Standing on the Corner, Waiting for the Bus

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Eight Ways Public Transportation is Failing Us

I’ve been a public transportation enthusiast (geek) for most of my life. From the first time I rode the DC Metro in 1987, I wanted to ride trains all the time. When I graduated from college, it was pretty clear that I had to live in a place with great public transit.

I had a driver’s license for a couple of years but I was a terrible and distracted driver, prone to bursts of dancing behind the wheel. For the health of myself and the rest of the world, I knew I should put down my car keys and never pick them up again. Since then I’ve lived a (mostly) delightfully car-free life in Chicago, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Denver. Always car-free, almost always delightful.

Bus systems exist in each of these cities and are often supplemented by some more glamorous options. The larger cities can support a subway (DC, San Francisco, Chicago), while others round out their transit options with streetcars (New Orleans, almost DC), trolleys (San Francisco), light rail (Denver, San Francisco), and Pittsburgh even has two funicular railways (I gush about these fantastic incline railways here.). It’s fantastic to have these options but these flashier rides are often not available in every neighborhood, and buses fill in important gaps.

These are the non-scientific complaints of my 14 year study riding buses.

Neruda on the Bus

1. Buses run infrequently. One bus in my neighborhood in Denver ran every 60 minutes! WHAT? What if I missed that bus? What if I was going to a job interview? Or work? Or a funeral? If I’m expecting to pay ~$2 for a transit ride and then have to shell out $15 for a cab, it’s going to make me very grumpy.

2. Buses are unpredictable — they are often late or early, rarely on schedule. Buses coming earlier than anticipated leaves riders in a transpo pickle as irritating as buses that don’t show up or come late. Yesterday I looked up the schedule for a bus in Pittsburgh and made my evening plans based on the schedule I found online. I sauntered over to the bus stop, planning to arrive four minutes early. But the bus was five minutes early. I ended up being 25 minutes late, instead of right on time. This doesn’t work for people, and public transportation will never be widely embraced with problems like these.

3. Real-time info is often incorrect. Real-time arrival apps are now available in many cities but even this info is can be inaccurate. Not everyone has a smart phone and people shouldn’t have to own one in order to catch the bus.

4. Sometimes they don’t show up at all. Why? Actually why doesn’t even matter. The reason isn’t going to get me to work on time. They need to arrive when scheduled.

5. Bus bunching. Often buses will get stacked up and there will be a huge gap where there are no buses and then one, two, three, four, or FIVE in a row will show up to massive crowds at each stop, choking everyone’s commute. This was frequently a problem on the 14th & 16th St buses in NW Washington, DC.

6. They are inefficient. Sure, you can fit a lot of people on a bus and each person riding the bus instead of driving alone means there is a lot less congestion. But in most cities in the United States, there is still tons of traffic and buses rarely have dedicated lanes, meaning they still have to sit in the same non-moving mess as each car. This doesn’t make any sense.

Northside Bus Stop7. Dreadful bus stops. Check out this bus stop on the Northside of Pittsburgh. Was this bus stop sign thrown there in a drive-by placement scheme? There’s no seat, no shelter, no crosswalk, no consideration for the person taking — or trying to take — the bus. Imagine waiting here in a Pittsburgh winter for a bus that may not show up.

8. Price. Sure, transit is heavily subsidized, but it still takes a heavy toll on the wallets of those who depend on it most. New Orleans manages to charge just $1.25 per route and has a full day pass for only $3. They are winning. Some places charge a base fare and then an additional fee just to transfer to another bus. Pittsburgh, love of my life, I am shaking my head at you. $2.25 for the fare and $1.00 for a SINGLE transfer? That is absurd.

We need to invest in public transportation like the invaluable resource that it is for everyone, even those that don’t use it.

What would improve your experience with transit?

Have you experienced any of these problems?

What’s the most frustrating aspect of transit for you?

What’s the best?

3 thoughts on “Standing on the Corner, Waiting for the Bus

  1. Every cigarette smoker knows that you can summon the bus you want by lighting a cigarette. It worked like magic back in the day when I had lungs of coal.

    1. HAHAHA! Oh yeah! That was very helpful in DC before cigarettes started fading and fading after the smoking ban. Bus stops in DC have a lot more people waiting at them usually than Pittsburgh or any other city I’ve lived in so there was a greater chance of a smoker in the crowd. I would always get excited when I saw someone light a cigarette because I knew the bus was about to appear. I haven’t seen that work so much in Pittsburgh, but maybe I should go get some to summon the buses when I need them.

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