Get up to speed on ben­e­fits of tak­ing bus

The Detroit News - - Comics - Car Cul­ture

Ad­dicted to cars all of my adult life, I never re­ally em­braced bus travel as an al­ter­na­tive un­til I spoke with Jar­rett Walker. He’s a Port­land, Ore­gon, mo­bil­ity an­a­lyst and au­thor of the 2011 book “Hu­man Tran­sit: How clearer think­ing about pub­lic tran­sit can en­rich our com­mu­ni­ties and our lives.”

I am im­pressed by Ann Ar­bor’s bus sys­tem be­cause it’s been us­ing hy­brid-elec­tric bio-diesel buses. The tech­nol­ogy also is used ex­clu­sively in San Fran­cisco and around Puget Sound in the state of Wash­ing­ton, and re­cently planned to re­place con­ven­tional buses in other sys­tems, such as Port­land’s. The idea of deep-fryer or gas-to-liq­uid fuel oil and elec­tric mo­tors ap­peals to my high-tech car nut side: the last eight win­ners of the fa­mous Le Mans pro­to­type sports car race have been hy­brids, half of them with spe­cial diesel fuel.

I had been told by sev­eral folks who use the Ann Ar­bor bus sys­tem (Ann Ar­bor Area Trans­porta­tion Authority) daily that they en­joy the ride to catch up on pod­casts, med­i­ta­tions, and sav­ing the costs and has­sle of com­mut­ing by car and park­ing. But I’ve also heard from about a dozen res­i­dents that the Ann Ar­bor bus sys­tem was un­re­li­able, slow and causes traf­fic jams.

Walker told me: “I hear this all the time, buses are stuck in traf­fic. Well, we choose to have buses stuck in traf­fic. Be­ing stuck in traf­fic is not an in­trin­sic fea­ture of a bus. It’s an his­toric fea­ture of how we have cho­sen to use a bus. What mat­ters is what can get in the way of the bus.”

So for the past 60 days I’ve used the sys­tem ex­clu­sively for com­mut­ing and er­rands in the city. And I’ve cou­pled the bus sys­tem with my bi­cy­cle and walk­ing shoes, to see how it works for me. Here are the quick pluses and mi­nuses:

Dur­ing rush hours, buses are con­sis­tently de­layed. Of­ten that’s be­cause they are stuck be­hind a row of cars on sin­gle-lane av­enues. In ad­di­tion, when there are a large num­ber of pas­sen­gers, some folks take a while to fish their pay­ment cards or cash out of purses and pack­ets. How­ever, on the routes I used, this was rare.

Of­ten I’ve found buses are much quicker than driving a car. When head­ing down­town, park­ing can of­ten take up to 10 min­utes, is un-

cer­tain, and can cost up to $10 a day. I love the abil­ity to step off the bus and never worry about feed­ing a me­ter all day, or col­lect­ing a park­ing ticket if I’m run­ning late.

It’s eas­ier to use the bike rack on all of the sys­tem’s buses than the one I have for my car. For this rea­son alone I’d take the bus to a rid­ing trail.

It took me al­most the en­tire first month to de­ci­pher the 34 in­tri­cate main bus routes, which al­most all col­lect at two trans­porta­tion hubs, in down­town Ann Ar­bor and Yp­si­lanti. I used a com­bi­na­tion of study­ing the routes, as well as a live GPS-based app show­ing how early or late each bus is run­ning.

Al­most any­where in Ann Ar­bor and Yp­si­lanti can be reached by bus within a mile, which was my mea­sure of how far I was will­ing to walk. Mile­long hikes cost me 20 min­utes of time on a trip, but they saved an un­told amount of ag­gra­va­tion in traf­fic.

Af­ter the sec­ond month of bus­ing, I found Walker’s de­scrip­tion of what works best to be true: “If you want speed and re­li­a­bil­ity you need an ex­clu­sive lane, it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter if it’s a track or a bus lane. What mat­ters is what can get in the way.”

My con­clu­sion: Be­cause some­times buses run late, com­muters fa­vor driving. When the den­sity of cars rises, it forces buses to run late. So it’s a vi­cious cy­cle with­out ded­i­cated bus lanes.

And with­out ex­cep­tion, ev­ery one of the hu­man driv­ers of the bus sys­tem was vastly smarter, more pleas­ant, more in­ter­est­ing, and en­ter­tain­ing than any user in­ter­face I’ve sam­pled on ad­vanced driver as­sist and au­tonomous cars and shut­tles I’ve rid­den.

PHIL BERG

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