I really enjoyed this piece in City Commentary, entitled “Urban Residents aren’t abandoning buses; buses are abandoning them” by Daniel Hertz. As a New York City resident living in the outer boroughs (where subways are not nearly as prevalent), I am often seeking other viable transportation options, like walking, busing or biking to get where I need to go. For communities that depend on buses to provide convenient access to residents customers, bus service can make or break some business districts.

The article reinforced a key observation that I have made over the years which is this: “service levels are still the number one predictor of bus ridership”. Yes, yes and yes! If a bus doesn’t come frequently enough, people develop other habits and patterns that only serve to further diminish bus ridership. However, if a bus came frequently enough that I could safely ensure a timely arrival to wherever I was going, I might take it.  Absent that, I’m personally unwilling to risk being 20 minutes late, or force myself to leave home twenty minutes early, just to make sure I am on time. In an age when we are all time starved, crappy bus service just doesn’t cut it. So increasingly, the very poor and those with very limited options, are the only ones who take buses.

I recently completed work in two communities that are official “food deserts”, defined as low-income places without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Yet the term “access” is a tricky one. In both of these communities, viable full-service grocery stores exist within a few minutes drive. Grocery store operators typically look at short drive times – usually around 8 minutes – to determine their catchment area. In both cases, both neighborhoods were served by grocery stores within 8 minutes. Yet owing to low car ownership, the only options for residents were to walk many miles, take cabs, or take municipal buses. In both cases the municipal bus service was quite poor – coming infrequently and therefore making a quick trip to the grocery store nearly impossible. So again, instead of taking buses, residents often find expensive solutions (like cabs or the high cost convenience store on the corner) that further diminish their discretionary income.

Another interesting take away from the article was the fact that in many communities there is no correlation between falling ridership and bus service cuts. What that means is that cities are making bus service decisions without regard for the need for busing. The chart below shows that even in communities with positive ridership change the previous year, cuts to bus service were quite common.

At the end of the day, this is an important issue that drives to the heart of ensuring that communities with low-income and low rates of car ownership have access to the food and retail services they need to maintain basic nutritional standards and a decent quality of life. If we decrease bus service, we subsequently diminish access to these vital goods and services, creating avoidable havoc in the lives of the most vulnerable among us.