Let 2023 be the Year of the Bus
In a world of slow climate solutions, buses are speed incarnate. They are the bunny.
The bus is unfortunately viewed by many in America as a dirty, slow, inefficient means of transit. If you think this, you are wrong. Or, at least, you have the wrong idea.
Buses can be an efficient, enjoyable part of getting around urban and suburban environments. They need not be the erratic, inconsistent tortoises of the American transit world, and they’ll need to not be if we are to adequately take on climate change.
The Curse of Cars
Cars emit too much. Transportation, as the largest single sector, makes up 27% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, and personal vehicles account for at least 57% of that total. If we want to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 (which we definitely do), then we need to come close to eliminating these transport emissions.
This necessity made itself apparent to me when I helped create the Climate Action Plan for the city of Morgan Hill. The town’s electricity was already carbon free, so that left us two sectors to focus on eliminating emissions from: buildings and transportation.
Fortunately, this is something we can straightforwardly do to tackle transportation emissions (buildings will come in a later article). We can replace internal combustion engine (ICE) cars with electric vehicles (EVs) and/or other forms of transit which produce less or no emissions (walking, biking, taking electric trains and buses). Unlike, say, aviation or cement mixing, we have all the technological tools we need to eliminate these emissions right now.
Unfortunately, political progress is oftentimes slower than technological progress, and putting distance between Americans and our obsession with cars is a mighty political hurdle. We could sidestep this problem entirely if we simply electrified all the cars on the road — letting drivers continue their blissfully ignorant habits of raging in traffic — but that is going to take time, and time is not a horribly abundant resource in rapidly warming world.
So, while we pump out EVs, we need to lower car usage (at least in the meantime, hopefully for good). But here we run into the big issue. Almost all of America has been built for cars. Our cities, our suburbs, our streets, and our damnable parking lots exist for cars. They cater to them in every way imaginable. From sprawling 26-lane highways to the islands of suburbia cut off from any store or school by miles of road, we have built cartopia.
Due to our self-designed hell, it seems like any reduction in car usage will only come at the cost of rebuilding America, which would also take a while. Ideally, we would have dense, walkable cities that allow people to live without cars. Other forms of transit would be incentivized: walking and cycling for short trips and trains and subways for longer ones. Such an urban revitalization would mean not only lower emissions but also fewer traffic deaths, less time wasted in traffic, increased urban economic activity, less soul-sucking suburbia, more autonomy for young/disabled/poor people, and overall more pleasant city experiences.
This is a great ideal to shoot for, but it will take time, doubly so because America is bad at building things. Well, not bad per se but construction is generally slow and costly. The US ranks poorly in terms of speed of construction and cost. Massive redevelopment will take time, if it happens at all.
In recap, our two choices for reducing ICE emissions are slow when we want fast. We need another option that doesn’t require large-scale construction and can happen quickly. Fortunately, we have one. It’s a form of mass transit that can utilize car-based infrastructure and be deployed in a rapid fashion: the bus (basically just a big, much more efficient car).
The road-plastered cartopia we have built ourselves into may not allow for a quick switch to train travel, but it presents fertile ground for a bussin revolution. Buses need no significant, new infrastructure. They already operate on today’s roads. Their issue is just that they operate sparsely and inconsistently.
While buses have a bad reputation, they need not be unpleasant experiences. The word “bus” comes from the Latin “omnibus,” an adjective meaning “to all” or “for all.” That is what the bus should be: an option for all. Currently, this is not the case, at all.
A tiny fraction of Americans use mass transit, from buses to trains, which isn’t surprising considering that “45% of Americans have no access to public transportation.” Almost half the country has no access, and most of the rest has access to often irregular, slow, and in-exhaustive service.
This, plus the prioritization of making the car a viable option for every outing leads to a serious dearth of mass transit use. Why bother taking the bus when it’s more convenient using the car? The lack of use then means a lack of political prioritization and poorer service, creating a feedback loop racing to the floor. Service lowers, maintenance falters, and the only people left taking transit are those who often have no other choice. It’s not surprising then that people are more likely to use public transit in the US if they are low-income, Black or Hispanic, or immigrants.
But we can break the feedback loop. There is nothing inherent about public transit or buses that makes it this way. New York City has a comprehensive subway system and, as a result, taking transit in the Big Apple is normalized. Bus service in San Francisco and parts of the East Bay is relatively good, so it captures a higher number of riders.
Speaking personally, one of the most valued student perks during my time studying in Berkeley was our AC Transit card which gave us “free” rides in the area. It made getting around a better experience since we didn’t have to worry about always needing a car or paying on transit and fumbling with change, too.
As can be seen above, my two American examples are our very best. But, even then, only New York compares to the rates of transit ridership of major cities to our north in Canada. If we take a look below, we can see a clear visualization as to how the Canadian cities have such better numbers.
They have more buses, more lines, more regular service, more frequent service, and better all day coverage. This is the case for most of the international cities America should take notes from. Many of them, like the Canadian examples, do also have a much more impressive rail game, but we have been over why that will be tough in cartopia. Luckily, though, it’s not just rail. Plenty of these cities, as we can see in Toronto and Vancouver, have successful bus coverage.
To speak from my experience once again, to show that this isn’t just abstract policy but a different way of living that I can attest to having experienced and enjoyed, the year I spent studying in Dublin, Ireland was my own Year of the Bus. The capital city of the Emerald Isle stands out from most other major, European cities due to its lack of metro/rail.This fact is regularly (and justifiably!) bemoaned by the locals. But even with that being the case, you can still get around Dublin fine without a car.
Dublin has a lot of bus lines! Throughout the city, you’ll find hundreds of double-decker buses on the road. Bus stops are dotted on nearly every street, with even semi-popular routes having electronic signs giving the next few buses’ ETA. There are also dedicated bus lanes that allow the behemoths priority on the road and in traffic.
All of this makes for a better transit experience that is much more readily used than here in the States. It is much more common for your average Dubliner to have gotten somewhere by bus than it is in essentially any American city. Is it perfect? No, and the Irish will attest to that. But it does a better job at giving the option for mass transit, which is all it has to do: present a viable option.
NACTO with the Facto’s
Hopefully, the international examples have highlighted how car usage can be lowered immediately through an increase in buses. More buses, more consistent and frequent bus lines, and bus-centric adjustments to streets can all happen in the short-term, and they all are proven to increase bus ridership and reduce car dependence, even here in the States.
Last year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released a bus-focused report titled “Move! That! Bus! Tactics for Transforming Transit in Two Years.”It explored what cities and local governments can do in the world of transportation to fight climate change. The opening lines of the document succinctly explain:
In October 2021, NACTO convened its network of transit professionals from 89 cities across the U.S. and Canada to articulate a list of near-term, high-impact actions that cities and transit agencies can take to significantly reduce transportation-related carbon emissions within the next five-to-ten years.
After these conversations and further research conducted by its working group, NACTO concluded that the city bus was the most efficient means to limit transportation emissions on the local level.
Climate change may be a global issue, but it can’t only be addressed top-down. There needs to be work from the ground-up to truly weed emissions out of our world. Local governments and cities, with their relatively constrained budgets and resources, need tools to tackle emissions. The bus is the local climate tool par excellence.
A Local Lens
Whereas national policy often moves on the scale of years and decades, local leaders can move to get more buses on the road in a matter of months. Bus line redesigns to increase efficiency and serve riders better can also be implemented in the short-term. The NACTO document highlights a variety of beneficial strategies from offering “frequent, all-day bus service” to adopting “local policy reforms that support transit.” The doc highlights that all of the changes it recommends can happen in less than two years, a much more climate-friendly timescale than the multi-decade timeline of California’s High Speed Rail, for instance.
Another benefit to buses as a climate solution is that they can’t get delayed as much as other infrastructure projects. Local governments or advocacy groups often delay or block new construction (such as for solar farms, wind turbines, or dense housing) through a variety of now common Not-In-My-Backyard causes: environmental reviews (that don’t retroactively apply to already built, environmentally harmful projects), historic building claims (even to buildings housing national chain franchises), and the like. This method of delay can’t really happen in the same way to a city simply upping its number of buses.
Sure, delays can be mounted against bus infrastructure (like dedicated bus lanes or any other construction to prioritize buses, bikes and walking vs cars [see SFMTA taking 7 years to eliminate parking at bus stops]), but these delays will generally be more minor since the projects themselves are more minor and usually happen on already existing infrastructure.
Where We Stand, Where We Go
Fossil capital has delayed the prioritization and shift to clean energy and continues to do so. The carification of America during the latter half of the previous century is a prime example of this. Because these designs of the fossil world have been so entrenched, we now face many political barriers standing in the way of a net-zero world. These barriers permeate both the large scale and the small, from misplaced highways to misguided thoughts. Fortunately, we have a solution that can be implemented on the local scale so uniformly and easily that it can bring about country-wide change and impact.
The America I was born in is a land contorted to fit and serve the automobile. I dream that the America I die in, the one I leave to my children and grandchildren, will be a land allowed to exist at a human scale, one that centers its cities and constructions of human design around the human experience. One of the first steps we can take in that direction is to embrace the bus and let 2023 be its year.
The following is an outlining rationale for a hopeful bus takeover of America (and any other place similarly plagued by car-centric design and daily life).
It, of course, wasn’t free, but was connected with a mandatory school fee. The fee was paid regardless of card utilization, so making use of the card made sense. And it made getting groceries a lot more relaxing considering all the hills around campus.
It does have the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), but that doesn’t get counted for some reason. It is good for similar purposes as the Bay Area’s BART, but yeah not as much for getting around the city itself. More regional, not super rapid, and doesn’t connect to the airport.
Not to say, though, that the HSR is not worth pursuing. It should have been started much sooner, and the funding should have been secured earlier to prevent much of the delay that we are now seeing. The state of passenger rail in America is a national embarrassment and should be assuaged as soon as possible through the immediate building of HSR lines throughout the country.