Buses: they don’t have to suck

Very often when I say the word “bus” out loud, someone will volunteer that they hate buses. The conversation might go like this:

ME: Bus ridership is down. It’s not clear why.

FRIEND: Have you considered the possibility that buses just suck?

I find these conversations frustrating, because the people I’m talking to are wrong, but I can’t actually get into why that is in a casual setting without being pedantic and annoying.

Fortunately, I have this blog, where the cost of being pedantic and annoying is much lower. So here we go: buses don’t suck. They suck because we make them suck.

Let’s take, for example, the boarding situation on the Fullerton bus at the Red/Brown/Purple L station heading west. This is a stop I board at a lot, because it’s the main way to get to Logan Square from the north lakefront neighborhoods. I am not the only person with this idea, though, so there are frequently ten to twenty, or more, people waiting by the time a bus arrives. Each of these people must tap their Ventra card (or, God forbid, pay with cash) before the bus can move on. If each person takes, on average, two seconds, that’s easily 30-45 seconds spent waiting for people to board. If someone has a problem with their Ventra card, or is fumbling for cash, it can take an extra 15-30 seconds.

The Fullerton bus.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty excruciating to wait through. If you drive, imagine sitting in traffic – not at a red light, but just waiting for no good reason – for 45 seconds. Set a timer, imagine yourself staring at a bumper, and just let the time wash over you.

Moreover, it can cause the bus to miss a green light, which can easily add another 20-30 seconds after everyone has actually tapped their cards.

Multiply this by every busy stop a bus makes – in Chicago, especially any time around rush hour, this is a lot of them – and you go a long way to explaining why buses are so slow. Or why, in the words of my friends, they suck.

But this is not a problem we have to live with. It is simply a result of having decided that everyone has to pay for the bus when it arrives, at one card reader at the front door. Although most people don’t realize it, this is not the only choice. But it’s important: imagine how much more trains would suck – trains, those things that everyone loves – if everybody riding them had to tap their card at one reader when they arrived at your station. It would take forever.

Anyway, one other choice would be to have two card readers: one by the front door, and one by the back. This is called “all-door boarding,” and San Francisco, among other places, does it. As you have no doubt already calculated, this reduces the time required to have everyone get on the bus. Over the course of a ride over a few miles when 50 people or so board, that can make a difference.


Another, even more exciting choice would be to have people pay before the bus arrives. That way, there’s no tapping at all! Just get on and go.

Chicago will actually begin using that system at exactly one bus stop in the entire city once the Central Loop BRT project is complete: one of the rail-style bus stations will have rail-style turnstiles that you’ll have to tap your card on to get through. That way, when the bus arrives, you just get on, like with trains now. Ashland BRT, if and when it happens, will probably also use that system. That’s one reason they’ll be so much faster than other buses.

A rendering of a station for the Loop BRT project, due next year.

But you can actually get the same benefit without all the cost of building a station and adding turnstiles. You can do what the MTA does in New York with a few of their bus lines: you can put little kiosks at major stations where people can tap and get a little paper receipt saying that they paid. Then, when the bus comes, they just walk on. No waiting for tapping at all! The downside is that you then need a small security detail to spot-check people’s receipts to make sure they’ve paid, but that turns out to actually not be a very big deal.

This is a pre-pay bus kiosk in New York.
This is a pre-pay bus kiosk in New York.

Either of those – all-door boarding, or pre-payment before the bus arrives – can make buses suck much less. But this post was really inspired by Sandy Johnston’s response to WBEZ’s story on bus bunching:

What was really disappointing about the Curious City piece is that everyone interviewed–from bus riders to academics to CTA drivers and officials–seemed to take the the fatalistic attitude that bus bunching is completely inevitable and very little can be done to prevent it…. But…[t]here is, in fact, one policy lever that can help the CTA (and other agencies) avoid bus bunching, but it is politically unpalatable to most actors, especially the city’s auto-oriented elite: dedicating lanes to public transit.

Yes: another way to make buses suck much less is to make the most basic gesture at believing that people who ride buses should be able to get places in less than twice as much time as it takes to drive there, and give them their own lane. When buses and cars share lanes, not only do buses get stuck in traffic not of their own making – sixty people or more regularly squeeze onto a single bus just fine, but that many people in cars could back up a road for blocks – but they have to negotiate pulling out of and into traffic every time there’s a stop, which in Chicago is frequently every block. That also wastes a lot of time.

Sometimes people object to bus lanes on grounds of fairness. On Ashland, say, people on buses make up about 20% of all travelers, I believe. Why, then, should they get a third of the road? (There are six lanes, recall: two currently used for moving cars (with buses mixed in), and two for parked cars.)

That is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Chicago has roughly 2,800 miles of traffic lanes on arterial (main) streets, and at the moment 4 miles of (part-time) bus lanes. (They’re on the J14 line.) That is 0.1% of all arterial lanes. By contrast, 27.9% of Chicago households don’t even have a car, and 26.7% take transit to work, meaning – doing some quick math – roughly 15% of Chicagoans take the bus to work.

Here is that idea in a graph:

Clearly, adding more bus lanes would be horribly unfair.
Clearly, adding more bus lanes would be horribly unfair.

Meanwhile, car trips do, in fact, tend to be about twice as fast as bus trips – not including wait time – and rail trips are in that ballpark, too. This, despite the fact that between a quarter and a third of our households don’t even have cars, and that the vast majority of households are not located close enough to a train station to walk there. Buses are, in fact, the only viable transit choice for the vast majority of Chicagoans. Too often, they do suck, but they suck because of some combination of: a) we don’t know that they can be better, and b) we don’t care to make them better. But I think there are a lot of people in the city who would be interested in a bus system that we could be proud of, as opposed to felt burdened by. Why don’t we get one?


22 thoughts on “Buses: they don’t have to suck

  1. I’m a bus rider, but I don’ t see any of the city-building attributes that you get from rail happening with buses. Sure, you do get a transportation benefit, but most cities are looking for more than that these days. They’re interested in repopluation too.

    1. People who have studied this in a systematic way don’t agree, though. Ridership and development seems to depend much more on service qualities – frequency, access, speed, etc. – than mode. That is, a bus that works as well as a train – as BRT comes very close to – also brings all those other benefits. Given that the cost is literally pennies on the dollar versus heavy rail, I think that makes sense.

      1. It depends. Surface rail isn’t particularly more expensive than BRT if you’re building or rebuilding the ROW anyway. It’s grade-separation that’s crazy expensive, mode isn’t so much the issue. This was the crucial error of the auto era: handing over massive amounts of extremely-valuable surface ROW to private automobiles for free. Everything else flowed from that.

  2. Nice post! Chicago’s bus system has *outstanding* potential–it covers the entire city on a neat grid at relatively high frequencies. In much of the city, buses are a much more realistic option than rail, both for cost reasons and because there are large swaths of the city where the density doesn’t demand heavy rail (the only kind we’ve ever built in Chicago). But….they’re just so damn slow. I’m all on board with PoP payment and all-door boarding–I would also suggest a couple of other technical things, namely stops after, instead of before, traffic lights, and Traffic Signal Priority. These are all good projects, but I do worry that ultimately (in line with Yonah Freemark’s emphasis on “fast transit”) gridlock in Chicago is getting soooo bad that transit with some kind of dedicated ROW will be the only viable option in many corridors.

    1. Yeah, it really does – I don’t think people appreciate how powerful Chicago’s bus network is, and certainly not how much more powerful it could be. I agree, obviously, that dedicated lanes are great wherever possible. But I think we should be looking at these other options, too.

      1. People don’t realize that Chicago was built on the streetcar grid and that L ridership was relatively minor until recently; there were once cheap, frequent streetcars that dealt with little traffic (take a look at any pre-1920 photograph outside the Loop) and had timed lights.

  3. Great post. I can’t stand the streetcar focus of some transit-supporters when better buses are far more useful.

    But is it really true that the vast majority of Chicagons don’t live within walking distance of an El stop? Of course even if they were, the El only covers certain (mostly radial trips).

    1. Thanks. I haven’t actually run the numbers or anything, and I can’t recall seeing them anywhere – although clearly someone must have – but yes, I would be very surprised if more than, say, 30-35% of Chicagoans lived within half a mile of an L stop. Recall that there are several lines – Orange, the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, the outer half of the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line – where most people arrive at the station by bus. Whether that’s “vast majority” territory or not, I dunno. But right, the other side is that the L is only useful for radial trips. Buses are crucial for the vast majority of potential trips in the city.

  4. Another possibility would be to take over certain of the larger side streets for BRT. That wouldn’t affect traffic on the main streets where cars are forced to go. A bus once every 20-30 minutes shouldn’t be an undue strain, and special lights could be set up that a bus could activate them, but otherwise not get into the car’s way. Some creative routing around bridges and such might be involved, but easier to institute.

  5. While I agree that dedicated lanes, TSP and off-vehicle boarding on level would be the holy grail of a powerful BRT, really just increasing the frequency and span of service would make a great deal of difference. As it is, too many routes have frequencies greater than 15 minutes (the bare minimum standard for BRT headways) and spans of service ending too soon after the PM peak to be effective for many commute patterns that happen outside of the traditional working hours. I could see as an elementary first step towards developing BRT as just increasing the service to see what happens.

    1. Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s less of an issue on the big lines that are talked about as BRT possibilities – the Western, Chicago, etc., buses come pretty frequently – but on other lines, increasing frequency is probably the single easiest way to improve service. Unfortunately, that’s an operations funding issue, and (I think) harder to come up with money for than a more-or-less one-time expenditure on, say, card readers for the back doors of buses.

  6. You forgot to consider the half-mile long, part-time, single-direction, shared bus-bike lane on Clark Street between Diversey and Fullerton. Or is that just too stupid an idea in 2014 to include in the calculation?

    1. I didn’t actually know about that, but now that I do, I consider it too stupid an idea in 2014 to include in the calculation.

      Anyway, if anyone wants to add it to the chart, color in the “Bus Lanes” bar exactly one pixel higher.

  7. Holding my breath on the Loop BRT implementation (from Metra depots Union Station/Ogilvie across the loop). I think it will drive the city’s impression of the concept. If it’s perceived a success, more will follow. If botched, the idea will struggle to gain momentum elsewhere.

    Any word on recent update to Ashland BRT? Last I heard, reception was lukewarm (due to variety of factors, incl. elimination of all left turns on Ashland Ave), but that was a while ago and CTA hasn’t provided an update.

    As the Blue line corridor continues to gentrify (Wicker Park/Bucktown/Logan Square), I hope that there will be more interest in “linking the lines” with more frequent East/West bus service in between on Chicago/Division/North/Fullerton/Diversey/Belmont. Bus riders definitely overflow the system at those red line stops during rush hour. Hopefully some of the speed/efficiency ideas you offer will be adopted also, because most of those roads likely don’t have capacity to convert to dedicated BRT lanes.

    1. Ashland, I think, is on hold, partly until the Loop BRT appears as a proof of concept, as you say. BRT is such a foreign idea that I really don’t think average people have any idea what to expect, which is perfectly reasonable. The hope is once people see the buses moving faster, with their own fancy-looking stations, they’ll say: Why don’t we have that in my neighborhood? Whether that will happen, who knows.

      Yeah, the spread of gentrification – and gentrifiers who use public transit – to multiple L lines might increase the number of people with some political clout who’d favor crosstown rapid transit. On the other had, lots of those gentrifiers mostly use transit to commute downtown.

  8. One issue I’m trying to find number for is the street congestion for Chicago. Have the number of registered vehicles in Chicago increased in the last ten or twenty years and has the car traffic increased? I don’t know but I suspect more congestion adds to slower bus time. This has been suggested to me but only anecdotally.

  9. While I think BRT is good for some situations, it is quite expensive; the Ashland BRT is costed out (for now) at 160 Million Dollars (I won’t go into the political motivations); it will of course however only serve one Transit Corridor, in one part of the City.

    IMHO, a better use of $160M would be to restore the XBus Expresses on Cicero, Pulaski, Western, Ashland, King Drive, Cottage Grove, Garfield, Irving Park, etc.; and spread the use of the available Funding throughout the City into many diverse neighborhoods; instead of some “Showcase Project” for Mayors from other Big Cities to come and go “Ohhhh, Ahhhh” when they visit here (have a nice Block 37 anyone?)

    1. I have to admit, I’m kind of puzzled by how often expense comes up as a strike against BRT. BRT is far and away the cheapest method for installing rapid-transit-level service along an Ashland-type corridor. Light rail would likely be several times more; a subway would be upwards of $1 billion a mile, or $16 billion.

      Moreover, the $160 million is for building out the stations and preparing the roadway – it couldn’t be used for operations, like reintroducing the X routes. And while I’m completely in favor of doing that, the kind of full-blown BRT being considered along Ashland would be significantly faster and more reliable than the old X9. I don’t think it’s some fancy showcase project that doesn’t actually help the people who live here; it effectively creates a verrrry long-needed north-south rapid transit line that doesn’t go through the Loop. That’s worth the investment – especially if it’s only $10 million per mile.

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