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Redesigning Buses
Jeremy Faludi, 19 Dec 07
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To misquote Douglas Adams, it can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, "as pretty as a bus".

Sightline Institute's blog The Daily Score recently noted that people always prefer streetcars and other light rail to buses. They aren't just being subjective, either--history backs them up. In 2001 the Denver Business Journal wrote of new light rail systems being mobbed in Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City and St. Louis because they were so much more popular than forecasted, saying "In Dallas, ridership on a new rail line was three times greater than ridership on an express bus that used the same route" and quoting government officials who were realizing "How people respond to rail is different than how they respond to bus".

So, why the mysterious preference for light rail? Two words: Better design.

First of all, the user experience of buses are usually lousy. As a commenter to Sightline's article noted, light rail has more easily-visible stops--you can see exactly where the route goes because there are rails in the street, and tickets are often (though not always) bought in advance, often from machines that actually give change and take debit or credit cards. As a Seattle Times columnist noted while exploring Portland's light rail system, "The longest any of my trains spent stopped at a station was 25 seconds -- even when 75 rush-hour commuters tried to board a crowded train at once. I've waited much longer for a single rider to get on a Seattle bus, fumbling for change or arguing with the driver." Curitiba's bus system has solved this problem by making its stations and ticketing work like rail systems, and is famously effective because of it--70% of the city rides the bus. Other advantages light rail vehicles have are that they are generally larger and more spacious, and have a much smoother ride, because smooth tracks eliminate road vibration. This lack of vibration, combined with the fact that streetcars are almost always electric, means they are quiet. Being electric, they also don't belch diesel fumes on bysanders waiting at the stations. (To be fair, many city's buses are electric. On the other hand, the overhead cables for those systems are unsightly and those buses sometimes get tripped off the cables, causing a delay while the driver gets out and fixes it before resuming the trip.)

Secondly, the aesthetics of city buses are always terrible, with the exception of British double-deckers and a few European models. Buses are one of the few objects that look better with advertising on them. They are boxy and clumsy-looking on the outside, and the inside is usually a clutter of rails, posts, seats, warning stickers, cables and advertising. They appear to not to be designed so much as concatenated by soulless wretches in committee. Rarely is there any clarity or harmony to the design, and the utilitarian straight lines are those of a hospital gurney, not of a stylish automobile. School buses are better, because they are not so cluttered, but none approaches the sleek kick that a C-Type Jaguar has. Nor do they approach the entertainment value that a Japanese "dekotora" truck has. (That might have a more limited appeal, but it would at least make people think differently about buses!)


The best improvements would come with system infrastructure to improve the usability, but that is expensive. Bus redesign, however, does not have to be. Buses could easily be made prettier and quieter with miniscule budgetary impacts. Already the cost of vehicles is dwarfed by the cost of the operators driving them. For instance, the salary of a bus driver in San Francisco is $27 / hr (about $56,000 / year). A new diesel bus costs between $250,000 and $500,000 and lasts 12 years or more, averaging out to between $21,000 and $41,000 per year (not including maintenance, which aesthetic redesign should not increase). Most of the expense in building a bus is related to safety equipment and the drive train, and are unrelated to the aesthetics of the shell. Significant improvements could be made at no additional cost, and vast improvements could be made for $5,000 - $10,000, which is still practically a rounding error in the price tag.

One simple idea: no straight lines. Have everything in the bus (seats, bars, body, windows) be curved. Second idea: eliminate the clutter. Integrate informational signs / warnings in the visual elements of the bus interior, make the cable pulls pretty or replace them with buttons, eliminate the advertising posts inside the bus (if you need ad revenue, use the outside of the bus.) Third idea: decent sound-damping inside (and more acoustic damping between the inside and outside). This would even make people on the bus quieter and better-behaved, as talking would stick out more. Fourth idea: make bus stops pleasant places to spend time, more like park benches than sidewalks. Seattle does a good job of this, with art (often local-community-made art) in nearly all stops. Fifth idea: enable payment by card-swipe, be it debit or credit or special prepaid bus-card (like San Francisco's BART tickets), to eliminate the fumbling for change / begging for change from other bus-goers / arguments with the driver. I could go on, but the ideas increase in cost as they become more system-oriented.

One of the key principles of green design is persuasion. You cannot criticize people out of their cars, you can only entice them out with a better option. If buses were beautiful and pleasant to ride, they would be far more persuasive than they are now.

image credits: City of Sioux Falls SD, Classic Driver, and Pink Tentacle

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In many busy corridors, once you provide the needed infrastructure for high-capacity transit (dedicated lanes, concrete transitway for buses, covered well-lit stations, ticket machines, etc.), you begin to approach the price of a streetcar or light rail system.

That being said, there are many intermediate corridors which could benefit from BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) technology.

In the city of Eugene, OR, such a system recently opened, locally called EmX (Emerald Express). A pro-BRT advocacy page has a series of photos:

The buses and stations incorporate, at least to some degree, some of the suggestions you make in the article. The custom paving (note the grassy median between tire tracks) and stations create a sense of route permanence. The buses run on hybrid drive (quieter and cleaner than a normal bus, but not quite into electric rail territory), and feature multiple boarding doors on either side of the vehicle, much like a streetcar.

In the case of EmX, the route is entirely fareless, so there aren't the usual delays involving fare payment, and ticket machines aren't required at EmX stations.

The initial cost was less than half (perhaps less than a quarter, depending on the details) of an equivalent starter streetcar system, but has serious capacity limitations which may impact future operations should the line become heavily utilized.

- Bob R.

Posted by: Bob R. on 20 Dec 07

There's a couple of reasons why I can see light rail being more popular than buses, mainly to do with ease of use.

Firstly, bus systems are often very complex. Due to the fact that buses can go pretty much anywhere in a city, trying to understand a bus system you've never used before can be a chore. For example, at a nearby bus stop that I use regularly, the frequent buses include the 427, 428, 401, 411 and 412. All of them go in the same general direction and some of them have the same start and end points. However the routes all vary and I only know which ones will get me where I want to go because I'm familiar with the system. For new users or tourists confusion and mistakes are common which only adds to the bad feeling associated with buses.

Light rail on the other hand is relatively simple. The "Green Line" follows the green line on the map and it will pretty much never change. The routes are generally a lot less convoluted and you can be fairly sure of where any streetcar is going.

Secondly, light rail stops usually have names. This can make a big difference to the feeling of confidence of the users. The combination of simple, diagrammatic maps and clearly visible name signs at the stops gives you a good idea of where you are at any given time. e.g. "If I'm at James street now and I'm going to King George Square, I have two more stops before i need to get off."

Compare that to bus routes. Unless you've caught that same bus enough, or are very familiar with the areas through which you're traveling you have very little information as to where you are and how long it will be before your stop. This often leads to feelings of uncertainty and missed stops.

Posted by: jumenam on 20 Dec 07

Even on the dekotora idea trams are miles ahead of buses - Blackpool, a seaside resort in the UK, has a set of illuminated trams that get used in the autumn during Blackpool Illuminations (think lots of fancy Christmas lights adorning the streets to draw the summer season out a few more weeks).

Having a quick look on Flickr throws up - showing they were doing it over 20 years ago, and it wasn't a new thing then :-)

Posted by: Adrian McEwen on 21 Dec 07

You've neglected to mention the London Routemaster bus - one that not only has been described as pretty, but was (and still is) well-loved by the British as the ultimate in hop-on/hop-off convenience.

Posted by: John Lyle on 21 Dec 07

You've neglected to mention the London Routemaster bus - one that not only has been described as pretty, but was (and still is) well-loved by the British as the ultimate in hop-on/hop-off convenience.

Posted by: John Lyle on 21 Dec 07

The Superbus concept has an extraordinary design:

Posted by: Scatter on 21 Dec 07

This article is spot on. I've been commuting via bus from Jersey to Manhattan for the past few months. Taking the bust is a miserable, wretched affair due to all of the reasons cited in your blog. Plus, the bus drivers I interact with often are cranky (I suppose I would be too if I had to navigate through Jersey and NYC traffic every day). Additionally, the NYC bus terminal, Port Authority, is the most unfortunate, wrist-slitting building I've ever been in. It's dark, disorganized and dirty... and there are no seats to rest your weary bum when your bus home is running a half-hour behind schedule (as it often is). The train has it's issues too, I know, but overall, it's more reliable, comfortable and pleasant. Thanks for your blog.

Posted by: Jenna McKnight on 21 Dec 07

Oops! A typo in my previous comment:

"The train has it's issues too..."

it's should be "its"

Posted by: Jenna McKnight on 21 Dec 07

For me, I think, being cramped, and the stomach-upsetting ride are the two big losers. Yes, it would be nice if they looked better but, really, if they were made prettier and nothing done about the ride and the cramped seating, it would just seem like a cheat.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on 21 Dec 07

American transit agencies are forced to adhere to a "Buy America" rule when purchasing new capital equipment subsidized by the federal government. The reason why buses are so ugly is that they are largely the product of American manufacturers. NABI has introduced some decent looking buses (LA Metro) but that is because they are European designs.

Posted by: Steve C. on 21 Dec 07

On Monday I start a new job in Downtown L.A. As luck would have it, a new Metro Rapid line (L.A.'s express bus) opened just this week taking me there, and parking is expensive, so for the first time in my life, I'll soon be a bus commuter. Thursday night I spent an hour or so online figuring out which buses I'll need to take and when, and Friday morning I decided it'd be prudent to go on a trial run, making sure I knew where the bus stops were and all that. Things went pretty smoothly, though I learned a few things about how to better gauge which bus to take. The Metro Rapid buses in particular are pretty nice, as far as buses go.

The point is that I expect to be comfortable taking this route, but I was only able to reach that comfort level after about 3 hours of research and experimentation. If I were a regular car commuter and discovered one morning that my car was broken and I had to take the bus into work instead, I would be very confused and probably an hour late to work. The bus works, but there's a significant barrier to entry.

It's very true that the light rail and subway systems make much more intuitive sense. Even people who never take them know where the stations are, where the lines go, etc. Unfortunately the light rail will only reach my neighborhood - and it'll be about a mile away - in 2009.

Posted by: Adam Villani on 21 Dec 07

A few of you have mentioned logistics and user-friendliness of transit information systems and trip planning. You're completely right that this is a serious issue, but good solutions are starting to appear. Read one of our many articles about Google Transit:

And John Lyle, thanks for pointing out the name of the London buses. I did refer to them, but didn't know the proper name "Routemaster".

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 22 Dec 07

Our bus system did this about six years ago. We went from boring blue/white buses to buses boasting our local history, art, and colors. They are absolutely beautiful. This gave pride to the riders and they started cleaning up the insides. Stray garbage and newspapers were thrown out without anyone asking. Graffiti was non-existent. People said "excuse me" when bumping into each other. People moved to the back to make space up front without being asked to.

Now the consequence:

This helped the bus system stand out, and in doing so, made its problems more apparent: 1) can't stay on schedule 2) cranky bus drivers and 3) the fare increased, the service area decreased. The service was still unreliable.

The governor, mayor and city council have looking into the matter. We've been told the problem and a couple of temporary fixes were put in place. We've been told they are working on it. This was more than two years ago.

Posted by: Alexander on 31 Dec 07



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