The story behind America’s unlikely bus renaissance and the man who makes transit systems better overnight

Cities don’t look like they used to. Working class neighbourhoods are turning into yuppie enclaves. Industrial zones are turning into hipster fiefdoms. Whether it’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn or Neukölln, Berlin, residents are picking new neighbourhoods for their homes and businesses — and they’re often a good clip away from “traditional” city centres. As new areas densify and city poles shift, how do cities themselves adapt?

If you look at any city’s transit network, there’s a good chance that it will follow decades-old migration patterns, with subways stuck in their place, and buses following the same routes that horse-drawn omnibuses and streetcars did. Obviously this poses problems when a neighbourhood equipped for light transit volumes is suddenly overburdened with hordes of new people.

Since the Williamsburg boom started in the late 1990s, the L-Train has struggled to keep up. Photo: New York Times.

This isn’t just a problem for megacities like New York City. Even smaller cities like Honolulu are being strangled by gridlock as new residents (and their cars) take to the streets. Public transit would be a better mobility solution — no other mode can move so many people in so few vehicles. However, it’s hard to convince people to take public transit when its routes are slow, infrequent, and don’t get people where they want to go.

Increasingly, cities are realizing that effective public transit is the best way to accommodate their growing and densifying population. But how do transit networks adapt? How do cities determine which areas are underserved by transit? How do they design new optimal routes? Do they add buses, streetcars, or bore holes for a subway? Do they run all-day service or expresses?

For the last twenty years, there’s been one person that cities have sought out for advice on these questions. His name is Jarrett Walker.

Jarrett Walker, Transit Whisperer.

Jarrett Walker is a transit planner from Portland, Oregon. It is not an understatement to say that — at least in transit circles — Walker is God. His book is the transit nerd’s bible, his blog is their pew and kneeler. He is often on tour, stumping for the importance of public transportation in today’s cities. He sometimes plays the role of Twitter contrarian, lampooning Silicon Valley’s tech hawks for thinking gridlock can be solved by replacing single-occupant cars with single-occupant driverless cars. He has built his reputation over a decades-long career, and helped redesign (either directly, or by way of his consulting firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates) transit systems in dozens of cities, across North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Walker looks at the demography of a city and its existing transit network — where are jobs, housing, existing ridership? Then, with a combination of local knowledge, data crunching, and network design principles, he and his team weave together transit plans that help cities meet their goals, which are often myriad.

There are tons of tough calls involved in designing new transit systems: do you shoot for maximum ridership — at the expense of reduced service in other areas? Or do you try and serve each neighbourhood — even if that means service in denser neighbourhoods will suffer? How do you handle NIMBYism, tight budgets, and soaring infrastructure costs? How do you explain to someone that the bus they’ve relied on for 10 years is being cut (because it serves 10 people an hour and it can be reallocated to an area where it can serve 100?)

Navigating these tradeoffs is a tricky ballet, and transit planners like Walker work with agencies and community groups for months or even years planning new networks. Credit also goes to city leaders who display immense amounts of courage, exert political capital, and spend time convincing their neighbourhoods that rejigging (or replacing) routes is necessary.

However, when it comes to actually rolling these changes out, it often doesn’t take Walker & co. much time at all.

Houston Suburbs. Photo: Nelson Minar

The Great Overnight System Reimagining

When you think “Houston”, you think “tex mex” or “Beyonce” or “rodeo” or “sprawl”. You probably don’t think “efficient network of high-frequency buses”.

Prior to Walker’s intervention, Houston’s bus system was underused and neglected. Transit ridership was underperforming. Traffic was spiralling out of control. No wonder: “the last time Houston redesigned its bus system, gas cost less than $1 per gallon.” (That was over 30 years ago.) Since then, jobs have shifted to new areas: Texas Medical Center, Uptown, and the Energy Corridor.

Walker consulted with the city to modernize Houston’s bus network. Dozens of infrequent, underused bus routes were scrapped, in favour of providing high-frequency service along Houston’s densest residential and job corridors.

“Pruning a tree” is how Walker likened the plan — Houston METRO would double-down on routes that could serve lots of people, sending them much more often (reducing wait times) and extending high-frequency service to weekends.

In less than a year, ridership shot up by 2.3%, which sounds modest until you consider that almost every major city in America saw a decrease in ridership in the same 2015–2016 time period (for many reasons). Moreover, Houston was undergoing a small recession at the time.

Fewer jobs, fewer commutes.

An unlikely bus renaissance in Freeway City. Walker anticipates Houston ridership will go up by 20%+ within 2 years of the overhaul. Data source : Seattle Times

The improvements weren’t implemented piecemeal, line by line, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Houston’s entire network was scrapped — and a new one put in its place — literally overnight.

Much more of Houston is accessible by high-frequency bus thanks to the redesign.

Houston’s “system reimagining” is now a model for other American cities: instead of updating transit systems line-by-line, Walker has shown that by updating the entire transit system, cities can score big overnight wins, boosting ridership at practically no additional cost. Remember: Houston didn’t have to buy new buses or hire more drivers to grow ridership. It just had to use its existing resources in a smarter, more efficient way.

The Grand Columbus Bus Premiere

Next month, Columbus will be the latest city to receive a transit makeover. The new routes will go into effect May 1st — but they’re already ready for (virtual) trips in our app Transit! Riders can look up the location of new stops and routes, check the improved frequencies, and learn how their daily commute will change. We even give you a bird’s-eye view of the new high-frequency network with our world-famous transit maps.

Our map of Columbus’s new transit network: the revised bus corridors make it possible for more people get to downtown (and other job centres).

Columbus’s new network will feature simplified routes, better connections, and service in areas that puts 110,000 more jobs within a quarter-mile of a bus stop.

Adding the new network to Transit is one of the biggest rider education programs ahead of the new network rollout: tens of thousands of people use Transit in Columbus every month — more than any other public transport app. These riders will use Transit to understand the network overhaul before it goes live, meaning that fewer people will show up to discontinued bus stops, and more people can take advantage of the new network right away. Hopefully, we’ll help Columbus avoid the temporary ridership dip that followed Houston’s network overhaul.

The new 2L line has far fewer stops, resulting in shorter trip duration

It’s possible to boost ridership without spending millions of dollars on new vehicles and drivers. When public transit follows the routes and schedules that people actually need — big surprise — fewer people drive, and more people take transit.

The same goes for apps that make transit more accessible: cities don’t need to splurge on fancy tech or rider education campaigns. When they partner with apps like ours, they make it easier to get information about your local transit network. (Or future ones 💯). Eventually, these partnerships might even shape the networks themselves, using rider data to optimize transit routes. We’re already doing that in Boston where, as the official agency app, we provide the agency with anonymized data on millions of trips.

Overnight overhauls and “big data”-driven redesigns are just a few of the radical strategies being used to improve public transit. And it’s the agencies willing to embrace radical change (like those in Columbus, Houston and Boston) that are actually boosting ridership.

In an era where conversations about “urban mobility” are monopolized by ridesharing and self-driving cars, it’s important to remember that transit agencies can be just as agile.