The Model Bus Cities Program


Last week the Federal Transit Administration announced a new funding opportunity, $226.5 million in competitive grant funding to “to improve the condition of bus infrastructure nationwide by funding the replacement and rehabilitation of buses and related facilities.” This is essentially a capital grant program: “Eligible projects include those that replace, rehabilitate, lease and purchase buses and related equipment as well as projects to purchase, rehabilitate, construct or lease bus-related facilities, such as buildings for bus storage and maintenance.”

The press release got me thinking. Granted (pun intended), $226.5 million is nothing to sneeze at in the context of bus funding; but it’s also kinda nothing in the context of the country’s transit needs. Indeed, the press release itself helpfully notes that “According to U.S. DOT’s latest Conditions & Performance Report, transit providers nationwide face a maintenance backlog of nearly $90 billion, including 10,000 buses estimated to be in poor or marginal condition.” It’s at least good to see some self-awareness from a release touting funding amounting to one quarter of one percent of the nation’s estimated transit maintenance backlog.

While the grant money from this opportunity will likely be spread around the country–10% is set aside for rural services–the news left me wondering whether such money would be better spend demonstrating the potential of bus service in a more concentrated way. The total amount of funding on offer here is a drop in the bucket nationally. But it could make a distinct difference if spent in a concentrated way in one area.

Recently, a number of American cities–notable examples include Houston, Columbus, and Indianapolis–have launched complete redesigns of their bus systems around the principles of frequency, 7-day-a-week schedules, and gridded service patterns. Generally speaking, these redesigns redistribute service from wandering routes designed to cover a maximum geographic area to relatively linear routes intended to maximize ridership (these ideas, obviously, owe a lot to Jarrett Walker, who has been involved in many of the redesigns).

houston bus redesign

The Houston bus network redesign. Source:

What’s most interesting about the redesign process, though, is not the particulars so much as that it represents a willingness for oft-hidebound American transit agencies to think freshly and creatively and to re-orient their mission from delivering what some may paternalistically label “welfare” service to providing the broadest possible benefit to the entire public. It is, in short, a grand experiment in how transit should work.

So I wonder–instead of patching over holes all over the country, why should FTA not try for a grand experiment of its own? What would applying $226.5 million in funding to one city look like? It could certainly create some nice exclusive bus lanes, a lovely bus hub, and the like. But as Jake Anbinder wrote a couple of years ago, the federal emphasis on capital subsidy over operational subsidy–based on a Reagan-era belief that local systems were ripping off the feds and substituting federal money for adequate local funding–certainly appears misguided in terms of growing ridership decisively. Certainly, there’s a need; but there’s also a need to make buses run more frequently, which is after all what most benefits passengers.

These broad rethinkings of transit service have generally been concentrated in big, not-so-dense Midwestern, Sunbelt, or Western cities, the type that have been dominated by car for a long time. But there are other opportunities to grow transit ridership. I’ve long been a believer that small-to-midsize cities in the Northeast–the kind of places that grew up around transit and still have the density necessary to sustain it–are likely candidates for better service, and indeed, many have seen ridership grow in recent years. But many lack the technical knowhow, resources, or political capital to innovate. New Haven–where I’ve advocated for a comprehensive re-thinking of the unmentionably overcomplicated bus system along Houston lines–is forced to beg the ever-broke state of Connecticut for improvements, resulting in a system that satisfies few needs and is incredibly slow to deliver even on basic promises like GPS tracking for buses. At times it seems as if few local notables believe in the potential of transit in such cities.

And that’s where there’s an opportunity for a grand experiment along the lines of a comprehensive system redesign. The magic of those redesigns has been that they are essentially budget-neutral; imagine what the availability of significant funding could do to revitalize a system suffering from long decades of disinvestment and disinterest. The amount of money programmed in this new competitive grant program large in the context of the operating budgets of midsize agencies:  5.5 times that of New Haven’s bus system, twice that of RIPTA (which serves all of Rhode Island), and 3.2 times that of CDTA.

new haven dysfunction

A snapshot of the New Haven bus network map gives some indication of how overly complex and spread-out the system has gotten.

So that’s Sandy’s idea for a grand transit funding experiment. Concentrate the funding, don’t spread it around. Focus on midsize cities where transit has significant potential, but local disinterest has held down service levels and innovation (and where revenue may otherwise be less easily gained than in big cities). Pick one or two per year and meet their wildest (reasonable) operational dreams, with a commitment for funding for say 5 years to follow. Build on the appetite for comprehensive thinking and bold planning currently percolating in the American transit world. I would suggest calling it the Model Bus Cities program–an apology of sorts, inadequate reparations if you will, for the Model Cities Program and federally funded urban renewal that so damaged many of these same cities decades ago.

What would such a program look like? I imagine each city and the FTA would have their own ideas about it, but here are some of mine:

    • Comprehensive planning. Re-think the current network, which is often the result of decades of accretion without much overall planning; set frequency at levels demanded by density and travel patterns, not just what the operator can afford; generally experiment to see how many passengers an agency can draw in through good service.
    • Technological upgrade. Modernize the bus fleet; work with municipalities to install TSP along key corridors. Modernize fare collection systems and speed buses through installing capacity for Proof-of-Payment fare collection.
    • Build political bandwidth for things like dedicated bus lanes, queue jumps, and Complete Streets upgrades. After all, we know people hate turning down free federal money. Building local political capacity with federal funding can bring lasting benefit even if the immediately higher funding levels eventually depart.
    • TOD. High-frequency bus service demands high-density development. Several cities have recently taken to reducing or eliminating parking requirements near high-frequency transit of any sort; this is a good start. A five-year funding term under this program should provide enough lead time to get some TOD developments built.

What won’t you find here? Major capital investments like streetcars, light rail, or BRT. Those can be major improvements (well, maybe not streetcars) in their own right, but I’d like to see American transit policy re-orient around the humble frequent bus. It’s certainly where the biggest bang for the buck is, at least in small and midsize cities.

Do I expect any of this to happen? Not really, especially in the current political environment. But it strikes me that it would at the very least be an interesting experiment, and quite likely a resounding success. Maybe someday the federal government will be bold enough to give it a go.