Alternative Transportation modes – The Pros and Cons of Buses as a Real Mass Transit Option

If you go anywhere outside the USA you will finds that mass transit via bus is commonplace.  And these bus services will go to most places that people need to go.  Here in the USA, most towns in populated and in nearly all cities, buses are a norm.  Outside largely populated areas, buses are a rarity.  Even travel between rural towns can be achieved with the long-distance services (like Greyhound) can help you reach across America but the schedules are quite limited (usually once a day arrival in most small communities).   I had a friend catch a Greyhound bus in Chicago and travel for two weeks across the Western States, visiting the main national parks, using Greyhound and local buses.  He slept many nights on the bus but it worked for him.  When I tried to use Greyhound to travel from Trinidad, Colorado, to Loveland, Colorado, it would pick me up in downtown Trinidad in the evening and drop me off 8 hours later in downtown Loveland, with a 4 mile walk to still reach my house in the very early morning hours.  Needless to say, travelling by bus in the U.S. is more of a planning adventure than a convenient option at this time.  Within towns and cities during the main parts of the day, buses are much better at moving people around. 

The main reasons people express for not riding the bus are inconvenient schedules, having to sit on a bus with strangers, perceptions of hygiene conditions, illusions about safety issues, and also perceptions of cost effectiveness versus convenience.      

Pros and Cons of Buses

Pros: Since diesel buses are not confined to rails, or overhead electric lines, they have lots of flexibility to change routes and also avoid blockages (such as accident occurrences) as needed.  They are cheaper to maintain than trains, and since they have multiple riders reducing the numbers of cars on the road at the same time – this reduces pollution and traffic congestion.   If the buses have set express lanes set up for them specifically, they can avoid the problem of rush-hour traffic hold-ups.     

Cons: In order to be costs effective they need people to ride the bus on a more predictable schedule, so prices may vary during the day as ridership varies considerably.  A way to get past this is to use appropriately smaller buses during the low ridership periods with larger buses reserved for peak times of ridership.  Riders are committed to transportation schedules.  Buses can be noisier than travelling by other modes of mass transit.  Many riders offset this minor problem by using earbuds to listen to programs on their phones.    

In Loveland, the Colt and Flex runs within the center part of the town on a half-hour schedule, but there is no bus service beyond that, meaning a good walk or a bike (buses can carry bikes on racks mounted in front of the bus).  The same seems true of most of the front range towns, while in Denver a good bus service serves the main city, which is typical of most cities in the U.S.  Inside and outside the U.S. there are many exemplary cities where buses cater to most of the population.  And they are not all running on Diesel.  In fact they use many different fuels from Methane, to Hydrogen and Electricity. 

As a case study of what can happen when buses are used effectively to reduce pollution and traffic congestion we can look at the Brazilian city of Curitiba.  In 1943, the city was designed for cars with wide streets radiating out from the center and roads that circled the center at various distances our from the city.  At that time urban growth and traffic was clearly anticipated and designed for, but by the late 1960s, traffic congestion and gridlock were as common in Curitiba as every other city on the world.  Automotive traffic had just overwhelmed the system.  Curitiba didn’t have much funding, especially to build an elevated or subway tube rail system, so they had to revamp the existing traffic corridor system to be a ground level tube system but using the existing buses instead of rail.  Today, Curitiba is the model of what can happen for effective mass transit.  Not only has it almost eliminated the problems of travelling around the city, especially at peak times, but it works so well, it is estimated that 90% of people that would have originally driven now use the bus system.           

The bus system works in Curitiba because it is a hierarchical Trinary Road System with Bus routes at the top of the system.  The core of the system is the five main arterial avenues that lead from the outer to the center of the city using Bi-Articulated Buses and act as the high-passenger volume express routes.  Then there are layers of speed with minibuses routed through residential neighborhoods that feed passengers to conventional bus routes on circle routes around the central city and on inter-district routes.  What allows the buses to maintain tight efficient scheduling are dedicated bus lanes.  The bus stops themselves are cylindrical, clear-walled, raised platform tube stations with turnstiles, steps, and wheelchair lifts.  This allows for smooth transitioning of passengers who pay a single fee (around 40 cents for anywhere in the city with unlimited transfers) as they enter the stations and are kept within the closed system until they exit at their destination.  Since passengers and bus drivers do not have to think about fares once within the system, typical bus dwell time at any station is less than 20 seconds.  The main terminal stations are full of shops and conveniences, such as rest rooms, post offices, newspaper stands, and small retail facilities so that passengers do not have to exit the stations until needed.  What is also unique is that the whole system, while organized by the city, is run by 10 private bus companies.  The bus companies are paid by the city for each mile/kilometer travelled, which permits a balanced distribution of bus routes so each company makes a fair operating profit as well as allow safe and regular bus maintenance.  The city also pays the companies bus depreciation costs of one percent per month.   This means that buses have a ten year life span within the system.  After that the city uses the older buses for random school and community travel needs, and much needed mobile schools, especially for more rural areas.   All these cost benefits alleviate the main reasons that people use for not travelling on the bus – the buses have very convenient schedules, cost sharing means they are kept clean, monitored transfer stations enforce safety issues, meaning they are also cost effectiveness and convenience.  If you travel on them regularly, it also alleviates the problem of sitting on a bus with strangers since the commuters create their own bus communities.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the lessons of Curitiba are being implemented within the larger cities, but areas outside the cities there is still the ongoing problem of traffic congestion.  Much planning and transformation of mindsets are still needed.  One of the on-going options to be explored next is that of light rail, which is fast growing, especially for cities in which the creation of dedicated bus lanes on all major streets is not yet a realistic option.  However, with alternate fuels to reduce or even eliminate pollution and more social marketing about the benefits (and comforts) of bus travel, they could yet be a reality here in the U.S. as they already are in most parts of the world.