From Slacktivist blog:
“Oh, but no one rides the bus. Maybe down in the city, but out here in Independence? No one rides it. Unless they don’t have a car, I suppose.”

“Oh, well, but no one rides the bus, really. It used to be a really good system, with street cars and almost light rail, but now it’s just buses, and no one rides them.”

I spent a week in June in Kansas City, Missouri (turns out, it DOES exist!), riding the bus. I was in town to do some research. I couldn’t afford a rental car, and I hate driving in an unfamiliar city anyway. Before I left home, I checked Google maps and the Kansas City Area Transit Authority for information about the buses. The bus map looked fairly comprehensive – I could fairly easily get to where I needed to get to, with only a short walk at either end of the bus route. However, when I mentioned my plan to my hosts, the immediate response was “Oh, but no one rides the buses!”

Let me tell you, lots and lots of people ride the buses in Kansas City and Independence Missouri.[1] Over a week, out of 18 rides, I rode a total of only three buses which were not full for most of the trip. The first was the bus from the airport to downtown Kansas City. For $1.50 (actually, only $1, because I was short $.50)[2], I rode a route that would have cost me at least $50 by taxi. On that trip, with my driver telling me about the city, we picked up one other person. I don’t know how she would have gotten downtown if the bus had not been running, but she clearly knew the bus was coming, because she was waiting at one of the stops. The two of us rode the bus all the way downtown.

The second time I rode an almost empty bus was on Tuesday morning. I spent Sunday night with a guy in Independence, about two miles from the library, and on Monday morning I walked to the library. Monday night, I relocated to stay with a lady actually in the city, which meant a totally different bus. The bus that goes between downtown KC and downtown Independence is the #24, and the route is complicated – the #24 doesn’t go the whole length of its route every time it leaves downtown KC. On Tuesday morning, I managed to catch the bus that goes half of the way there, and then tranferred to the bus that goes 3/4s of the way there, and finally ended up on a little jitney bus[3] that toodles around Independence. That bus was mostly not full – I think one other person got on the bus with me at the beginning of the route.

The third time I rode an almost empty bus was on Friday, and everyone that got on the bus was surprised that it was almost empty. It may have had something to do with route changes caused by construction and major events in downtown KC. So. If, over the course of week (during which I rode four buses a day, for about three hours a day) only three buses were less than full, that must mean that for most of the week the buses were full. Clearly then, people ride the bus in Kansas City and Independence. Who does rides the bus?

People of colour ride the bus. Lots of African Americans and Latin@ people, but also Asians. Kansas City has a highly diverse racial mix – that mix is not fully represented on the buses, because, mostly, white people don’t ride the buses. Unless they are young (college students ride the bus), or poor (people in fast food restaurant uniforms ride the bus; people in ragged, dirty clothes ride the bus; people in the universal uniform of the blue collar worker ride the bus), or disabled (people with walkers ride the bus; people who talk to themselves, or twitch uncontrollably, or have the physical signs of Downs Syndrome ride the bus), or old (people with grey hair and wrinkles ride the bus).

So, when people told me “but no one rides the bus!,” what they really meant was “but no one [like me and you] rides the bus!” These were very nice people, socially aware – one was a lawyer who has a small practice because, after working at a big money firm, he’s realized that he doesn’t need marble on the floor or mahogany on the walls. Another is a member of the local Unitarian Universalist church, and deeply engaged in social justice work. But they don’t ride the bus.

This is a problem. Obviously, it’s a social blindness issue – it’s easy to say “no one rides the bus” if the speaker does not ride the bus – and, in saying it, it becomes easier to render the people who DO ride the bus into “no one.” I certainly don’t think either of my hosts consciously was doing this – the work they do speaks to the contrary. Still, it’s easy to think of a whole group of people as “my clients” or “the people the church helps” instead of “my friends,” or “my fellow congregants” – especially if the only time you are likely to see them outside of the “client” relationship is on the bus, which you don’t ride.

This is kind of a meta-problem as well, because it’s also a problem for bus companies. Bus companies need people like my hosts to ride the bus. Bus systems cannot afford to continue running on the income they get from fares but they can’t raise the price to ride the bus too much, or they will lose their riders. This puts bus companies in a Catch-22 situation – if they act to become profitable, they will lose riders, and go out of business; if they act to retain riders, they will cease to be profitable, and they will be driven out of business by people who see profits as the highest good.

That’s only one of the catches though Bus networks don’t always go to where people want them. My morning trip involved a half hour wait for the right bus plus a twenty minute walk at the end of the ride. So if the bus ran to exactly where I needed to go, it would run empty for that last leg of the run most of the time. At least, unless there were other people who would have taken the bus, except they didn’t want to make a twenty minute walk at the end of their trip – but how can you possibly tell? And until people realize that they can take the bus to where they want to go, the bus runs empty.

Buses run to where their riders are. And, because the sort of person who rides the bus often doesn’t have a lot of money, the sort of places the bus drives through are – less than scenic. I saw a lot of industrial stuff, and a lot of run down buildings, but not a lot of the sort of thing tourists might be interested in. Perhaps people don’t ride the bus because it offers an impression of their city that they would rather not have.

Further, the buses run smoothly … on paper. In the evening, the second bus I caught (the one that, on Friday, was almost empty) was not on schedule even once. Every evening, I watched my bus take three changes of the light to clear an intersection. That’s almost five minutes to travel a stretch of road twice the length of the bus itself. Why? Cars turning through the intersection made it impossible for the bus to go straight. That, I think, is the ultimate irony here – more people don’t ride the bus because too many people don’t ride the bus.

The solution to this problem is complicated, because the problem is vast. Indeed, there may well be lots of solutions. Here’s one: Ottawa has a world class bus system (or, at least, it had – I haven’t had a chance to use it recently). All through downtown, it has dedicated bus lanes – even whole streets that are reserved for buses at certain times of the day. Outside of the downtown core, it has a Transitway – a backbone system of high-speed buses travelling on a dedicated network of roads between the suburbs and downtown. In the suburbs, smaller bus routes connect into the Transitway and thus provide transportation within and between suburban communities. It is entirely possible to take a bus in Ottawa to pretty much any other place in Ottawa, for a tiny fraction of the cost of a taxi, with a minimum of waiting.

True, there are still places that it’s hard to get to and certain times – I remember running out the door of a workplace (to disastrous results – there was an injury as a result of my hurried negligence, and I lost the job) in order to catch a bus so that I wouldn’t have to wait at an unsheltered bus stop for an hour for the next bus. I also remember working until well past two in the morning one Canada Day[4] (different job – a one-time thing slinging hot dogs), and having to walk home because the buses had stopped running at convenient times. All the same, I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was in university, and then it was mostly so that I could drive out of the city to visit friends who were not on the bus route. I continued to use buses for most of my transportation needs until my wife and I left the city – and we’ve used the buses since then when visiting.

Building a network like this requires a lot of advance planning – where to put the Transitway, which routes to have running at which times, and no doubt many other problems that I simply not thinking about. It also requires a lot of political will to keep running – as far as I know, Ottawa Transit doesn’t turn a profit. Despite this, the buses were always clean, well maintained, and comfortable. The drivers were courteous and efficient; also (perhaps, because), well paid with good benefits.

KCATA is part of the way there. The buses I rode were all comfortable modern buses, with nicely padded seats. They were clean and well maintained, inside and out. The drivers were pleasant, and both willing and able to provide me with information that I needed to get to where I needed to go, even while being very busy driving buses.[5] Along the main routes in downtown KC, there were big signs at each of the conveniently placed stops, letting riders know when the next bus was coming, and which bus it was. Many of the bus stops had bus shelters (important in the rain or the snow, of some benefit in the heat and the cold.) And, for the most part, the buses were full.

Gas prices don’t seem likely to go down significantly any time in the near future (if at all), so I predict that the residents of Kansas City and Independence will increasingly ride the bus. And I think that will probably result in a better Kansas City. To the extent that other big US cities adopt similar public transit systems, a better United States, as well. I look forward to a day that the phrase “no one rides the bus” will be unthinkable.

Mike Timonin