From the Bus Stop to the Fast Lane: How Cities Can Speed up Buses, Improve Ridership

An RTD bus crosses Broadway on Colfax on September 25, 2014. Photo: RTD
An RTD bus crosses Broadway on Colfax on September 25, 2014. Photo: RTD

This guest commentary is by Alana Miller, a policy analyst at the Frontier Group, a public policy organization that is part of the larger Public Interest Network of advocacy organizations.

In recent years, fewer Americans have been taking public transportation. The ridership declines have sparked rightful alarm (along with some wrongheaded calls to abandon transit altogether). 

At the same time, many local governments and transit agencies have seemingly chalked up disturbing ridership declines to national trends, or focused their attention well down the road on proposed hyperloops and self-driving cars, while Uber has dubbed flying taxis “the future of urban mobility.”

But there is no reason to be defeatist when it comes to transit ridership. Excuses and far-off tech fantasies are frustrating distractions from the conversation we should have in our cities: how to use the tools we already have to make transit service better. With the urgent imperative of acting on climate, tackling air pollution and solving a pedestrian safety crisis, we can’t afford to forget the basics. 

It may be less flashy than a flying taxi, but the humble bus is key for building the transportation system we want – as long as cities prioritize them on our streets.

Public transportation remains the best way to move millions of Americans efficiently in and around our cities. By getting people out of cars and onto transit, we can reduce driving, free up space currently dedicated to parking, and expand people’s access to opportunities. Buses are the workhorse of our transit system, and routes can be added or expanded relatively quickly and inexpensively.

While buses offer many benefits, the majority of American buses are forced to compete with cars that often carry only a single passenger. Most streets in our communities are nearly entirely dedicated for the use of personal cars, making bus travel awkward and slow. 

As buses try to pull up to a curb to pick up a group of people, they’re sometimes blocked by other vehicles, like delivery trucks or Lyft and Uber drivers waiting to pick up a single passenger. Since most buses are forced to leave the travel lane to access the curb, they often get stuck waiting to pull back into traffic. At lights, a bus with dozens of passengers might be forced to wait for individual cars traveling on the cross-street – often carrying fewer people through an intersection in an entire light cycle than are carried by a single bus.

The obstacles that a bus encounters at every step of its journey makes for slow going. In New York City (home of America’s slowest buses), NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign issues an annual “Pokey” award for slow bus service. The 2018 award went to a local Manhattan bus that averages 3.2 miles per hour – about the pace of walking. At this rate, “riding a bus can feel like being in a funeral procession,” remarked Gene Russianoff, the group’s founder.

Other cities struggle with slow speeds as transit buses languish in local traffic. Analysis by Denver’s transit agency, RTD, in 2016 found that nearly every route in downtown clocked in slower than 10 miles per hour. In Los Angeles, average bus speeds have dropped by more than 13 percent since 2005. Speeds in Chicago have also been declining in recent years, with buses in some neighborhoods crawling along at 6 miles per hour.

Bus speeds in downtown Denver, where red is less than 10 mph. Source: RTG.

Slow buses, combined with other elements of poor service, are a critical factor in declining transit ridership across the country. Denver’s bus ridership fell between 2016 and 2017, and a TransitCenter survey of transit riders found that neglect of local buses may be to blame. Bus ridership in Los Angeles hit its lowest level in over a decade in 2016, while New York City’s bus ridership fell 6 percent from 2017 to 2018, and Chicago residents took 25 million fewer bus rides in 2015 than in 2013. In London too, analysis found that bus ridership has fallen fastest on routes where speed dropped the most.

The good news is, there are many relatively simple, low-cost improvements that could allow the bus to transform our transportation system.

By dedicating space (one of the eight tools my colleague Tony Dutzik and I identified as critical for a low-carbon transportation system) on our streets to bus lanes, buses no longer have to fight through traffic caused by personal cars. Even where that isn’t feasible, bumping out the curb (see image) so buses don’t have to pull in and out of traffic also saves time. Cities can give buses priority at traffic signals (as Denver is doing at some intersections), so they spend less time at red lights and in traffic. When cities outfit buses with signaling equipment, the vehicles can prompt lights to turn green or give the bus a head start before cars. Speeding up the boarding process by letting passengers pay on the curb and enter through multiple doors also cuts down on the amount of time buses spend sitting at the curb and not moving. These are straightforward, proven approaches that can help speed up nearly every bus route.

Buses travel faster when given dedicated lanes and extended curbs that let buses to stay in the travel lane instead of pulling into a recessed curb to pick up and drop off passengers. Photo: NYC DOT


Taken all together, improvements to create “bus rapid transit” on major routes can transform a city’s bus system, making those bus lines as reliable as rail and attracting more bus riders. Around the country, while ridership has been falling on local bus routes, bus rapid transit lines have seen consistent ridership increases since 2012. In Minneapolis / St. Paul, ridership on the A-Line express bus corridor is one-third higher than it was in 2015 before bus rapid transit treatments. A 21 percent increase in transit ridership in Richmond, VA has been attributed to a new 7-mile bus rapid transit line and network-wide bus improvements. Eugene, Oregon’s Green Line boosted speeds from 11 miles per hour to 15 and increased ridership 75 percent since it was launched in 2007. And Connecticut’s CTFastrack has helped to nearly double ridership in its corridor over the past four years.

Seattle, a city that has prioritized high-quality bus service, is one of the few cities in America where transit ridership is booming. In fact, in 2018 the city announced that its transit ridership was growing faster than anywhere else in the country, with regional ridership numbers at an all-time high. San Francisco’s bus ridership is up 19 percent since 2008, and the city has put forward a comprehensive plan to improve bus service.

To get people out of their cars and onto buses, bus service will not only need to be made faster, but also more frequent, and more affordable than driving. Riders need access to more frequent service – if a bus comes every half hour, it is hard to rely on, particularly when door-to-door rides are available at our fingertips and personal vehicles sit in our driveways. And, cities will need to make transit more attractive by pricing driving more appropriately – it currently can be cheaper to drive and park a car in a city than to take transit.

It’s not surprising – if public transportation is slow, infrequent, expensive, and inconvenient, people won’t take it. As cities look for solutions to tackle climate change, air pollution, traffic, pedestrian deaths and housing crises, they should move the cars causing those problems out of the way and let the buses through. 

  • internetpoints

    Yes yes yes! We need political leadership to get us BRT on Colfax, then Colorado, then Federal, Alameda, etc etc etc. A true grid.

  • TakeFive

    On the whole a credible article but in some cases that dog won’t hunt.

    If you and Tony are concerned about a low-carbon transportation system then push for RTD to buy Proterra zero-emission buses. If it’s good enough for Salt Lake City and Edmonton, Alberta it should be good enough for Denver.

    I’m a big buyer of bus rapid transit with as little BRT Creep as possible. With respect to Seattle their RapidRide routes – with 2 or 3 (out of six) being especially successful – these are comparable to RTD’s light and commuter rail routes. Since you used 2008 as a base year so will I. Hat Tip to Cirrus who dug out the numbers from APTA: Since 2008 bus ridership is up 12% while rail ridership is up 95%.

    • TakeFive

      In order for dedicated bus lanes to exist they need to be (very) busy bus corridors like you have in downtown; otherwise compliance will by a huge problem. Will Clark provides us with proof of this.

    • We’re still on the front end of the battery-electric wave. Practical experience is just starting to show results. Over the past 150 years battery power has been on the verge of practicality. If one reads the Edmonton consultants’ study there are some cautions:

      In procuring the modest fleet of e-buses, MARCON further recommends that ETS staff develop a performance specification as soon as possible. These specifications should include diesel heaters for space heating on board each bus in order to provide more certainty in effective range for service planning. Due to the drain on the batteries the use of air conditioning is not recommended.

      A thorough evaluation of service blocks must be undertaken in parallel with the procurement process to identify what changes would optimize the use of e-buses and, therefore, the economic and environmental benefits of the technology. The goal will be to assign these buses to the longest blocks they can possibly handle in order to reduce their fixed cost per kilometre.

      In other words, this is like introducing the first Positive Train Control of crossing gates. In the Edmonton case I’m sure they’ll do everything to make the new buses a success because (1) they have a history of trying radical things and (2) it’s only been a few years since they scrapped a fairly modern overhead wire trolley coach network powered from a natural gas generating station. Diesel buses turned up in communities that had accepted clean and quiet and warm trolley coaches. Now they are eager to get off the hook with the neighbors.

      • TakeFive

        Nice comment and added information.

        With respect to being on the front end of the battery-electric wave China is building over 900 zero emission buses every month. Otoh, Chinese company BYD who is manufacturing buses in Los Angeles has struggled to meet some customer’s needs. For example Albuquerque returned their electric buses.

    • tomwest

      Old-school diesel buses produce less emissions per person than a car if the yhave more than six people on board. The reduction in emissions comes from mode shift from an inefficient mode (cars), rather than improving an efficient mode (bus)

  • LazyReader

    Nationwide, 2018 ridership was lower than any year since 2005. But national numbers are heavily influenced by the New York urban area, where 2018 ridership was lowest since 2011. Some urban areas are far worse off than the national average.The declines in ridership are not some phenomena with no explanation, the reasons are clear. The biggest of all… Transit agencies are ignoring cheap solutions, buses which can be implemented immediately over trains which take years to build,cost hundreds of millions/billions to build. Cost WAY more than the transit agencies have money for to operate and maintain.

    – Automobile usage offers greater Privacy, hygiene, aesthetics.

    – Transit agencies have ignored years/decades of crucial maintenance backlogs in favor of expanding infrastructure empires across their jurisdictions.
    – the economic conditions that made passenger rail popular a century ago no longer exist.
    The Four horseman of the Transit Apocalypse include:
    Low fuel prices : Pestilence
    Ride-sharing services : War
    Maintenance backlogs: Famine
    Unfunded pension and health-care liabilities of transit agencies: Death

    • TakeFive

      Why not be specific? It’s BUS ridership that has cratered, not Denver’s shiny new light and commuter rail routes.

      I’m not interested in legacy systems of the “Original Six” great transit cities. I leave them to deal with their own issues. Maintenance problems in NYC, Boston, D.C. Philly and Chicago have nothing to do with rail transit in Denver or its peer cities like Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle.

      I would agree generally that transit buses struggle to provide an attractive and competitive product. The one exception that even includes Orange County (not famous for its public transportation) is that investments in “enhanced” BRT-style primary routes has worked out well.

      • LazyReader

        When rail systems begin, it’s bus service that suffers. LA is living proof of that losing bus riders for every light rail rider. Because agencies often cut or scrap bus service.
        Among the 60 largest urban areas, it appears that 2018 ridership in
        Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee,
        Memphis, Louisville, Richmond, and Omaha were the lowest levels of any
        year since the 80’s.

        • TakeFive

          Every survey in Denver (and elsewhere) shows that virtually everyone would prefer to ride the rails over buses. Why would it surprise anyone that when offered people choose rail over buses?

          It’s not unusual for many bus routes to cater to rail transit stations. Again why would this be surprising or a problem.

          • LazyReader

            Because Light rail is more expensive than buses, and given these systems propensity for needing federal tax dollars covering as much as half or MORE of the capital costs just to get off the ground it shouldn’t be in the federal governments perview to subsidize peoples preference, especially ones that cost more than solutions that are cheaper and easier to implement. Survey’s don’t mean much when transit is declining regardless. People choose rail over bus because the stigma of buses being for the dregs of society. The result is to reboot transit services as an option for the upper income. But Light rail construction is so ridiculously expensive that transit agencies didn’t have enough money left over to provide decent bus service for the chief demographic transit was meant for, the poor, elderly, children and physically incapable of driving. Ride hailing has eaten into that upper income demographic and ride hailing will inevitably eat into the lower section eventually. Where bus service wasn’t scrapped it was at much greater public expense. Increasing budgets, increasing subsidies and even increases in service has not boosted transit ridership except by slim margins in just a few cities.
            With declining ridership, growing costs, and increasing competition, the nation’s transit industry is on the verge of complete collapse in the next 10-15 years. The trends leading to this collapse appear to be permanent. Even a rise in gas prices won’t save the industry, because the maintenance debacles they’ve accumulated for decades will devour the budgets the transit agencies cant cover without subsidies. In just 50 years the transit industry in the US went from predominantly private to predominantly government and reliant on subsidies for about 70% of the costs of what it does. Not to mention the public healthcare and pension obligations transit unions have not paid into will cripple the industry at some point in the foreseeable future. This means the industry should stop building new rail lines; replace most existing rail lines with buses as they wear out; pay down debts and unfunded obligations. Instead the industry should stop building new rail lines; replace most existing rail lines with buses as they wear out; pay down debts and unfunded obligations before they get foisted on the taxpayer and prepare for the orderly and inevitable phase out.

          • TakeFive

            Nice script; btw, you’ve never acknowledged your source; is it the Cato Institute?

            “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain

            I’m not much interested in a circular debate bases on of cherry-picked statistics. One thing that is of record is that the budget authorized for DOT was $72.4 billion in 2015 and it has gone up each year since. I’m not anti-car but I am pro-transit.

            Colorado and by extension its municipalities doesn’t need any D.C. based think tank deciding what is best for Denver. Reason being your propaganda is half-baked nonsense.

          • LazyReader

            Believe what you will. The fact is that transit is in decline nationwide. The facts and data are there.
            Let’s start with same basic “measurable” numbers. In 1990, before Denver built its first light-rail line, the decennial census found that 4.74 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. By 2014, the region had four light-rail lines, and the American Community Survey found that the percentage of commuters taking transit to work was all the way up to 4.76 percent. After spending billions of dollars………they got a small smidgen of people onto transit, but still failed with the population growth of Denver and additional riders. Ridership has fallen 7 percent since 2015. This reduces the funds available to operate RTD buses and trains, so RTD has cut service and increased fares to be some of the highest in the nation. High fares aren’t liable to get Denverites onto RTD.

          • TakeFive

            I couldn’t care less about your funky percentages; I’m interested in ridership numbers. In case you missed the below data.

            Since 2008 RTD daily bus ridership is up 12% while rail ridership is up 95%. Combined RTD transit ridership is up 31% since 2008.

            From 2015 through 2017 rail ridership is up from 26.36 million trips to 28.9 million trips. Bus ridership fell from 76.9 million trips to 70.3 million trips. Overall ridership from bus and rail was down an insignificant less than 2% for a small sample size period of time. Once again my point that buses suck while rail ridership rocks holds true. Source:

          • TakeFive

            The average Joe and Juanita doesn’t care about your statistical games. Their eye glaze over.

            Denver/RTD needs to maintain a good base of bus service for its citizens. They need to invest in a few BRT route/corridors. The so-called BRT from Boulder to Denver has been so popular they’ve had to order more buses and increase service.

            Meanwhile the permanent rail corridors will see increasing TOD over the next couple of decades such that rail ridership will continue to grow. While I’m a proponent of ride-sharing like Uber/Lyft it doesn’t negate the need for great transit in Denver and rail in particular will end up being a stroke of genius in hindsight.

          • TakeFive

            With respect to Denver’s light and commuter rail, RTD will end up spending close to $5.8 billion on FasTracks. Federal grants were at most 1/3 of that. Previous routes were built for much less but in any case this is about Denver and its taxpayers; you needn’t worry yourself about what is best for Denver since its already been decided and built including the N Line completion in 2020.

    • jcwconsult

      True. “- Automobile usage offers greater Privacy, hygiene, aesthetics.”

      Add the usually shorter door-to-door travel time and avoiding exposure to four season weather going to and from the transit stops plus wait times at the stops. Why 60% or 70% or 80+% of commuters prefer their own cars in most parts of the US is obvious.

      James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

      • TM

        Wear a coat you pussy.

    • Sincerely

      Strongly disagree that automobile use offers greater aesthetics, at least as its usually implemented. There’s a reason why cities from San Francisco to Dallas to Philadelphia are removing or burying urban freeways and why cities all over the country are considering removing parking minimums. Car infrastructure is blight.