually understand buses.
I don’t know; there just weren’t buses anywhere I lived, not in any relevant capacity. I rode the school bus for 10 years and then took the university bus one year at college, but that was basically it. Even when I studied abroad in Nagoya, I only used one specific bus route; I got on at the first stop and got off at the last. So until I moved to Seattle in 2017, there wasn’t really a chance for me to get to know the dang things.
Buses & Me
It was in Seattle when I finally rode buses every day to get places. With no useful train service, and no car at my disposal, it was bus city, and luckily Seattle is apparently one of the best cities in the United States when it comes to busing.
And honestly… it’s so fascinating! I love riding buses and seeing the way they interact with the neighborhoods and commercial areas around them. The way that traffic is (and often isn’t) designed to help the bus go through. And how buses connect to each other, to train transit, and to commuter lots.
Seattle was quite good at it all when I lived there. Buses were usually late by a couple minutes, but it was very rare to have the sorts of delays that truly ruin a day. And there is a wonderful app that helps you plan trips and track buses as they approach. Pretty great stuff.
The challenges that busing in the U.S. face are almost entirely budgetary; they don’t run often enough for residents to use them, they cost too much to be worth it, or they don’t run enough routes. Revenue drops, and service gets cut even more, continuing that endless cycle of worse and worse buses.
In the 2020s, we desperately need to improve this. Partly to reduce traffic congestion and fix our cities. Partly to give poor, young, and elderly people better mobility. And majorly to help combat the coming storms of climate change.
Trains, whether that’s high-speed rail, light rail, street cars, or maglev, are great. I love train transit and will champion it forever. Mayor Pete and Amtrak Joe better deliver because I have VERY high expectations on that.
BUT, honestly, buses are more important than trains. They don’t require tracks, so routes can be changed or added at will. They’re just much, much cheaper than trains or even streetcars. They can run much later in the night or earlier in the morning, and when automation takes over they could be absolutely vital.
But I didn’t even know about all of this until three years ago!
Buses in America: Gotta Get Better
Most of the U.S. is basically a bus-free zone. The city of Chattanooga has some buses, but they are so rare and so limited that they are practically useless. So I went my entire life until my early twenties before I ever actually rode the bus.
The networks, the lines, the routes, even how to pay (IC cards are great)—it’s all stuff I didn’t think about whatsoever. And this is a teachable moment for the way that most of America likely sees public transit; there’s a wide knowledge/experience gap that people just don’t seem aware of.
Buses are portrayed in pop culture as sad, sleazy places for poor people and drunk businessmen. That sucks. Buses are wonderful machines that are absolutely necessary for the future. Therefore, the 2020s need to change things. Let’s make riding the bus cool again and stop living in the mire of car culture. Alright? Alright.