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The future of transportation is… a bus?

June 14, 2018

Once considered the least glamorous of public transportation services, it seems that buses may be poised to make a big comeback. CityLab, a website focused on “design, transportation, environment, equity, and life,” is launching an ongoing series on their website called “Bus to the Future” with a goal of putting public coaches front and center once again.

CityLab wants to remind people that buses are:

  • a cheap and flexible general-purpose option
  • available already
  • carry large numbers of people in a compact amount of road space
  • don’t require special rights-of-way
  • can be deployed and rerouted in response to needs
  • affordable to cities in terms of both capital costs and often operations as well

While the American Public Transportation Association indicates that as recently as 1990 bus trips represented about two thirds of all transit trips, more recent Department of Transportation figures show that bus ridership has been on the decline over the past decade. Transit ridership overall is down, and many bus riders have been replaced by an increase in subway and rail riders. Not to mention the fact that, despite their closely guarded data, many believe that ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are pulling riders off of public transportation.

But don’t count buses out just yet. Beginning with an experiment that established a pop-up bus lane where there had been on-street parking in Everett, in February of 2017, Massachusetts began testing the idea that bus lanes can save time for commuters. The project was so successful that the bus lane has become permanent. BostonBRT, a project of the Barr Foundation, is providing the funding for the Everett project as well as pilot projects in Arlington, Cambridge, and Watertown. The participating communities all developed successful grant applications for the program and are working with the MBTA to make the projects a reality. The goal is to show that Bus Rapid Transit has the potential to improve the transit experience in areas where there is high bus ridership as well as high traffic.

New bus technology is on the horizon that could make travel by bus even more convenient. Just a few months ago in San Ramon, California, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority launched the first autonomous shuttle bus. The City of Rochester Minnesota also recently tested a driverless bus. Both pilots used an electric bus to cut down on emissions. The hope is that the buses would improve safety and have the ability to offer more frequent service with smaller flexible vehicles.

With a recent shift in demographics to more urban areas and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources, buses may once again be the next big thing in transportation. Check out www.citylab.com for the latest article in the Bus to the Future series.