Whenever someone hops on a bus, they’re not just choosing a safe, efficient transportation option. They’re also doing drivers a huge favor, as every car removed from the road means less traffic congestion for everyone.
Even drivers who might not be interested in trying multimodal options themselves consistently show bus riders their gratitude at the ballot box. Support for transit-dedicated tax increases often reflects drivers’ hopes that the resulting service upgrades will entice the people with whom they currently fight for road space to use buses and trains instead, clearing their rivals from the asphalt and finally delivering the freedom they were promised when they purchased their vehicles.
But when transportation networks are built to move cars, with skeletal bus systems plopped down only as a secondary afterthought, it’s the bus riders who suffer most when drivers jam the roads. As a result, people decide they’re better off contributing to the congestion, worsening the transportation shortcomings that plague so much of America.
In auto-dependent places, even the fastest roads are hostile to buses
DC United – despite its energetic players, passionate fans, and a glistening new soccer stadium (that happens to be named after a car company) – would be massive underdogs in a match against three-time defending UEFA Champions’ League winners Real Madrid. The Black and Red, based in a country where soccer, much like American transit, has had to battle for decades to break into the mainstream, would be up against a monolith that, much like the American auto industry, has seemingly bottomless coffers of cash that make it easy to buy success.
Now, imagine if Real Madrid were spotted a three-goal lead before the teams even took the field.
That’s what I experienced on an Orange County Transportation Authority bus trip from coastal Newport Beach to inland Fullerton’s train station while in Southern California for Thanksgiving.
The service seemed good at first glance – no transfers were required and the Route 47 bus took a direct route that, for my origin and destination, was virtually door-to-door. Since it was Saturday morning, the trip was free of traffic congestion and operated close to on-time.
But the 25-mile ride took around 90 minutes, nearly three times as long as the predicted driving time. The reason: a car driver could have utilized freeways for most of the trip, while the bus had to use slower surface streets and was subjected to frequent red lights.
In places like Orange County where freeways are the primary rapid transportation arteries, it’s challenging for transit providers to put this heavily subsidized car infrastructure to good use. The three main approaches to routing a bus line via a freeway all have major downsides:
- Nonstop express bus service between two neighborhoods: Such routes, like the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s Route 150 between the city’s downtown and its job center of University City, can effectively connect two distinct areas of high-intensity development. But they are susceptible to traffic congestion on the freeway, and transit providers wishing to serve intermediate communities must obtain sufficient funding to operate a local, surface-street bus route in addition to the express route. (For example, in San Diego, MTS routes 30 and 41 provide local service paralleling Route 150.)
- Periodic diversions to serve centrally located transit hubs: Such bus routes, like Golden Gate Transit’s Route 101 between Santa Rosa and San Francisco, can serve more intermediate destinations than a straight-up express route, and can also serve vibrant, multimodal communities located away from hostile freeways. But the extensive use of surface streets to access stops lengthens travel time considerably and, by increasing the amount of roadway the bus must cover, renders passengers even more susceptible to traffic congestion-caused delays.
- Bus Rapid Transit with freeway median stations: Freeway-median BRT routes, like Los Angeles Metro’s Silver Line, can serve intermediate destinations and, by using restricted lanes (ideally a dedicated bus lane, but often “managed” lanes that, thanks to “BRT creep,” cars can use with certain stipulations), are somewhat protected from traffic congestion. However, new bus-dedicated infrastructure may be expensive to construct, and because freeways are not conducive to transit-oriented development, first-last mile access may be challenging (an issue that can also hurt freeway-median rail transit).
Thus, transit providers often forgo using freeways altogether, instead limiting their systems’ extent to slower surface streets that, even when not congested, fail to offer competitive travel times. Closely spaced stops and circuitous routes often worsen this severe disadvantage.
Frequent and reliable public transportation reduces traffic. But traffic hurts transit riders the most.
All too often, those surface streets that bus systems are relegated to are congested with cars.
In metropolitan areas where leaders consider transit a mainstream form of mobility – perhaps even using it themselves – service is reliable at all hours, seven days a week. While trains and buses may be crowded at peak times, riders can know when they’ll arrive at their destination before even stepping out the door, giving them incredible flexibility and making it easy for them to plan their days.
But, just as a sound wave can resonate and shatter crystal, second-rate bus systems manage to exacerbate the impacts of traffic congestion-caused delays on passengers.
A rider’s pain begins before they even make any progress toward their destination. On a low-frequency route, a passenger may never actually see the congestion to blame, but their bus arrives extremely late, without explanation. Real-time arrival information, if available at all, assumes the bus is traveling at normal road speeds and fails to account for the delays, leading to an agonizingly slow countdown for riders.
Even on more frequent bus routes that run in mixed traffic, congestion increases the likelihood of bus bunching, leading to the same result for riders as on low-frequency routes: lengthy, unpredictable waits at often-inhospitable stops.
The bus may eventually show up, but for riders, the ordeal is far from over. A delayed bus may pick up riders who intended to take the next bus, in addition to its regular passengers, leading to a more crowded and less comfortable onboard environment. Lacking bulb-outs or other transit-friendly infrastructure, the bus must pull to the side of the road – battling parked cars and ride-hailing vehicles – to access its stops, then wait for a gap between cars to merge back into traffic. And for transferring passengers, even a short delay to the first leg of their trip can balloon if they miss their connection.
When a bus finally reaches the end of its route, it may already be late for its return trip, especially on underfunded systems that don’t have the resources to pay for sufficient terminal layover time. Thus, the driver must make a difficult choice: press on, but in the process subject themselves to greater stress and risk dangerous fatigue; or take their deserved break, but in the process put the bus even further behind schedule. Thanks to such late turns, bus delays can continue long after the traffic congestion at fault eases up.
To improve bus reliability, a transit provider may add padding into its schedules to account for potential congestion, but this comes at a substantial cost. Routes with slower scheduled travel times require a greater number of buses to maintain consistent headways, necessitating additional funding that can be politically challenging to obtain – especially if would-be riders have already abandoned transit due to the car-caused unreliability.
Even on rare car congestion-free days, a padded schedule means bus riders still lose, as buses must wait at mid-route timepoints and let cars whiz past. And congestion down the road could still delay the bus later during its run.
Despite their car-caused shortcomings, American bus systems move millions of riders each day. If we give them the attention and priority they deserve, everyone would be better off.
Car congestion plagues bus systems not just in suburbs, but also those of cities like DC, New York, and San Francisco that, by U.S. standards, are considered transit-friendly.
Yet in spite of these shortcomings, countless individuals continue to choose the safety, efficiency, and affordability of the bus over other transportation options. In many cities, even heavily hyped ride-hailing networks carry just a fraction of the trips buses do.
A tried-and-true transportation mode, bus systems are the nerve of countless cities around the world, providing fast, reliable mobility for the public. Americans may find rickety, one-lane tunnels for SUVs more exciting than dedicated bus lanes, but that doesn’t have to prevent us from treating our buses as the mainstream transportation option they are.
Photo of traffic in Manhattan by Stròlic Furlàn – Davide Gabino.