What’s Frustrating About Bus Redesigns

The transit vlogger Alexandra Rose said something deeply disturbing and yet true on Twitter:

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.


  1. Allan Rosen

    Did you read the Brooklyn Existing Conditions Report? The population is growing and Downtown Brooklyn is the fastest growing part of the Borough. Yet the report hints of reducing bus service in Downtown Brooklyn increasing the need to transfer, and therefore, passenger trip times. The reason is the number of subway lines in the area. But think about it. If the subway was a better alternative, those bus riders would already be on the subway. They are not. The bus is slower but it offers more comfort, like a seat instead of standing. That is important to riders, yet the MTA never considers the importance of comfort in passenger decision making.

    You know I disagree with your proposed network. I believe it would lead to further ridership declines, not a 20 percent increase in passengers. Bus stops are important to people and 2,000 people agree.


    Did you ever read my proposed Brooklyn Network Redesign?


    • Joe Wong

      The ones that are planning these Brooklyn redesigns have no idea of what they are doing, and have never ridden a bus in their lives. But they have eaten too much of this stuff. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z6rI7rwhz0 Again, most of these existing Brooklyn Bus Lines were originally streetcar lines that were mostly converted over to motorized bus operation during the 1948-1949 time frame after WW2. They really need to go out of their office cubicles, and start riding these bus lines, and observe the ridership pattern before making any redesigns for same, and STOP eating all of that CAT FRIED RICE !!!

        • Joe Wong

          Those planners that are doing these so-called REDESIGNING of bus lines have eaten too much GENERAL TSO’s CAT, and they also think like a cooked-cat !!! If they really want to do a redesign, they should do it on a line by line basis by riding the lines, taking notes, and then act accordingly to make the changes, also ASK QUESTION & TAKE QUESTIONS FROM THE PASSENGERS THAT ARE RIDING THE BUS LINES. BUT NO !!! The want to screw-up everything by just looking a computer screen, and they wonder why there’s a huge amount of backlash, and outrage everytime they have a hearing about same.

      • Robert Davidoff

        Is the video about eating cats for food some kind of reference I’m not getting, or just intended for shock value?

  2. Robert Davidoff

    I think I’d wonder about if or how bus network redesigns can help create market on corridors to enable railstitutions? Design a new network that funnels traffic from “rationalized” locals into new BRT or other corridor, upgrade that corridor for rapid service and signal priority, and build momentum to get conversion to a most cost-effective operational medium onto plans. On the one hand, network redesigns like Indianapolis’ have seemed from outside to be a big part of building the city’s new BRT corridors. On the other hand, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard much serious talk about “railstituting” the East Busway in Pittsburgh, which is almost entirely divided guideway with ridership in the tens of thousands running about 4 minute peak headways. And of course, it ties into the cost of construction, and how much more or less a mixed-traffic light rail system running something like the Indy Red and Purple Line route would or _should_ be compared to the BRT as-built…definitely an interesting tweet and i appreciate your thoughts in response on the expense to operate of various modes.

    • Phake Nick

      Thing is, unless your area is definitely growing, else in the long term the service will just degrade and be split out to cater local demand, instead of being upgraded to anything new when the existing bus corridor is already being seen as sufficient to serve demand. But if your area is definitely growing, you might as well invest ahead of time and build a rail line directly.

    • Joe Wong

      The so-called redesigns are a scheme to CUT BUS SERVICE & NOT TO MAKE IMPROVEMENTS FOR SAME.

    • Henry Miller

      If you are planning to run rail, then by all means start a bus now along the same corridor. There is already a reason to believe rail will get riders, so the bus should break even on fares. You should tweak the bus route a few times while planning rail to see if different rail routing makes more sense.

      The is one problem with the above though: often your best rail route is going someplace where there isn’t a bridge for the buses to use.

  3. Sassy

    The problem with the decline of buses is that a bus city does not look like a rail city, and many cities facing high and increasing bus labor costs, NYC being one of them, are not rebuilding themselves into rail cities. NYC is not really building out new rail infrastructure, and more importantly, NYC is not aggressively building structures that take advantage of the existing rail infrastructure. NYC is a city of 20 million people and has a couple thousand of kilometers of track and like 750ish stations. It could look more like a rail city if it really tried.

  4. Joe Wong

    To Alon Levy

    From the one that called you Alen the last time accidentally.

    The biggest problems with all of these bus line redesigns are that the planners that are doing same, have NEVER rode a bus line that they also manage in their life. They are on their computers all day long, and playing solitaire at their desk when there’s really not much to do. Its also called JOB PROTECTION for these guys, since many of these existing bus lines were formerly trollies, and streetcars lines that were built primarily by the defunct private companies in the 19th century. That’s what happens when your agency is too TOP HEAVY, with managers and planners that have no idea of what they are doing !!!

    • R. W. Rynerson

      @Joe – the sweeping generality about planners is popular folklore but false. There are people who fit the description that you offer to one degree or another but it’s rare to find someone who is guilty on all counts. The people in transit systems who are most likely to have never been a transit commuter are in operations, resulting from working weird hours and at scattered locations with free parking until they end up in a desk job. Planners who have not managed a service usually have been regular commuters at various points in their life and have tended to work in locations with good commute service, expensive parking and predictable, if not regular, work hours.

      And yes, many bus routes run over former streetcar tracks but the reasons are often quite good. Dense commercial strips developed on streetcar lines often turn out to be good places for local bus service. Those strips usually have sidewalks, too. And the origins and destinations of the routes may have been completely altered over the years, serving places that were farms in streetcar days. There are places where following streetcar lines is a bad idea and when one digs it usually turns out that the streetcar line was a bad idea in the first place — implemented as a real estate promotion or as a line to a single major employer long since vanished.

      Oh, and the reason I know that it’s popular folklore is because people have told me that on my bus rides over the past six decades. Even when I had introduced myself as a service planner interested in their comments!

    • Allan Rosen

      Yes, there are too many planners who believe all the answers lie in the numbers and in statistics, so they can make some major mistakes in their planning. Regularly riding the bus you are studying will tell you what you will never see from statistics, passenger behavior. Like why riders choose to ride some bus routes and not others. Maybe they want more comfort, maybe they don’t feel safe on some routes, maybe they use one route one way and come home with another, etc. You won’t learn any of this from statistics.

  5. jonsalmans

    Whether bus or rail has lower operating costs depends a lot on how well the system is designed and run. Good design and management is more important than whether bus or rail infrastructure is developed.

    For example, in Pittsburgh the East Busway provides buses with an excellent grade separated right of way, and the operating cost per passenger is only $2.41. See bus routes P1/P2 on page 25 of Pittsburgh Port Authority’s annual service report: https://www.portauthority.org/siteassets/services/service-request/2018asr.pdf

    According to page 9 of this FTA report, the average cost per passenger for heavy rail is $2.44. https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/ntd/data-product/134401/2018-ntst_1.pdf

    In Pittsburgh’s light rail system the cost is $8.11 per passenger trip and is slower than the East Busway.

    I suspect that on routes that have lower ridership potential, a well designed busway with dedicated lanes may have lower operating costs per passenger than a well designed rail system.

    I would like better rail service in Pittsburgh, but given our city’s smaller size and relative skill at running a bus system, improving bus service may be a better focus than expanding our rail system.

  6. SB

    Regarding compounding growth factors of additional subway lines.
    Should that only apply first few subway lines?
    Because after a certain point (which depends on the size of the city) shouldn’t there be diminishing returns?

    • Eric2

      Every subway line improves the network of high speed subway lines which improves the serves on any newly built subway line. So theoretically the returns can keep on growing.

      But in practice, in a given city some rail corridors are always more promising than others (in terms of density etc.), once you are done building the promising corridors then any additional corridors will have worse performance.

      • Borners

        That Tokyo still has overcrowding with all the heavy rail lines making 100%plus farebox recovery suggests we haven’t quite seen a maxed out network-based-increasing-returns. I would also point out that new lines also increase ridership on existing lines by creating new journey possibilities. Its probably less an issue of diminishing network returns but rising costs of construction in particular the central node stations have so many lines that new platforms get expensive and deep, you exhaust cut-and-cover corridors and have to just TBMs for construction etc.

        It also depends on other policies, Yimby cities will make better use of new rail infrastructure than Nimby ones. And also whether you purposefully build stuff along the new corridor, things like airports, universities or vinegar museums.

        And those conditions seem to apply to the other two megacities in Tokyo’s shadow, Osaka and Seoul which show similar characteristics. Seoul’s GLX program is going to be interesting its RER/Crossrail on steroids. And you can underbuild at the megacity scale despite having an extensive network (Nagoya, London).

        • Eric2

          Greater Tokyo has 37 million people, smaller cities cannot expect nearly as much success.

          • Borners

            If we are thinking about where that compounding effect taps out we have to then say “for a given population”. A bunch of European cities in the 1.5-3 million range that come very close to matching Tokyo in mode-share. They haven’t stopped expanding their systems, although they are growing demographically; Copenhagen, Prague, Stockholm, Vienna etc. Now they do have advantages of having legacy rail systems built before the Car revolution which reduces the cost of building a dense network.

            It all gets higgledy-piggledy with systems below classic subway-rapid transit; light-metro, tunnel-trunk s-bahn, Stadtbahn etc too. And is there a case of an overbuilt subway? Nuremburg? Its easier to see badly designed subways (Sapporo) than it is overbuilt ones.

        • Phake Nick

          Tokyo seems to be very cautious about railway expansion given the forecasted peak in population even for Tokyo, and thus is unlikely to do any significant construction of new railway barring a few minor improvement like connecting subway to Shinagawa or building the metro line vertically into eastern part of the city.

  7. Eric2

    1) “20% of zero is still zero” – This is obviously false, and still false on the level of hyperbole – you wouldn’t waste so much time redesigning bus networks that had effectively zero ridership. Just write “20% of a low number is still a low number”.

    2) For a given number of passengers, running a subway is obviously cheaper than running buses. But that’s if the subway line already exists. If you have to build a subway line which doesn’t currently exist, that’s a massive expense which will only be paid off by decades of operating costs, if ever. You never address the question of which new lines will pay off and which won’t.

    3) You never mention variation by location, particularly population density. You say subway ridership “can compound” – but that effect is often dwarfed by other effects. For example, Cleveland has a subway and Houston only has a tram, but Houston’s system gets 6 times higher ridership per km. You never analyze where the subway will get higher ridership, or by how much.

    4) Similarly, bus operation also varies in cost by location. In an exurb buses might run for long distances nearly empty, but in a dense city an articulated bus can run full with passenger turnover every few miles. The differences in costs per passenger will therefore be immense. Also, bus ridership varies by location. Bus lanes on a low-traffic road will make little difference to ridership, but bus lanes on a highly congested road will likely get dramatically more riders. Also, ridership can change with time – for example upzoning can both directly increase ridership, and also increase congestion which pushes more people to the bus lanes. You discuss none of this.

  8. df1982

    I feel like this post needs a detailed rebuttal, since you start from a somewhat truthful premise (buses aren’t able to share in the productivity gains of the rest of society, since a single driver can’t drive 1.1 buses, for instance) to reach the dubious conclusion that as a mode they are in a state of terminal decline that can be managed but not averted. The issues with this are:

    1) Society-wide productivity gains are at best incremental. We’re talking about a few percentage points a decade, which is not enough to destroy buses as a public transport mode, at least not for the foreseeable future. Also, wages in general are not rising in line with productivity (at least not in the US), so this can still keep costs low even if there aren’t productivity gains. Full automation of blue-collar labour might be around the corner (though I doubt it), but even if it is, then this would also allow buses to be fully automated.

    2) There are of course, ways to increase bus productivity even if the single driver is retained. Not just network redesigns and bus lanes but also all-door (or off-bus) boarding, traffic light sequencing, reduced dead running, avoiding split shifts through more off-peak service, etc. No need to tell you this since you’re aware of all of these things, but you seem to ignore them in this post.

    3) You can’t have a transit-oriented city without buses playing a role in it. Even intra muros Paris, which has the most saturated metro network I’m aware of (every populated part of the city is within 500m of a station), has a significant bus network. As a rider you can avoid it and stick to the metro if you want but it has high ridership and plays a useful role in the overall public transport network, and you would be insane to countenance getting rid of it. There will always be corridors where ridership doesn’t justify rail but that still benefit from having public transport service, and this is where the bus plays a useful role. And of course the productivity of buses can be increased by them acting as feeders to rail lines (so instead of making one trip to downtown in an hour, they could make three trips to a suburban hub with rail to downtown, and therefore potentially serve three times as many riders).

    The more pertinent argument is not the “managed decline” one but whether the heroic deeds of Jarrett Walker and other network re-designers end up serving as cover for not increasing funding to public transport. The Dallas redesign, for instance, looks woefully inadequate (and Jarrett admits as much on his website), because even the most rationally planned network in the world can’t do much if the funding isn’t there. But this doesn’t negate buses as a mode, nor the fact that in most American cities enhancing bus service (more specifically off-peak frequencies) is the most effective use of increased funding for transit. In many cases this would entail a redesign to rationalise the network, but to really have an effect it needs to be accompanied by a step-change in frequencies and service hours. Whether the will is there for the necessary funding is, in the end, a purely political matter, and this is where the US is failing.

    • Alon Levy

      Ad 1: market wages for bus and train drivers are rising pretty quickly; Berlin for example is seeing this wage pressure in the fight over contracting out the S-Bahn, and Israel has had the same eve-of-corona difficulties finding enough bus drivers to fill the itinerary as many American cities. We can speculate on why this is happening when it’s not the case in the rest of the blue-collar economy – my explanation is that economy-wide we’re seeing slow improvement in work conditions in tandem with slowly rising wages whereas driving a bus or train is seeing stagnant work conditions and therefore faster wage growth. (It can’t quite be unionization, because New York bus driver wages are at market – there aren’t people clamoring for these jobs being turned away on a patronage basis, unlike with the Sandhogs.)

      Ad 2: I don’t ignore these – anything that involves running the buses faster is folded into the 20% figure for higher ridership. Better crew scheduling through reduced deadheading is a thing, but the impact of that is pretty limited, because the optimal bus network for a major city is a grid and so you can’t site a bus depot at the end of each line; we did try optimizing for reduced pullout time in the bus redesign and managed to squeeze 1% extra revenue-hours out of it. About the most you can get out of better off-peak scheduling on buses, as opposed to trains (where the benefits New York can accrue are bigger), is that driver timetables are going to become more predictable and this means that you can restrain wage growth for a while while still attracting workers as conditions improve.

      Ad 3: Paris has buses, but I don’t think too many people would notice if they vanished, provided RATP stopped trying to kill people with disabilities and made the Métro accessible. Ridership intra muros is 300 million a year if memory serves, compared with 1.5 billion on the Métro, nearly all of which is intramural rather than suburban.

      • df1982

        If bus drivers are on 50k a year outside of NY, then that’s barely a livable wage, especially for a job that is stressful and physically exhausting. That works out to about $25 an hour for a 40-hour week. Since bus operating costs in total are around $100-150 per service hour I can’t see labour costs for drivers being the thing that makes buses obsolete as a transport mode.

        Directly comparing it with driver costs for subways is not a fair comparison, because there are evidently much higher additional labour costs for subway operations beyond the driver: station attendants, dispatchers, track maintenance, and so on. And this is not to mention the capital costs of building lines where these don’t yet exist.

        Your comment about Paris is ignorant: there are a lot of people who would notice if buses were taken off the streets, beyond people with accessibility issues. There are plenty of journeys where the metro connection is circuitous or inconvenient, and a quick direct bus is a superior option. Hence why there are 300m trips for a population of 2.2m people.

        And I deliberately picked Paris as an extreme example of metro saturation, which most other cities can’t even hope to emulate. No city can be dense enough that it doesn’t have corridors suitable for bus service, i.e. where ridership doesn’t justify the capacity offered by rail, but where a regular, reliable bus service would be well-patronised. Your vision of the future of transport seems to be one where a few corridors have metro (or light rail), while everyone else drives.

        • Eric2

          In general, costs to an employer are much higher than the direct salary cost. The employer also has to pay for health care, other random benefits, employment taxes, pensions, etc. The overall cost to the employer can be up to double the employee’s nominal salary.

          Still doesn’t reach $100-150/hr and I don’t know how to reconcile this with reports that the driver is most of the operating cost.

        • Alon Levy

          Bus drivers don’t spend 2,000 hours behind the wheel of a moving bus anywhere that I know of. In New York it’s around 1,050 hours; in Chicago it’s higher, about 1,200, but that’s with counting pullout trips as in-service even though they’re not advertised on maps. And then the wage in Chicago is a lot higher than $50,000. The result is that around 2/3 of the cost of a bus trip is the driver’s wage in the US.

          Trains have some extra costs, yes. Buses do too, but those extras are higher for trains due to ROW maintenance (not stations – those do not require staffing). NYCT headcounts are about evenly split between bus and subway workers, while carrying 2.5 times as many passengers on the subway, but the subway is overstaffed by both domestic (NTD) and international (CoMET) standards in operations as well as maintenance, whereas the buses only have some maintenance overstaffing.

          Paris evidently has buses, yes, but ridership is meh in comparison with the Métro and has not seen the meteoric rise for cheap per-rider costs of the tramways. Tokyo is in a similar basket – there are buses but ridership is pretty meh because the subway’s a lot faster; in the suburbs, bikes are supplanting buses as the main connecting mode to the train stations.

          • Borners

            What would you make of Korea vs Japan then, Seoul has very high bus ridership compared to Tokyo and the latter has more walking/biking? Seoul is building more for bicycling and trains of course.

          • Sassy

            Seoul started building out rail much later than Tokyo and Osaka. The rail network is not as built out with the Seoul Capital Area having more people and comparable in area to Keihanshin, but with fewer than half the stations and less than half the track. In addition, Seoul grew more around cars, so it is more bus friendly than most of Japan.

            If Seoul continues aggressively building out rail, and redeveloping areas to be rail centric rather than road centric, I’d expect bus use to decline.

          • adirondacker12800

            Let ’em take Uber? There are people who can’t drive and that overlaps with people who can’t walk or can’t walk long distances.

        • Sassy

          > Your vision of the future of transport seems to be one where a few corridors have metro (or light rail), while everyone else drives.

          Is there a reason why not everyone can live on a metro corridor?

          For Tokyo including western suburbs commutes, bus is 2.3% and bus+train is 7.5%, and the 23 Wards is a large part single family detached houses, and the western suburbs is a large part forest. It seems clearly possible (barring political challenges) to build a city where every trip is taken by foot, bike, or heavy rail metro. There are clearly more rail lines Tokyo could build, and turning some single family detached neighborhoods into nature preserves could have many other benefits. Politically might not happen, but good ideas all the same.

          In any case urban rail, walking, and cycling are unsubsidized in way more cities than buses and cars. Shouldn’t a city stop subsidizing buses and cars, in favor of better solutions? Isn’t it a bit weird that a lot of urbanists want to end car subsidies but won’t go all the way and end bus subsidies?

          Maybe getting rid of bus subsidies won’t get rid of buses entirely (much like getting rid of car subsidies won’t kill cars entirely), but the remaining bus services will be the stuff that actually makes sense.

          • df1982

            Personally I’m a big fan of rail (whether mainline, metro or light rail/streetcar) as a mode, and think it’s indisputable that the rail effect on patronage is appreciable.

            And yet it’s unrealistic to think that rail can supplant buses entirely. Let’s say you have a corridor where ridership peaks at 300 per direction per hour. This is enough to justify a very good bus service, with a bus running every ten minutes. Is it enough to justify constructing a metro line? No. Is it enough to justify constructing a light rail? Also no, not really, not even if the rail effect doubled patronage. And such a corridor need not be in a rail desert, it could be a circumferential line connecting two rail stations on radial lines, for instance (which would benefit from having a feeder bus service, incidentally).

            You can argue about where exactly the threshold for laying rails lies exactly (and there is obviously a big difference between providing service on an existing rail line vs constructing one anew). But it can’t seriously be denied that there is a threshold under which bus service is the most appropriate form of public transport. Rail modes may offer better productivity per rider, but this effect only kicks in when ridership is high enough, and while demand can be induced through improved service there are limits to this, there is not infinite demand and it can’t simply materialise out of thin air.

            Buses may serve only 10% of Tokyo commutes, but in a city of 37m this is still a very large number. The fact that major, densely populated metropolises with mature rail networks like Tokyo and Paris still have well-patronised bus networks backs up my argument.

    • Phake Nick

      A driver can indeed drive 1.1 buses. You can do so by making the bus 1.1× long.
      But then, problem is most bus routes round the world aren’t efficiently utilized to the point of facing capacity bottleneck, thus drivers driving more of a bus cannot help bring about meaningful improvement to most bus.networks.
      Alsp, improving dispatch system, reducing deadheading, optimizing dwell time, etcetc, can all help improve productivity of a driver

      • df1982

        Not really the same because you would only achieve labour savings by reducing frequencies, which would then have a negative effect on ridership.

        if there is a capacity bottleneck then the city really should be investing in higher capacity transport modes. The sweet spot for buses is a reasonably full bus (either standard or articulated) running every 5-10 minutes.

        • Phake Nick

          Bus demand fluctuate along the day. To have reasonably full buses
          off peak, and to avoid waste of excess unneeded resource, the total
          capacity available should rightly match the peak-most point of demand.
          Peak time frequency are usually much higher than off-peak frequencies,
          so using larger buses and cutting frequency and needed drivers in the
          peak time shouldn’t have that much effect on the entire bus network,
          unless your agency follow some sort of guidelines to demand bus
          frequency be cut off peak if they are less than certain percent full

  9. Matthew Hutton

    The flaw with talking about New York for this is that New York (and San Francisco) median pay is dramatically higher than anywhere else in the developed world. In London bus drivers get $40k/year and I know Britain has stagnated for the last decade but I’d be surprised if any major European or Asian city needed to pay drivers more than $50k/year.

    The other thing is that if you want to provide good public transport outside of cities or between suburbs then buses are likely to be the most efficient form of public transport as with pretty low ridership you can run a bus every 5-10 minutes.

  10. Phake Nick

    In Hong Kong, bus network redesign aren’t zero cost change. Multiple bus network redesign over the past decade, as well as a few that are currently planned, are obvious in stating their goal in reducing the cost of operating bus network and reducing the number of buses on the road, trying to paint it as reducing traffic congestion and air pollution as they see buses as the cause of these, even when it mean there will be ridership loses from buses.

    • Frederick

      Unlike in most other cities, buses are for-profit in Hong Kong. Many redesigns in Hong Kong are meant for maximising profit for the company.

      • Phake Nick

        While for-profit operation is also part of the reason, the guideline is set by the government, and some bus company proposals which could improve both ridership and revenue are also banned by the government on the ground that that would use more bus vehicles on congested corridor and worsen the traffic there

  11. Fbfree

    Your conclusion is completely backwards.

    Ignore changing currency valuations for a moment. The benefit of a bus is the access and the time saved by it’s customers. The cost is dominated by the driver’s time. The average wage cancels out of the ratio of cost to benefit. It is only in the case of very low-wage countries where the ideal bus loading may by increase (not decrease as you claim). The value of customer’s time saved has to offset the cost of fuel and capital expenses which are only non-negligible in low-wage countries.

    The effect of wages does change the breakeven point for investing in less labour-intensive rapid transit. It does not however change the usefulness of bus service.

    • Frederick

      The benefit of a bus is the access and the time saved by its customers, as you said, and since a car is faster than a bus, the time saved by its customers is negative. Therefore, the benefit of a bus is negative, less than zero.

    • Sassy

      > The value of customer’s time saved has to offset the cost of fuel and capital expenses which are only non-negligible in low-wage countries.

      If the customer’s time were that valuable, there would be a ton of headroom to raise ticket prices and get a ton of extra money to operate better service with.

      Today I spent about a total of $5 to save 2 hour’s time (vs walking) in a city where the value of that time at minimum wage would be 6.5x and median wage over 10x that. If riders paid even $30 much less $50+ for the trips I took today, those bus routes would be printing money. We could probably double the frequency and still come out profitable. But obviously it isn’t the case that the customer’s time is as valuable as you suggest.

      I also lost time vs driving, which you didn’t really address.

      • Phake Nick

        >If the customer’s time were that valuable, there would be a ton of headroom to raise ticket prices and get a ton of extra money to operate better service with.

        I think that is true. People often argue about bus fare being too expensive and unaffordable especially to low income group, but for the mass of the population they really wouldn’t mind paying a bit more for a more direct and/or more frequent service that would cut 10/20 minutes off their commute time. It is just politically undesirable because most bus networks now mainly serve low income group, and they have lower paying capability

        In Hong Kong, there are a group of residential bus operated outside regular bus network for commuter point to point access, which can be up to twice as expensive compared to regular buses. They’re quite popular but the government dislike them, because they use coaches and each coaches can only carry around 54 people, instead of up to 140 on a regular double decker bus, and thus deeming these coaches as “less efficient use of space”, and a a result have stopped allowing new line of such commuter routes except for connection to rail network and are actively trying to replace them with regular bus network, but of course that faced many pushback from local population. Yet operators of such buses are still from time to time offering unpermitted illegal services on various routes, or additional frequency on existing route outside frequency the government authorize, that would be against the law for them to operate and risk losing their vehicle license, to capitalize from such demand.

  12. Frederick

    I am surprised that so many commenters here disagree with Alon that bus decline is inevitable. I believe Alon has already understated the problem.

    In the US, the public often has to subsidize two thirds if not three quarters of the operation cost, and it’s not like the bus network is promoting rail usage that much.

    In other (better) parts of the world, feeder buses do promote rail usage and it’s worth to use rail profit to subsidize bus. But then the bus network is subservient to the rail network.


    On the other hand, I disagree with Alon that railstitution is the solution. Railstitution can work for Brooklyn, the case that Alon is interested in, but most other bus lines simply will not have enough ridership for railstitution, and for those areas, upzoning should occur before, or simultaneously, with railstitution.

      • Matthew Hutton

        (This is all in the UK)

        The other thing is that car ownership has a huge number of fixed costs which are very expensive – cars don’t wear out with miles rather than time until you are doing 15000km/year or so. Plus car insurance is incredibly expensive for people under 25 – at least here in the UK.

      • Borners

        Interesting the examples cited, they are all in places with stronger-than-usual-for-provincial England railways with strong town centres. This includes Nottingham which has the best tram in the UK in terms of riders per km. In the UK there is a lot of low-hanging fruit to be sure. But unless you have a strong spine of railways backed by heart/brain of a town center its gonna be an ask. But hey instead of electrification and relief platforms in the suburbs lets build a trams (looks menacingly Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield)!

  13. P. Baldo

    At least in Chicago, safety is a consideration for riders. There’s a driver in each bus, so riders at least have the perception that someone is looking out for them. The same applies on suburban commuter trains, where employees collect tickets and open doors. CTA trains no longer have the person who called out the stops, which made at least one car seem safe. Police seem to have pulled back, congregating in groups in safe spaces, and avoiding places where trouble is likely to happen. Anecdotes aren’t evidence, but anecdotes have police responding to pick up the bodies, but not being there when it would actually help. This makes having visible transit employees in stations and vehicles all the more important.
    Violent crime may be statistically low – just 1% or so per person per year. But the person on the subway at night senses that he – or she – is volunteering to be the 1%. And to that person, one violent crime per lifetime is too much.
    I don’t think customer-facing staffing on transit vehicles and in stations can be cut to the bone. If anything, it’s been cut too much already.

  14. Herbert

    On an unrelated note: Is Berlin Main Station in the wrong place and if yes, where should it be instead?

    • R. W. Rynerson

      That really is an unrelated note! It’s an issue that is documented since at least the 1930’s. Speer’s ‘Germania’ plan included a major north and a major south station located on the RIngbahn.without trying to include a Hauptbahnhof. The issue was thoroughly argued since and the Lehrter Bahnhof site kept turning up. It had the added advantage of being suited for redevelopment thanks to historical circumstances. It should be a while before the issue is hashed over again.

      • Herbert

        The first proposal of a new central long distance interchange station at the site that now hosts Hauptbahnhof was made by a Swiss urban planner working in Berlin near the turn from 19th to 20th century…

    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm. If the question is about developments since the 1990s, I don’t think the location is bad? If you start from the assumption that you have to be on the Stadtbahn, then the options are Ostbahnhof (no U-Bahn connection, no easy U-Bahn extension, too far east), Alexanderplatz (too constrained), Friedrichstrasse (even more constrained), Lehrter Bahnhof (no U-Bahn connection but one can be built), and Zoo (too far west). Among these, I don’t think Lehrter was a bad location.

      • Herbert

        There are some who propose “making Ostkreuz the new Hauptbahnhof” – what about that idea?

        • Alon Levy

          What? Why? What’s the point? Even with planned redevelopment in Friedrichshain, it’s farther from most jobs than Hauptbahnhof is, and has worse north-south connections. In the 1990s, before the Tiergarten Tunnels, it had better north-south connections but not good ones, and at the time City-West was way more important and Friedrichshain way less.

          • JENNIFER LEE

            Redesign Update – See below. MTA delays bus network redesign completion until 2026, blames COVID-19 pandemic | amNewYork

            | | | | | |


            | | | | MTA delays bus network redesign completion until 2026, blames COVID-19 p…

            It will be five years later than expected by the time MTA has redesigned all of its ancient bus networks borough… |



            No bus redesigns until 2026. END OF STORY…

          • Allan Rosen

            That’s not what the article said. It said the redesigns will not be completed until 2026. That does not mean that portions will not be completed sooner.

  15. Chaditya

    What do you think of letting federal funds pay for transit operations. Seems like a lot of cities just don’t have enough high frequency bus service, don’t have enough density for rail, and don’t have enough growth to increase density.

        • TheKorot

          In this context, OPM stands for ‘Others People Money’. As planners/politicians/w are not spending literally their own money, but the money of other people, they are less inclined to care about costs and cost effectiveness. This causes project costs to rise, is thus a problem, and is named the ‘other peoples money problem’ or ‘OPM problem’

    • Eric2

      Ideally, federal funds should not pay for anything. Not construction and not operations (and not roads or airports either, of course). Each region should build what they find worthwhile based on their own tax money, as opposed to the tax money of the rest of the country.

  16. Ernest Tufft

    At very least buses need to be fully electrified. Hybrid isn’t good enough. Barcelona has articulated buses with batteries that make a loop past a special street side charge station. These are quiet buses with great acceleration.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      I think the other side of the spectrum is equally important. You mentioned articulated buses (high capacity, for high usage routes). I saw the effective use of small electric buses in central Madrid. I think they were ~20 seats. Made by Tecnobus/Italy? In tight cities, being able to maneuver in narrow streets is a big advantage. [If these were used as airport/rental car/parking shuttles, it would reduce the gas/diesel bus impact a lot. At the Madrid airport, after I landed, the plane didn’t pull to a jetway, it stopped off on a concrete pad and all the passengers (with their carry-ons …) had to take buses to the terminal. Another good application for a smaller electric bus that can deal with the congestion on the tarmac that doesn’t need to go long distances between charging.}

      • Ernest Tufft

        The key was to go beyond Hybrid diesel-electric to all electric with curbside charge station. I agree that small electric buses and minivans can be very useful!

  17. Mike

    Bus shelters are worthwhile. In Seattle regular bus shelters have covered benches 4 buttwidths wide, while “enhanced” RapidRide stations often have a 1-buttwidth bench or nothing because “the bus comes so often you won’t miss a bench”. Ha! Most RapidRide lines are 15 minutes off-peak, so a bench is important for those who tire easily standing, are carrying groceries, or are especially tired today. Some shelters have a 1-buttwidth seat inside and a 3-buttwidth seat outside. You may have heard that in Seattle it rains. So one person gets the lucky seat and everybody else has to sit in the rain or stand.

  18. Pingback: Institutional Issues: Dealing with Technological and Social Change | Pedestrian Observations
  19. jonsalmans

    Rail seems to be clearly better for large cities. Smaller ones will still need buses because they don’t have the density to generate enough ridership to justify rail in much or any of the city. You mention sub-million metros. Which cities with populations bellow 1 million would you say model best practices for rail?

    • John Frum

      They should drive, as buses are not cost-effective and we don’t have the money to build rail.

  20. Pingback: What can be done about the Bus Driver Shortage? - Connect-PGH

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