City buses shouldn’t be a priority only when wealthier people want them

Buses aren’t a new discovery. They’ve needed better funding and policy for years.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran an article extolling the virtues of the city’s next big “it” thing: buses.

The paper asks “Is riding the bus finally becoming cool?” before answering with an emphatic “yes” over the next 1200 words. Transportation reporter Martine Powers interviewed a handful of daily commuters about their newfound appreciation for Washington, D.C.’s network of city buses, given the well-documented mishaps of the city’s metro system.

Is riding the bus finally becoming cool?Sydney Taylor used to have a mantra: Metro or bust. For years, the 27-year-old relied exclusively on the subway to…www.washingtonpost.comHere’s the thing, though. Buses — while perhaps a convenient or even slightly alluring new alternative for many longtime rail commuters in the D.C. metro area tired with delays and the occasional fire — are also a lifeline for thousands of residents who ride it not by choice but out of necessity.

Make no mistake: increased focus and attention on city buses is a good thing for all of its riders (provided, of course, that leads to increased funding and reliability). But framing buses as a hip, cool new method of transportation undercuts just how essential they are to the city’s most at-risk populations, and how often buses are ignored or even maligned by residents and lawmakers alike.

Within public transportation, there is a hierarchy of usage. In large cities like New York and Washington, D.C., rail transit is a way of life. Buses, on the other hand, are still stigmatized as transportation for poor people. In D.C., the city with the highest cost of living in the country, the average household income among metro riders is over $100,000. For bus riders, that number is less than $70,000. That trend bears out nationally as well: A study by the American Public Transportation Association published in January finds that 46 percent of bus riders have annual household incomes below $25,000, compared to just 22 percent of rail users.

And while half of rail users report having access to a car, fewer than a third of bus riders can say the same. Plenty of city dwellers may indeed choose to forego a car in favor of public transportation, but for many, that mentality only extends as far as the subway lines can carry them.

The resistance by wealthier residents to taking buses has also helped fuel the boom in transportation-focused startups. Companies like Apple and Google are experimenting with self-driving cars that could soon shuttle passengers to and from destinations without the need for drivers at all. Others like Zipcar and Car2Go allow members to use cars a few minutes or hours at a time to move themselves across town or run errands.

And then there’s Uber, which caught flak last year after it announced a new service called Hop featuring designated “pickup locations” where a driver meets you and a few fellow passengers at a set time, and then drops everyone off at a “pre-destined stop so you can walk the last few blocks to work.” You know, a bus. The service didn’t last a year.

Cities and municipalities have struggled at times to come up with the best ways to engage with companies like Lyft and Uber, but one unfortunate side effect is that many are learning the wrong lessons about how to attract more customers. Namely, they’re going after those wealthier riders.

Within the field of transportation study, public transit users are often categorized into one of two groups: “choice” users — those who have reliable alternatives to public transit but use the system out of convenience or preference — and “captive” users, who have little say in the matter. But some transportation experts say that’s an oversimplification that has outlived its usefulness (if it ever had any to begin with).

“This binary way of categorizing transit riders has some unfortunate consequences,” said Steven Higashide in a report for the TransitCenter, a foundation that advocates for better public transportation policy. “There is an implication that transit should focus on competing to win over people with cars, because everyone else will ride transit regardless of service quality.”

Trying to woo so-called “choice” riders often takes the form of pumping money into splashy amenities like Wi-Fi and charging stations on board, instead of putting resources towards a goal that would improve the experience of all users: increased reliability.

A TransitCenter study last year found that public transit users were mostly clamoring for improvements to reliability, not amenities. Faster routes, increased frequency, and reduced rates were the most important fixes users wanted, while cars equipped with Wi-Fi and outlets was at the very bottom of the list.

Which makes the framing of the Post’s article so problematic. Buses don’t need to be “cool,” they need to be useful. And it shouldn’t take an influx of slightly inconvenienced, wealthier metro commuters for the city to spend more to improve the riding experience aboard them.