Fixed-Route Buses Are the Future, Jarrett Walker Argues, Urging Skepticism of Technology

Jarrett Walker speaking at the National Shared Mobility Summit. Photo: Timmy Samuel/Starbelly Studios Photography
Jarrett Walker speaking at the National Shared Mobility Summit. Photo: Timmy Samuel/Starbelly Studios Photography

The fixed route bus, that dinosaur of transportation technology, is also the most efficient urban-transit prospect of the future, transit guru Jarrett Walker said in Chicago Tuesday.

Walker appealed to 600 attendees at the National Shared Mobility Summit to shake the notion, encouraged by the hype around new technologies, that fixed-route buses and trains are obsolete. “We all know geometrically the fixed route is one of the most fantastic inventions in the history of transportation,” he said. “The fixed-route transit and the bicycle are basically the two ways we can move faster than walking speed while really using space efficiently, and because that’s a geometric fact, I’m confident that will still be true in 2100.”

Walker, a consultant to transit agencies and the author of the book Human Transit, enjoyed an increased measure of fame in December after getting into a Twitter tiff with Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla car company, who called him an idiot.

It appears the experience did little to warm him to technologists. On Tuesday he urged the audience, which included hundreds of transportation technologists, to be skeptical of promises made by technology companies: “They are corporations. They want to sell a product. They’re going to put out a vision that helps to sell their product, and that is very different from us as citizens and us as custodians of taxpayer money actually making good decisions about what is going to serve our communities.”

Walker credits information technology—and apps specifically—with solving a significant problem in transit: the problem of knowing what you need to know when you need to know it. “Some of you may not be old enough to remember what life was like without real-time information, when you just went right out into the snow and wondered when the bus was coming,” he said.

Apps solved that problem, but apps can’t solve some of transit’s other problems, he argued: they can’t change what’s happening in the shared space of cities. He offered “microtransit” as an example. Apps enable private companies to emulate some of the functions of public transit systems, but with dynamically generated routes that change in response to demand. Such a system fails, Walker contends, precisely where fixed-route transit succeeds.

“What’s happening in space is that [a transit] vehicle is meandering to get to the individual people instead of running in a straight line and asking people to walk down to it. If we think about that, we can understand why flexibility—flexible routing—is practically the definition of inefficiency. The efficiency of fixed routes lies precisely in the fact that people walk out to them, which means the vehicle runs in a reasonably straight line, and because the vehicle runs in a reasonably straight line, it’s a logical path for lots and lots of people to use it.”

Bus ridership has been declining nationwide, but Walker attributes that to inadequate investment and poor planning that fails to take advantage of what he calls “the genius of fixed-route service.” As a counterexample, he cites Seattle, a city where bus ridership is rising. “That is not a story about a city that is just off chasing cool things for little vehicles; it is a story of a city that has made a massive investment in fixed-route buses. And in the quality of service and the bus lanes to expedite them to get them into the city. We know that that’s the way we use space efficiently.”

Walker was the lead planner on the Seattle Transit Plan in the mid-2000s, one of many cities he has advised, and he has continued to work with Seattle’s suburbs. Fixed-route transit is “surprisingly” superior as well in suburbs, he said, where many transit agencies have attempted to switch to flexible-route transit systems, only to switched back to fixed route because of its efficiency. “We are always going to need vehicles sized to the appropriate capacity requirement, which means big buses in big cities. Actually surprisingly far out into the suburbs, the big bus is still the answer,” he said. “Even if it looks empty some of the time, it’s still the most efficient choice.”

  • Thanks for a great report. I had hoped I might have been able to see him live myself. But I couldn’t find a way that fit my budget. Maybe I just didn’t find it.

    Glad you could make it for me!

  • Chicago60609

    The problem with being locked into this mindset is that all neighborhoods are not equal when it comes to safety. Many opt for the inefficient, meandering private ride so they don’t face the possibility of becoming the victim of urban predators. Walking three blocks to a fixed-route ride can produce vastly different outcomes in vastly different neighborhoods.

  • The Overhead Wire

    We’ll have full audio from the conference plenaries including Jarrett’s up at Soundcloud within the next week.
    https://soundcloud.com/theoverheadwire

  • Cameron Puetz

    Has there been any research into to creating hybrids of dynamic and fixed routes that use some of the route generation technology to speed up fixed routes? For example at rush hour when buses are running on short headways and fill up over a few stops, instead of running bunched buses, passengers could be grouped by destination and board dynamically generated express routes. This would have the advantage of a faster trip provided by dynamic routes while the system still benefits from passengers congregating at central stops.

  • BlueFairlane

    The problem with this line of thinking is that you’re asking a lot if you expect transportation systems to solve the problem of “urban predators.” This is similar to the line of attack libertarian types have used against public education for so long, blaming schools for failing to solve drugs/teen pregnancy/gangs/child abuse/obesity, on and on forever. There’s a reason we have separate lines in the budget for transportation and police, and if your city is so bad off that a person can’t walk three blocks to a bus stop, then that’s an issue for the police budget.

    There are definitely neighborhoods where those safety issues need to be addressed. But they need to be addressed someplace other than the bus schedule.

  • I’m going to say “probably”.

    There’s also dynamic routing and deviated routing, which someone explained the difference to me today. Well, I’m pretty sure this is what it is:

    Dynamic routing means that you redesign your bus route based on ridership origin (where people live) and destination patterns on a “frequent” basis. Deviated routing means changing the route to fit exactly who’s elected/reserved to ride the vehicle at a specific time.

    “For example at rush hour when buses are running on short headways and fill up over a few stops, instead of running bunched buses, passengers could be grouped by destination and board dynamically generated express routes.” I think this would be the “deviated” route type.

    The deviation is what’s most inefficient compared to fixed route or even dynamic routing. I think this is what Uber is doing this with its BusLikeService.

  • Hugh Shepard

    “The fixed-route transit and the bicycle are basically the two ways we can move faster than walking speed while really using space efficiently” …. Why only fixed-route transit and bicycles? What about motorcycles and e-bikes? Electric scooters? Those also allow you to go faster than walking while also using space efficiently.

  • tomwest

    Even without the hyperbolic “urban predators”, there is a wider point that transit that doesn’t stop outside your front door requires you to walk, which requires good walking infrastructure.

  • Chicago60609

    Chicago had 20,787 reported violent crimes in 2016 (homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault).

    Chicago is considered the most gang-infested city in the United States, with a population of over 100,000 active members from nearly 60 factions.

  • bagh53

    actually, the distinction between those *technologies* doesn’t actually change their function, so you’re technically correct. It’s like saying “fixed-route transit” is different for buses and trains, when really it’s the same concept. I think he was just imprecise.

  • bagh53

    That’s a different issue entirely. I wonder how much transit to your door is actually safer..?

    My hunch is a little bit more, but not much, once you control for the neighborhood.

  • bagh53

    Totally agreed

  • Chicago60609

    I was responding to a comment that my use of ‘urban predator’ was hyperbolic. It is not, at least in Chicago.

  • Ethan

    In Tokyo, could buses theoretically replace their trains? No because the population and density is too high, and the available road lanes are too few.

    In Los Angeles, could buses theoretically replace their trains? Yes because while population is high, so are the available road lanes, and the density is low. Could pooled microtransit also theoretically replace their trains? Maybe, for the same reasons buses could.

    In cities of 200,000 to 2,000,000 people that have many available road lanes and low density, could pooled microtransit theoretically replace their trains and buses? Probably, because their geometry differs from Los Angeles and Tokyo. Perhaps Jarrett’s full remarks contains this nuance, but as far as I know, he hasn’t admitted different cities may have different geometry, and pooled microtransit could be the future of transportation in some of them.

  • Cameron Puetz

    There’s a spectrum of efficiency that’s roughly:

    private cars -> car pools -> micro transit -> buses -> light rail -> heavy rail

    Moving to the right decreases congestion, moving to the left increases congestion. A bus can’t replace a crowded train (look at any time the CTA has to use bus shuttles), but it can replace a gridlocked road of private cars.

  • Ethan

    I’d switch the position of car pools and micro transit, but otherwise I agree. Moving to the right on the spectrum also often increases travel time and decreases convenience because in most cities heavy rail lines and stations aren’t built every couple of blocks except perhaps in downtown. Getting to and from the stations often takes more time and is less convenient.

    In some cities with geometric variables in the right ranges, either buses or pooled microtransit can replace a gridlocked road of private cars with flowing traffic. That was the point of comparing Tokyo, LA, and less populated cities built similar to LA. There are cities where pooled microtransit will decrease congestion enough that buses aren’t required, while providing more convenience and time savings than buses.

  • Anonymous Bike Zealot

    Ahh Chicago, you’re so progressive, so hip. They were doing fixed route buses in Minneapolis and Bogota and a whole bunch of other places 20 years ago. That was the future. Now it’s the past, except apparently, in Chicago.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Your reference to “blocks” does not make a lot of sense. One “block” can mean a large range of distances depending on where you are from. Also, travel time depends on many factors. For transit, these include frequency of transit service, speed of transit service, walk to transit stop, while for cars, these include congestion of roads and availability of parking spaces. In determining people’s travel mode choices, there is also the important factor of cost.

    Anyway, if you can take a frequent and fast bus (or light rail vehicle), or ride a bike to a rapid transit (heavy rail) line close to where you live, does it really matter if you do not live within walking distance of a heavy rail line? You still may find that heavy rail line to be useful to you. The usefulness of a heavy rail line is determined by the important destinations that it serves (schools, office buildings, courthouses, commercial districts, entertainment districts, tourist destinations, hospitals, etc…), the population density and walkability of the areas that it serves, the walkability of the areas that it serves, and the connections that the rail line makes to other transit services. Heavy rail lines can be useful without being built every block. Heavy rail lines increase capacity, and maximize spacial efficiency, but heavy rail lines can only be justified when the appropriate conditions are met to generate the ridership demand that is needed to fill that capacity.

  • Anonymous Bike Zealot

    Yes, by all means, let’s pretend it’s not a problem by attacking the choice of the poster’s language. That makes me feel so much safer. Thank you.

  • Hugh Shepard

    What????????????????????? Who says that fixed route busses are the past? Who says cities that have fixed route busses are unique? Fixed-route busses are used all over the world, and have been around for nearly a century.

    What exactly is going to make fixed-route busses obselete? Why?

  • Ethan

    Blocks means a generic, average block, not an extremely short or long one.

    Yes there’s factors, such as providing more frequent buses costs more money. Doing so usually increases ridership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the added buses will be full. A 100% increase in service frequency might mean a 25 or 50% increase in ridership.

    Your last sentence sums it up well. In the future, cities, especially ones with low density, car centric design, and populations under about 2 million will need to consider their projected growth, demand, and needed capacity, then see what solutions including pooled microtransit make sense when also including factors like cost, convenience, trip times, etc…

  • BlueFairlane

    When the poster’s choice of language seeks to distort reality by suggesting Chicago is a city of anarchy ruled over by the Lord of the Flies, then the language should be attacked. The reality is that Chicago ranks somewhere around 30th in violent crime rate among US cities, and the problem isn’t something transportation needs to solve.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Chicago has the second largest fixed route transit system in the US. While we hardly have any bus lanes I don’t think that is the qualifier of “fixed route”. We do have lots of rail though which is infinitely better than even the best bus route.

  • Chicago60609

    You need a lesson in reading comprehension. I refer to the differences in crime in different neighborhoods, which means walking to a fixed line route in one neighborhood is vastly more dangerous than the walk of a similar length in another. You don’t like that fact, fine, but as they say, facts are stubborn things.

  • Sean

    Wrong. Buses can make point to point trips and have flexibility that trains can’t match. In Seattle, look at the travel time of Sound Transit Route 590 vs the proposed Tacoma Light Rail extension, or even the Sounder Commuter rail.
    https://www.soundtransit.org/Schedules/ST-Express-Bus/590
    https://www.soundtransit.org/Schedules/Sounder-Lakewood-Seattle

    Or in the Bay Area, the SMART train is great but it requires many more transfers to get into the city, is more expensive, and runs much less frequently. The Golden Gate Transit Route 101 alone carries more passengers than all of SMART.

    http://goldengatetransit.org/schedules/current/route_101.php
    http://sonomamarintrain.org/schedules-fares

  • Sean

    I agree in some cases. I find this out when interviewing people or doing field work that they don’t use the closest station to their house due to safety, or lighting. You can’t assume people will take the shortest path.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Wait……so trains can’t make point to point trips? Also, trains are not “better” than busses in general, it’s just that grade-seperated heavy rail (AKA the subway or the “L”) has higher capacity and higher speed than bus routes in similar environments.

    The SMART train does not have a lot of ridership specifically for the reasons that you mentioned. The problems with SMART, however, aren’t problems with rail as a form of transit in general, they are just problems that are common in Commuter Rail across the USA.

  • Sean

    For a train to make a non-stop point to point trip it needs passing tracks to overtake other trains, which Sounder in this case does not have. Track space is limited and expensive agreements have to be reached when the tracks are privately owned, like BNSF in Seattle.

    Buses can just switch lanes to pass each other and all they need is a bolted on sign to a light post for a new bus stop, whereas rail infrastructure takes years or even decades to build. Of course rail scales better for large ridership markets, but no one can argue buses don’t have more flexibility.

  • tomwest

    Umm… I was saying that he still had a valid point about walk access.

  • mittim80

    You must know very little about Los Angeles if you think replacing Metro rail with regular bus routes would be anything less than a complete disaster. Not to mention “microtransit” replacing Metro rail.

  • Ethan

    There’s your flaw. I didn’t say “regular” bus routes. You made an un-creative leap to that. LA has lots of available road lanes to run a dedicated lane BRT system. Additionally BRT lines can run roughly parallel in the same direction. A rail line could be replaced by two or more parallel BRT lines spaced .5 to 1 mile apart. Four parallel lines spread over two miles means riders don’t have to walk or bike as far to reach the BRT.

    The TransJakarta BRT has 13 BRT lines and another 11 BRT express lines. It provides 500,000 daily rides. Far more than the LA Metro Rail.

    Rede Integrada de Transporte in Curitiba, Brazil has just 6 BRT lines and 21 stations yet a daily ridership of 2,300,000. It could have 80% fewer riders and still vastly exceed the daily ridership of the LA Metro.

  • Chicago60609

    I wasn’t asking the transportation system to solve anything. I was explaining why some opt for shared private rides over the CTA. Reading comprehension is more difficult for some than others.

  • BlueFairlane

    I find the last line of your response ironic. Doubly so, considering you had a month to work on it.

  • Chicago60609

    I only just saw your post today.

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