Buses are still the future of public transit

In these days of Uber and Lyft, the proliferation of electric scooters, and other individual ride services, it may seem that the best way to move people around a city is to go small–vans, cars, and other dial-a-ride type services.  The big bus is out; microtransit is in.

But, it’s not; “the best way to get the most people around a city efficiently and cheaply” is still large, fixed-route buses.

Why is microtransit inefficient?  Especially in a lower density environment–like a city suburb–a driver in a smaller van responding to individual requests for rides and not following a fixed path, can only make 4 to at best 7 stops in an hour; meaning that the smaller van may carry only 4 to 7 people during that hour.  In comparison, especially in a higher-density environment (inside a city), large fixed-route buses carry on average 12 to 45 people an hour.  And, in many cases, in dense cities like Philadelphia, USA, “the number can exceed 80” people per hour.

In addition, it might seem that a smaller van or car would be cheaper to run than a large bus.  But, as long as a human driver is involved, at least 70% of the operating cost of passenger transport is labor–paying the driver’s wages.  “The driver’s time is far more expensive than maintenance, fuel,” and other costs of operating a vehicle.  Because of that, a driver of a larger bus is more efficient than a driver of a smaller vehicle.  “The ‘to your door’ convenience offered by microtransit is so expensive per rider that it cannot possibly scale to the volumes of people traveling in a city.”

But, microtransit certainly has its niche such as serving disabled persons or “low-income people living in a hard-to-serve place.”  But, it will never be a high-ridership tool for an urban transit agency.

“Fixed public transit deploys large vehicles flowing along a set path, and riders gathering at stops to use them.”  The buses or trains can follow a fairly straight line “and they don’t need to stop once for every customer.”  “It is one of the best ideas in the history of transportation.”

Read the article (Jarrett Walker, The Atlantic, October 31, 2018).

For more information about public transportation and moving people around a city, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

 

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