Get on the Bus

The Riverview Corridor Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) recently dismissed the only transit options that were even slightly logical, and opted to continue forward with studying ways to construct the crowning achievement on a transit system that is backwards and self-defeating. Bill Lindeke recently opined on this site that the proposal is the “best…project in the works right now”, which, given the backdrop, probably doesn’t say much. And though taking on Twin Cities transit planning is a Sisyphean task, to say the least, the issues here cry out for both logistical and historical perspective.

Consideration should first be given to flaying the streetcar proposal itself. Ramsey county planners recently went to Kansas City – my old hometown – to visit the adjacent-to-downtown streetcar that went into operation roughly three years ago. They even posted a video, which you should watch right now before reading further. Done? Ok.

Only 40 minutes for that route! It’s too small to picture all 10 stops to scale.

At the 40-second mark, the video has a dramatic visual fade to announce the arrival at “Kaufmann Center Station”. Did that look like a bus stop to you? I’ll let you watch again if you didn’t catch it. The answer is; yes, it looked like a bus stop, because that’s basically what it is. The streetcar in Kansas City, the model for the transit line from MSP airport to downtown St. Paul, makes a back-and-forth, epic, two-mile journey, complete with 10 stops. It travels as slow or slower than a bus, at considerably greater expense. To top it off, in KC it’s FREE, and yet they can’t fill it.

To further editorialize it; Oklahoma City is also considering copying it, and if the friendly folks in Okie-ville want to build one, that probably says a lot about it.

I didn’t even ride it, because walking was just more convenient. Incidentally, that was a nice fiddle tune on the video, and I wonder if it was dubbed in, or performed by a busker on the streetcar. My money is on a busker, because they would have room to play, since no one rides the free streetcar. This streetcar was a desperation move by Kansas City, to get affluent car-drivers from the suburbs to explore a little further from the parking lots, in a place where land has been historically cheap, where surface parking is the norm, and where the downtown landscape is like an asphalt ocean dotted with buildings. It’s a special form of hell.

I-94 in 1967, courtesy of MNHS. It gives “ease of access to the downtown Capitol”!

Or maybe a nightmare, a historical one, of the kind that Joyce speculated it may be impossible to wake from. In 2014, after a much ballyhooed nationwide urban revival, and millions thrown at a variety of light rail projects, 76% of commuters still drove cars, alone, which is up 3% from 1990. Many of those drivers commute in from the suburbs to urban centers, the status quo that came to be after massive Federal and State subsidies to highway systems enabled what was disproportionally a white diaspora from the metropole, even, occasionally, deliberately bulldozing black neighborhoods to make it happen. In 1977, minorities accounted for 21% of bus riders, but by 1995, left moored and carless in the city, they accounted for 69%. And busses, the poor, reliable workhorses of a transit system, have seen their appointments and funding drop in direct proportion to the rise in minority ridership, and the fall in “choice” commuters; i.e. those who ride because they want to.

If only bus route maps looked like this suburb feeder rail map…

In Los Angeles, in the mid-90s, disparities between rail and bus service were fought by the Bus Riders Union; fares were being raised on bus riders, who were 80% people of color. This was to shore up system deficits, and while it was true that bus riders did enjoy a subsidy of $1.17 per passenger, the wealthy, white commuters on the Blue Line took advantage of an $11.34 subsidy, while Metrolink riders – who were 73% white and funneling in from the suburbs – were free-riding on a $21.02 public dole. The city was spending 70% of the budget on a system that served 6% or passengers. The subsidy has since dropped significantly on train ridership as the system matured, but the fact remains that the city was willing to fund a subsidy for white-favored rail on the back of the lowly bus, and its minority ridership. The BRU has also fought plans for rail from the airport, which benefited people who could afford plane tickets, while cutting bus routes and bus funding.

Riding the bus has a distinct racial stigma attached to it in affluent, white circles. Based on the near effusive praise given to KC’s streetcar at Riverview Corridor public meetings by Ramsey County officials when introducing it to the audience, plus the Disney-vacation style commemorative video that Ramsey county put on YouTube (linked above), I assume that County officials love it much more than the bus, even though it’s functionally…a bus. It just moves on tracks of iron(y), rather than on tires. Functionally, it’s almost more tourist novelty than actual transit. But the same trip, to the same bus stop, could have been made on a bus.

It’s basically an American pastime now to hate the bus, but it hasn’t always been. In the early 20th century, when busses were first introduced to Washington, D.C., they were viewed as a stylish and preferable alternative to streetcars. Now, the city is spending exorbitant sums to lay streetcar rail to serve neighborhoods already served by bus. Sounds like somewhere I know…

This brings us to the very backward, amnesiac, and self-defeating Twin Cities transit plan. I give you; The Green Line.

The primary advantage of rail is its ability either to exploit the third dimension (above and below street level), or travel by its own unique rights-of-way. It is these advantages that make spending money on rail worthwhile. Failure to exploit the unique capabilities means that the money is being spent not on the equipment advantages, but on something else entirely.

It is safe to say that the Green line does neither of these things. Light rail projects in general fail to do so, and are – in my opinion – simply a way to throw substantive play-money at transit without the political commitment required to build heavy rail. But the Green Line is particularly bad. It is a primary railway between two downtowns, and on those tracks runs a train capable of…significant…speeds. And yet, it shares space with cars, does not have signal pre-emption, (side note: the KC Streetcar was also hit by a driver who ran a red light) and makes stops with the frequency and purpose of a bus. The latter is largely due to the fact that under Bush-era transit policies, rail funding only went to projects with distant stops, a policy was actually sensible, if one wants to efficiently use rail. The problem here is that the city was about to plow yet another high-speed transit line through what used to be Rondo, and also slash local bus service at the same time. Obama-era policies, however, changed the funding prerequisites, and in the name of equity, the Green Line sprouted stops all long its route. The result is a train that travels at an average speed of 12 mph, and operates like a bus, utilized primarily for in-and-around errands.

I understand. Rail is sexy now, and if that’s the only transit option that’s going to get any financial and political love, and I live around there, I want some of that too.

London’s new Routemaster courtesy of The Guardian. More than we need at 1mil BPS, but praised as a “stately vehicle” that “conveys a sense of privilege”.

Keep in mind that “Separate but Equal” started on train transit, and wasn’t successfully fought in public transportation until the year long Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which brought the system to its knees, and caused authorities to attempt the last-ditch effort to simply price poor black people off the bus until a court stopped that action.

To complete and close the historical loop: Immediately after transit was desegregated, Federal funds built highways to get whites out of the cities, and later built rail to help them get back in…and those kinds of distances are one of the best uses for rail. However, to gloss a lot more history about busses: they are so racially stigmatized, and occupy such a bad cultural niche, that as urban areas gentrify, municipalities are willing to spend millions on rail systems that replicate what a bus does best, all so we don’t have to ride the bus, rather than spend fewer millions on a modern, comfortable, bus system. The political will isn’t there when it comes to busses.

Anecdotally, here in Saint Paul, I’ve noticed that a number of friends that are choice commuters don’t call the new “A-Line” the “bus” in conversation. Ever. It’s always “transit” or “the A-Line”. If Saint Paul wants a streetcar because it’s “cool”, or because it will attract tourists, or because planners think it will culturally enrich the city, then we can and should discuss those points. But if the justification for an expensive streetcar is because it’s intrinsically faster and more reliable than a bus, or even promotes better access – that simply isn’t true, by any measure.

Who doesn’t want to catch a ride here? Amirite?

Aside from historical stigma, what else is wrong with buses? For starters:

  • Cramped and, shall we say, dumpy conditions.
  • They arrive late, and then two at the same time when they do finally show up.
  • Byzantine schedules, and impossible-to-remember naming conventions.
  • Overall treatment as a second-tier system.

These complaints are easily fixed:

  • On a bus that costs easily $500K, a mere $5K extra can result in flowing lines, more and bigger windows, and a better flowing and more comfortable interior. That’s pennies compared with the cost of a bus, and especially compared with building a streetcar.
  • GPS prioritized signals, designated bus lanes, and digital readouts at stations as well as phone apps can take the mystery out of bus sightings.
  • Trains get labels like “Green line” and “Blue line”, while buses often get alphanumeric codes on 1980s dot-light boards. Give bus routes similar conventions, and print route maps with solid, easy to follow lines that look like train lines.
  • That guy on the bench is what makes all the difference here.

    Spruce up all the stops/stations to “A-line” appointments, or at least better than an 8 ½ by 11 aluminum sign tacked up just below “No Parking from 2AM to 6AM”. Print transit maps that show bus and train routes on the same map, and don’t distinguish between the two. Typically, buses have a completely different map, with no differentiation between routes that run every 30 minutes, and routes that only run every Sunday. Put the bus on the same regularity as a train. And integrate the fares seamlessly, with the same fare schedule for everything, and fully integrated payment forms; in Washington, D.C., commuters sometimes only train and walk because they lack the change for the bus.

No matter what, at the end of the day, don’t spend money on what is effectively an expensive, rail-bound bus.

So what is a more ideal solution?

Heavy rail, or at least nearly-heavy, exploiting the third dimension and moving at high speed from the airport to downtown Saint Paul, with a single stop at the halfway point. That stop would be a modern, well-appointed, bus transit node (though we can call them something else if the term “bus” makes it impossible to get funding and political commitment) with regular and easy to understand routes through the metro area. Imagine if that node, at the south part of the city, had a bus line that went to a similar node at the halfway mark of a Green Line that moved quickly, and above or below traffic.

This is a bus stop too??

In New York City, the greatest and most heavily integrated transit city in the world, even JFK doesn’t connect to Manhattan by dedicated rail. The AirTrain will get you to Jamaica station. After that you need to get on the E train, or the A train, and if you want Upper Manhattan, even transfer to a (gasp) bus! Or you can take Long Island Railroad from Jamaica Station to Penn Station. And a bus is the ONLY public transit option to LaGuardia.

Bottom line: develop the right tool for the job. Don’t shortchange buses while spending millions to make rail that behaves like buses. I think the first step in getting past the irrational love of the streetcar, and addressing our distaste for buses, is identifying with historical honesty why that distaste exists, and then doing something about it. The most flexible, cost-effective, and equitable form of transit would be an innovative and thoroughly modernized bus network augmented by rail utilized efficiently and to its own best advantages.

Michael Daigh

About Michael Daigh

You might have seen Michael Daigh riding his bike around the Twin Cities metro. He resides in St. Paul, but only since 2015, so his opinions don't count. Michael holds an MA in History, and is the author of the book: "John Brown in Memory and Myth". He is also a decorated fighter pilot.