Photo by channaher on Flickr.

A lot of people don’t ride the bus today, especially for trips outside their usual commute. They find it too confusing and too scary to stand at a random street corner, unsure when a bus going to show up, if ever.

Rather than blaming these people for being impatient or not planning better, we need see this as reasons to push for better information, and to support efforts to make better apps that spread that information.

Yesterday, I wrote that I don’t find the buses connecting northeastern Old Town to the Braddock Road Metro, a place my wife and I had to go recently, to be a very viable alternative to driving. Biking, on the other hand, will provide a much more reliable option.

Several readers took exception to this. A number implied that since there is a printed schedule and a bus that comes every 30 minutes, everyone should be able to handle taking the bus.

Craig wrote, “I have to agree with several other writers who were a bit insulted by your suggestion that transit to Old Town is not already a real option. On top of everything else, the DASH buses provide full timetables in booklet form at both Metro stations and on the buses.”

Catherine said, “You are framing it as a deficiency in the place and its system rather than your own problem—poor planning, poor map reading, low patience, whatever.” That’s unfair.

We can’t blame the rider when information is inadequate

I want to see more people ride buses. Buses are the easiest way to add transit service. We spend a lot of money on buses, and the more people ride them, the better the investment. The more people ride, the more frequency there will be, which makes them better for everyone.

But a lot of people do not ride buses. I’ve encouraged friends and family to try, and often heard back that the person simply gave up because they waited for what seemed like a long time and weren’t sure the bus was ever going to come, or they got on a bus and then it turned out to be going the wrong direction, or the bus was rerouted and they didn’t know, or NextBus reported a bus coming and then no bus arrived.

Whenever someone tried the bus and then gave up, it’s a problem. A system that should serve more people lost a potential customer. We can’t meet everyone’s needs, but the first step is admitting that current bus service has some failings.

For people who ride the same bus a lot, it becomes easier. It’s fairly unlikely the bus isn’t on the same route as yesterday. You get used to when it comes. You are sure you know where it will go. But everyone is riding a line without this confidence the first time. Also, a lot of people ride buses in places other than their everyday commutes. We should want bus service to meet those folks’ needs as well as regular commuters.

We can blame the person who gave up on the bus, but that achieves nothing. We’re not going to guilt people into riding transit. They will only ride transit if it provides a viable alternative for them.

One thing every operator can do relatively cheaply and easily is provide better information. If you know for sure you’re standing in the right place and know how long until the next bus, we eliminate this fear factor that deters so many people.

Catherine continued,

When I first moved here, the buses were a total mystery. I once I wound up shivering in a snowdrift in Parkfairfax trying to figure out how to call a cab to get me home (no internet on my phone back then!). To be fair, though, I’ve also been brought to tears trying to get to Sibley Hospital from downtown via transit (something I have to do every other month), but now that I’ve done it a few times, it’s second nature to me, just like my local bus system is.

When you drive, do you look up directions beforehand or do you solely rely on GPS? I stopped being a regular driver before GPS was a “thing”, and had to Mapquest directions before just about every trip (new to the area). Now, it would be much easier had I had a GPS back then but I don’t think I’d have learned my way around as well as I did. Perhaps this new way of travel (having GPS guide you around) is changing people’s mentality? People don’t plan trips to unfamiliar places beforehand anymore?

It’s fantastic that Catherine didn’t give up on buses after being stuck in a snowdrift. Few people I know are that dedicated.

As for the analogy to GPS, a lot of people used paper maps. With paper maps, you could count on the roads being where the map said they are in almost all cases. If there is some kind of detour, there is almost always a sign and/or a construction worker directing you. You could outline a route and take it, confident that it wouldn’t have changed on you.

Unfortunately, with bus service, that’s not the case. The bus might get rerouted and you might not know. A bus that comes every 30 minutes might have had one driver sick and missed a trip, and you could be waiting an hour. I know a lot of people who would be quite nervous about driving somewhere less familiar if roads randomly closed without providing information.

Plus, for many of the riders we want to attract to buses, they are choosing between the bus and driving, or between the bus and a taxi. Those provide a confidence that isn’t present with a bus like an every-30-minute DASH trip, even when you have a map and a timetable. As I wrote, if you get to the stop at exactly the time the bus is supposed to arrive, and it’s not there, and then 10 minutes go by and it’s still not, what is the chance it’s late and will be by momentarily, and what’s the chance it was 2 minutes early and you have 20 minutes or more to go?

What needs to happen?

Many people who find buses intimidating do ride the Circulator. What does it have? A simple route network that’s fairly easy to remember in your head. Signs on a lot of bus stops that show the simple network. Buses that almost always come every 10-15 minutes all day.

This is the same logic behind the “frequent route network” Jarrett Walker and others rightly push. Not every bus can run every 10-15 minutes, but some do. They deserve promotion on their own, separate from other buses, including on maps that show them in a simple-to-understand way.

Branching provides more one-seat rides, but also adds confusion. The time I’ve seen the most confusion among Circulator riders is from people getting on a bus headed eastbound in Georgetown and finding that it was the Dupont bus when they wanted K Street, or vice versa.

And information can be better. There’s little reason today for every bus system not to provide schedules, routes, and real-time information in a public format. Then, anyone with a smartphone can use a trip planning app which tells you exactly what corner to stand on and how long to wait.

Alexandria’s bus service is better than most, and that’s a problem

Yesterday, I specifically criticized DASH. The biggest reason is that they are one of the few bus systems with no real-time information.

Technological backwardness aside, Alexandria actually has better bus service than a lot of places in the region. You can take transit from DC to Seven Corners, but I wouldn’t consider it if I can drive. It’s about as hard as can be, without being impossible, to get to Upper Marlboro by bus, yet car-free Prince Georgeans have to do that every time they have jury duty.

It’s not just the suburbs. DC has plenty of buses every 30 minutes, problems with “ghost buses” on NextBus, and more than its share of rerouted lines. But we can’t look at this situation and say, oh well, that’s how it has to be, so anyone who finds it inadequate is just a poor planner.

If someone doesn’t take the bus even though there’s a decent route going where they are going, they might or might not have made a mistake, but we can also blame ourselves, collectively, for not making sure they got better information.


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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.