The bus stigma: Why it exists, and should we care?

By Robbie Webber

An article by Amanda Hess in Atlantic Cities asks why riding the bus is stigmatized in the United States. She delves into the history of U.S. transit and transportation policy and funding, which that has contributed to the view of buses as the least desirable way to travel and the bus ridership as those without any other choice.

Why are buses so maligned? And what can we do about it? How can we get “choice riders” – those that do not have to use transit, but choose to – to take the bus? And should we care whether people with transportation choices ride the bus?

In the transit-friendly and dependent northeast, or large cities such as Chicago, most commuters would prefer to take a train than ride a bus. In smaller cities, riders prefer streetcars or light rail, and local officials lavish attention on these modes, while buses are perceived as for those not served by these more socially acceptable transit options. In areas where buses are the only transit option, most people will drive if they can afford a car. The perception remains that buses are for those with no other option: the poor, and immigrant or minority communities.

Jarrett Walker suggests we shouldn’t care if people with other choices ride the bus. The blogger and author argues that as long as the general public, and more specifically decision-makers, support a strong transit system, we shouldn’t care who’s on the bus, as long as the bus exists. Transit, including the bus, will become more popular with all income and social groups as technology and innovation make transit more appealing than the alternatives.

But Walker’s piece misses both the question of how to make buses more appealing and also the inherent feedback loop that unappealing bus service creates. If middle class citizens who have a choice of transportation options do not use the bus, how are we to increase support – both financial and social – for that workhorse of the transit system? Assuming that more people using transit is a goal, and that buses are less expensive than new rail lines, what can be done to entice drivers to use bus transit?

Will Doig has some ideas. In an article in Salon and an interview on NPR, Doig says that making buses more like trains will increase ridership and satisfaction. Buses do not provide the same customer experience as trains. Trains are perceived as sleek and modern, while buses are just buses, although London has been trying to change that perception with a complete redesign of their signature double decker models. The route maps and frequencies for trains are more easily understood, and they are more likely to arrive on schedule. Not so with buses whose route maps and schedules can be hard for new riders to understand, although GPS tracking of buses do allow riders to estimate arrival times more reliably than in the past. Buses have stops with shelters, while trains have stations, but that can change as well.

Slow speed – both boarding and alighting, and once in traffic – is perhaps the more common complaint about buses when compared with trains. Trains don’t get stuck in traffic, because they have their own right of way. Train doors open wide to allow riders to get on and off quickly. And because fares are collected before boarding, trains don’t have to wait as customers individually deposit money or produce a fare card. Doig thinks that these issues can be at least partially overcome with a true bus rapid transit system.

Giving buses signal priority and a completely separate right of way are the most significant changes that would make buses run more like trains. If buses are operating at the same speed as traffic, plus needing to stop to pick up and drop off passengers, they will always be frustratingly slow. Off-board fare collection, level boarding, and electronic signs at shelters are additional improvements that can make a bus run and feel more like a train.

All of these changes to the lowly bus will cost money, however, which brings us back to the question of how to change the perception of the bus for the general public. Will they support better buses and bus systems if they still think of them as inferior? When money is tight, are people willing to support a transportation option that they themselves don’t want to use? And if new types of buses and bus systems can be funded, will prettier, faster, more predictable bus options lure more people to ride?

The debate continues.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.