The Emerging Bus Network Restructuring Trend

Bus network restructuring is an exciting trend that is catching on. Let’s get it right. Part I of a multi-part series

BaltimoreLink bus network restructuring. Source: Maryland Department of Transportation

In the past few years, in response to falling bus ridership, a string of cities have been considering a full restructuring of their bus networks. Many cities have bus networks that haven’t been changed for years, and over time have ossified into patterns that no longer optimally serve their residents.

The prevailing wisdom in the US transit community is that bus services are spread too thinly, in an attempt to accommodate residents from high density and low density neighborhoods equally. Indeed, there is political pressure in many communities to serve everyone equally, regardless of where they live. And yet, by providing too much equality of service, transit agencies are selling short the denser clutches of riders who could benefit from more service.

The bus network restructurings that are taking place across the country, thus seek to address this fundamental problem. And yet, there is no clear technical toolkit for doing so. The closest we have seen is the book by Jarrett Walker, entitled Human Transit, and follow-up blog posts and additional work he has done on the subject. However, some key elements of his approach have not been subjected to sufficient scrutiny, which we will address in further posts. Beyond that, there is no technical guide, no documentation on how one might go about restructuring a bus network, or a set of diagnostics that indicate when there is a problem with the existing bus network.

Like BRT, bus network restructuring, if done right, could have the power to bring riders back to transit, better serve transit dependents, and revitalize the bus mode which still accounts for the majority of transit trips in the US. A well-done bus network restructuring could even lay the groundwork for a new BRT network. But as we have also seen with BRT, the concept alone is not enough to produce these fundamental changes. If done incorrectly, in fact, it could have the exact opposite effect of what was intended: existing riders could see their commutes get much longer and drivers will simply stay in their cars.

Also like BRT, bus network restructuring is becoming highly politicized. In the US, where even simple changes like the removal of unnecessary bus stops has proven a challenge, major changes to a bus network may not survive the community process, and may devolve into something incoherent and worse than before. Our sense is that this is already happening.

Transportation trends come and go. Some, like congestion charging, have been smart but so politically challenging that they have not really caught on. Others, like urban cable cars, were ill-conceived and probably shouldn’t have gotten as far as they did. Bus network restructuring seems like a sensible emerging trend with good potential. But if this trend is to survive, we will need to figure out how to do it well.

The following series of blog posts will address some of the technical challenges emerging as part of this trend, with some proposals on how to overcome them, and several of the political obstacles which are already beginning to arise.