Municipal bus operators across the country are introducing a wide variety of innovations to a long-stagnant transportation mode. They’re replacing the old bread-loaf vehicles with sleeker, more train-like designs. They’re outfitting buses with Wi-Fi and and they’re adding racks where cyclists can load their bikes. They’re creating apps so passengers can time a bus’ arrival at the bus stop, and they’re introducing off-bus ticketing to speed boarding. They’re even synchronizing traffic lights so buses can avoid red lights.
The innovations seem to be having an effect where they’re implemented, as the Wall Street Journal describes in “The Commute of the Future” today. However, two key points go unaddressed in the Journal article:
First, while it’s encouraging to see these new technologies and strategies being adopted, we should be asking, can we move faster? Is the organizational culture of municipally owned transit monopolies conducive to the implementation of change? Would successful innovations spread more rapidly if we opened up the industry to more competition? Here in Virginia, is anyone even asking these questions?
Second, there’s a geographic limit to where buses can operate profitably, and that limit is defined by the density and walkability of development along the bus routes. As a broad rule, people are unwilling to walk more than a quarter mile to a bus stop. The more densely populated the neighborhoods along the bus routes, the larger the potential market. Local governments can improve the economics of bus lines by permitting more density in transportation corridors and encouraging more pedestrian-friendly design. Outside of Arlington County, which local governments in Virginia are coordinating zoning and mass transit policy? Not many, I would wage.