More and more I think that bus network redesigns are too often just managed decline. I was really into zero cost change redesigns a few years ago, less so recently. Literally shuffling deck chairs.
The issue isn’t that net zero cost redesigns are bad. They’re not. The results in recent years look pretty good; Nova Xarxa really did lead to ridership growth, the American redesigns were for the most part helpful too, and I stand by the claim in our report, on pp. 36-37, that the Brooklyn bus redesign we propose would raise ridership 20%.
And yet, Alexandra is completely right, because 20% of zero is still zero. Even in New York, what we call would only get New York bus ridership back to where it was on the eve of the Great Recession and the ensuing service cuts. This really concerns two separate problems of bus service and systemwide changes.
Bus decline management
Managing the decline of buses is inevitable. Buses are too labor-intensive in a developed country to remain a cost-effective solution in the long run – and the sort of cities in the first world with both the best public transit and the best prospects for growth also tend to have the highest wages. Bus drivers in New York earn $85,000/year, and that’s market-rate – there aren’t hordes of unemployed people clamoring to work as bus drivers; agencies that pay significantly less relative to local wages, like San Francisco’s Muni, find it hard to recruit drivers.
How labor-intensive are buses? Well, in New York there are around 12,000 bus drivers and 4,000 subway drivers. Subway ridership was 2.5 times bus ridership in 2019, and overall vehicle-hours, counting cars rather than trains, were 60% longer, with subway cars still substantially bigger than buses. And there’s a lot more inefficiency in crew scheduling on the subway than on the bus network – and today it’s possible to automate subways but not buses. A subway train today carries as many passengers as 17 buses on average, and is 2.5 times faster, for an overall labor efficiency factor of 44.5, without automation; it’s in practice less than this taking crew inefficiencies and maintenance into account, but remains well over a full order of magnitude.
The upshot is that the sort of service-hours that could be run with the wages of 60 years ago stopped being financially sustainable 40 years ago, and the service-hours of 20 years ago are not financially sustainable today. Net zero redesigns are about the best that is possible – because service-hours are expensive and getting more so over time.
All of these bus reforms – network redesigns, dedicated lanes, bus shelter, real-time information, signal priority – push back the decline, but they do not halt it. Eventually, something other than labor-intensive buses will be required, most likely some kind of light rail and subway combination as with the railstitutions happening here in Berlin or in Paris.
Compounding growth factors
A 20% increase in systemwide ridership is great! But, 20% of zero is still zero, and 20% of a low number is in absolute terms low growth. The question is what comes next.
If a city builds a subway line and gets noticeable ridership growth, it can compound. The one subway line succeeded, so now it can built more to new areas, not served by this line. Large increases in systemwide ridership can come from a project that is not systemwide, and then in a large city it’s easy enough to add more such projects. This is not mere linear growth as new lines open – a city that builds a subway system automatically makes city center an attractive place for business, leading to naturally-occurring transit-oriented development. It is natural for public transport advocates to be optimistic in such a situation.
Systemwide improvements compound with everything else, but are frustrating one-time affairs. Yes, a redesign can raise ridership 20% – and then what? Our Brooklyn proposal is aggressive – more so than Nova Xarxa, which included a pre-agreed number of routes with dedicated lanes, I believe 12, but nothing like the proposal we made that every route except for a handful in low-traffic areas on the edge of the borough get two-way dedicated lanes.
The only big thing our proposal didn’t touch on is bus shelter, because we didn’t realize how important it is. But bus shelter interacts negatively with interventions that increase bus frequency, since its effect is to reduce the disutility of waiting for the bus, and if the wait has already been reduced to 5-6 minutes then shelter is useful but its impact is not the 30% increase in ridership that my bus shelter post posits. Other than shelter, there’s conditional signal priority making buses less likely to bunch, but it too interacts negatively with everything else, and the speed benefits (as opposed to the more speculative reliability benefits) of signal priority are known and small.
Is it worthless?
No! Just frustrating. Bus upgrades are a one-time thing, holding back the long-term decline of the mode as better alternatives emerge. These ridership increases are nothing to sneeze at, but there’s no alternative to transitioning to rapid transit, maybe with trams as a feeder layer (or as the primary one if you’re a sub-million metro), with enough transit-oriented development that people can just walk to the subway. Everything else can b fine in the short run, but in a wealthy city that run is short indeed.