The Bus is Back: Lessons Learned

Joan McGuire

Five takeaways from my bus journey around Oregon.

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Over the past month, I rode all kinds of buses: articulated buses, cutaway buses, ski buses, on-demand Uber-style buses, buses that act like trains, charter buses to reach other buses — and, finally, the TriMet No. 12, which takes me from work in our downtown offices to my house in Northeast Portland.

I initiated myself into the transit geek world by becoming fluent in jargon  — throughput, dwell time, and boardings per revenue hour — and acronyms like BAT, TSP, WFLAP. I spoke to bus planners, bus marketers and mobile bus ticket designers.

What did I learn from riding the bus, a cost effective transportation service that is nevertheless losing riders around the country? I learned how to design the bus of the future — a bus people want to ride. Here are my five takeaways:

1. Don’t waste money on tech and marketing. Instead, make simple service upgrades.

I asked everyone how to make the bus cool. A true millennial, I assumed technology was the answer.  Buy fleets of self-driving buses, I thought, and pack them with iPads and Wi-Fi. Ron Nails of Columbia Area Transit agreed. “We need to get everything on that bus but a disco ball and a stripper pole,” he said.

Others beg to differ. It turns out that the best way to boost ridership is through basic improvements. “Being innovative is not a reason to use a service,” said Matt Berggren, the brains behind Salem’s failed on-demand bus.

Related Bus Story: Division project redefines Bus Rapid Transit

Similarly, international transit expert Jarrett Walker told me about “elite projection,” his argument that relatively well-off transit decision makers project their desires onto the masses. What would make a Beemer-driving CEO spring for the bus? Maybe a flashy marketing campaign.

But what about the average citizen? She wants a bus that arrives on time, even on the weekends. Bus stops shielded from rain.

2. Reduce uncertainty with cost-effective upgrades

Planning the bus is science; riding it is a religion, built on faith. Cascades East Transit planner Jackson Lester told me that in Bend, riding the bus feels like, “having a fence around your car that retracts every 30 minutes, and you’re not sure when it’s going to happen.” Likewise, Salem’s on-demand bus riders had to wait on an unmarked sidewalk, without proof the bus existed.  

To solve that problem, Salem’s transit agency stuck signs along the sidewalk, reassuring people the bus would arrive there. Real-time, app-based tracking provides similar peace of mind.

Eugene planners just scheduled the bus so often you don’t need tracking. The “Emerald Express” BRT buses arrive every 10 minutes, almost faster than you can buy a ticket.  

Related Bus Story: Eugene expands “Emerald Express” Bus Rapid Transit system

3. Don’t pit cars and buses against each other

A popular transit planner infographic depicts a bus alongside some 30 cars, both ferrying the same number of passengers. The point is clear: Buses are far more efficient than single occupancy vehicles.

The future won’t be so categorical. Buses are more efficient than cars, but the two modes can work in harmony.

Related Bus Story: Salem experiments with an on-demand bus

Nat Parker, CEO of Daimler’s “urban mobility” subsidiary moovel, headquartered in Portland, said cars are becoming public goods that now work in tandem with transit.

Think carsharing ventures like Daimler’s car2Go. Or BMW’s ReachNow. Or any of the ridesharing services that have sprung up in the past few years.

Transit planners agree with Parker. Subsidized Uber and Lyft rides, they said, could fix transit’s last-mile problem. I stepped even further into the future. In Eugene, I hitched a ride to the Amtrak station on local tech company Arcimoto’s electric tricycle.

4. Pay attention to rural and recreational bus service

Oregonians treasure public lands, but without transit access, low income residents and people who are carless by choice are unable to access national forests and parks and scenic areas. Plus, the traffic congestion in these areas is choking highways and polluting the air.

Related Bus Story: The Mount Hood Loop

It’s difficult and cost prohibitive to build a rail line to Columbia Gorge waterfalls or Mount Hood hikes, but it’s easy to schedule a bus. The ground breaking Mount Hood loop, funded in part by a Western Federal Lands Access grant, will be the first bus network to completely encircle Mount Hood, providing access to remote recreation areas and ski resorts. 

5. Buses need money

City and state governments struggle to fund efficient bus networks. Only 10%-15% of transit funding comes from fares; transit agencies rely on tax hikes, and uncertain state and federal grants for the rest. The Mt. Hood Express must renew its grants every few years. The city of Bend doesn’t even have a transit agency. Until the recent passage of HB 2017, the bus network lacked a stable funding source.

But even with the new money, transit agencies will need more resources to build networks that accommodate the thousands of new residents moving to this state. Potential new sources of funding may fill the gap. 

Related Bus Story: Is car-oriented Bend ready to embrace public transit? 

The state is studying congestion pricing on local freeways. Congestion pricing forces cars to pay for entering downtown during peak travel times.  Tolling local highways is another option.

Some of the money from tolling and congestion pricing can be invested in service upgrades for the bus, so that people who can’t afford the higher prices have an alternative way of getting around.

Related Story: PDX council adopts resolution supporting congestion pricing

Boosting paid parking is another source of transit revenue. Nearly every city leader, planner and businessperson I spoke to in Hood River, Bend and Salem wanted to implement paid parking downtown.

Like tolling and congestion pricing, paid parking is a controversial idea.  But traffic is only getting worse— the Portland Bureau of Transportation estimates traffic-related time delays and fuel costs will total $844 billion by 2025 — and the bus of the future is one of the cheapest ways to ride our way out of congestion. And in a resource-constrained environment, market mechanisms need to part of the funding solution.


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