Why I Gave Up the Bus...For a Bike

Samuel Staley's picture

In August, I moved into a high density apartment complex just 1.5 miles from my office and a five minute walk to a bus stop. One of the central advantages of the building's location was its access to alternative transportation modes. While I could park my car for "free" (the real cost is built into the lease), I was interested in keeping it parked as much as possible. Now, after nearly three months of experimentation, I'm ready to give up the bus, and the reasons are central to understanding the future of transit in the US.

First, I should note that as a bus rider and cyclist, I am in a distinct minority despite living in the middle of a corridor populated by tens of thousands of college and university students. (Tallahassee has a college/university student population of 75,000, or about 23% of the metropolitan area population.) I rarely have to compete for boarding the bus or stand when riding because the buses are crowded. I'm also usually the only cyclist on the mile stretch of main road heading to campus. (I will occasionally pass someone going in the opposite direction.)

Second, the most efficient and effective way to get to my office on the Florida State campus is by bicycle. I can get reliably door-to-door in under 20 minutes (including the time it takes to lock my bike into the bike rack). This is largely due to Florida State's investment in pedestrian and cycling friendly walkways and underpasses. (Cyclists also share the sidewalks with pedestrians, but that will be the topic of a future post.) Driving is almost as reliable as cycling, but inefficient traffic signal timing and coordination usually extends a 20 minute door-to-door commute to 30 minutes.

So, what about the bus? If the bus is running on time and on schedule, my door-to-door commute can be about 20 minutes. But, that's the problem. The bus is rarely on-time or on-schedule. The buses run on 20-minute headways, so the consequences of missing the bus can be pretty severe for anyone trying to make class or a meeting. I have to arrive at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive in the morning because it often arrives about 5 minutes ahead of schedule. In the afternoons on the return trip, buses have completely missed the stop (and I'm not sure where they've gone). Within the last week, I've walked home after waiting 45 minutes for a bus, and in another case I was left at the bus stop for 40 minutes. So, in order to adjust for the uncertainties of bus travel, I typically have to arrive at the bus stop 10 minutes before the bus arrives in the morning, and I have to plan for waiting 15 minutes to 40 minutes in the afternoon for the return trip.

Thus, as a practical matter, the bus is an option only if I have a lot of time on my hands, have no deadlines, and really don't care what time I get home. It's no wonder that students shy away from taking the bus and, instead, prefer to drive.

All this is anecdotal evidence of what many transit operators already know: Providing high quality, reliable service is essential for transit to survive (not just remain competitive with other modes). With the level of uncertainty and unreliability I experience on a regular basis, I simply can't afford the risk of taking the bus on most days. In my case, I will continue to opt for the bike as long as I live close to campus. On the days when the weather is poor, it's hot, or it's cold, I'll grudgingly pull out the keys to the car and drive the short distance to work. Even though the bus service is free for FSU students, staff, and faculty, the bus is simply too expensive along the dimensions of everday life that count.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Other cyclists?

Sam, I think you are absolutely spot-on in your diagnosis of the variation, real and perceived, in travel time on the bus, and not the sheer length of the travel time per se, as a major obstacle to greater use of the bus.

What is your feeling on why so few cyclists are joining you on your daily commute? Is it the poor quality of on-street facilities that you experience until you reach the FL State campus? Is it the Florida heat? Is there a local stigma against bike riding? Curious what your preliminary thoughts are.

Jake Wegmann

I am a cyclist too

I have cycled close to 100,000 kms in my life. Cycling for utilitarian reasons, has always for me been dependent on good facilities at trip destination, for storage of clothing and possessions, as well as showering and washing.
It is always comforting to have one's car parked nearby, with books, tools, medications, and what have you on board. One does not want to have to lug around on a bicycle, the stuff one routinely carries aboard one's car. In my own many years of cycling, I regarded it as essential to be able to have a "stash" of all this stuff actually at the workplace. Once a week, I took the car, with all the fresh clothes and possessions I required, and took dirty washing etc home again. I also did all the stuff I needed to use a car for, "chaining" the trip.
I have always regarded "public transport" with contempt, and most serious cyclists do so.

Samuel Staley's picture

Missing FSU cyclists

Good questions Jake, and I wish I had good answers. I'm actually trying to see if we have good data somewhere on these questions. Most faculty and staff live far enough away cycling becomes impractical. Like most large universities (FSU has a student population of about 40,000), housing close to campus is student-centered. So, many students walk rather than bike.

Many students, like many commuters, likely prefer the added flexibility of having a vehicle in the event their plans change because it's more efficient (in travel time) to chain using an automobile than bike. And, as I'm learning, the area around FSU really becomes active in the late afternoons and evenings once most classes have ended. Although FSU is doing a *better* job at accomodating bikes, they still have a long way to go since the commute can be pretty initimidating given the volume (and speeds) of cars on the main roads.

Finally, I suspect bicycle theft plays a role. For a student, the loss of a bike can be a significant financial hit, and the probability of theft might factor into their decision to commute by bike at all.

Unfortunately, these are just speculations at this point. More to come later with any luck.

Sam Staley

Todd Litman's picture

Travel Speed, Reliability, Convenience and Comfort

Sam, you have my sympathy for your bus travel frustrations! Fortunately, bicycling is a perfect stress reliever.

Transport cost analysis must measure travel time costs as they are actually perceived by users. Conventional transport planning evaluates transport system performance based primarily on roadway level-of-service, average traffic speeds, and commute travel time. More nuanced travel time analysis justifies more emphasis on improving travel reliability, convenience and comfort.

For example, analysis that accounts for the frustrations you experienced could justify more frequent transit service, bus lanes and transit signal priority, real-time bus arrival information, nicer bus stops and stations, better operational management, and improved driver training. The problems you cite could be reduced if your transit agency simply implemented "Next Bus" (http://www.nextbus.com ) services, so users can access real-time bus arrival information on their mobile telephones; yet, only a minority of U.S. transit agencies are implementing such services because they are considered a luxury rather than an essential user service.

A good policy is to require anybody involved in transport planning to spend a couple weeks each year without driving, so they can experience the non-automotive transport system from a users perspective. They can then perceive the value of small improvements in service convenience and comfort.

For more information see, “Valuing Transit Service Quality Improvements,” Journal of Public Transportation, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, pp. 43-64; at www.vtpi.org/traveltime.pdf.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Obvious choice

Under the nice weather of Florida, many of my friends and I will certainly select bikes rather than bus to go to campus, even if the bus is more pleasant to ride.

Dr. Ngo-Viet Nam-Son Planner & architect (North America & Asia)

19th century model

So agree. I live in Charlotte, NC now, and the bus system and light rail require by necessity a strong desire to read. Which in my case exists, but still, a 30 minute ride in a car is usually 1.5 hours by public transportation. My last city, Ann Arbor, MI, was much smaller, and seasonally riding a bike was much quicker. Here though, riding with traffic is suicide, sidewalks are spotty and rarely interconnect, and the bike paths or green ways are in parks for recreation more than transportation.
As far as the title, both towns, 150,000 and 1.5 million population respectively, have the same system map. A hub and spoke configuration without the outside loop. I know its not Chicago or Manhattan, and a straight road is rare, but why this need to go downtown to go anywhere. Public bus transportation built on the model for 19th century railroads makes me think that transportation planners haven't learned anything new in a 100 years.

Real-time info would help

Samuel, I cycle about 3 miles each way to work for pretty much the same reason as you - the long headways and mediocre schedule adherence of the buses make the bus trip take a lot longer - not to mention it's less pleasant than cycling and I don't get any exercise. But I do take the bus when it's raining - and the real-time GPS arrival info my transit agency provides via SmartPhone (and even displays on some downtown bus shelters) makes the irregular arrivals a lot less frustrating. Three agencies in your state are already using NextBus (http://www.nextbus.com/predictor/agencySelector.jsp) - why not see if your transit provider would, too?

Timothy Rood AICP LEED
Community Design + Architecture
Oakland, California

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