Why don’t I take the bus more often? Part 1

I have a confession to make: despite being philosophically in favor of transit generally, I almost never take the bus. A big part of that is because I live right next to a light rail station, as well as most of the things I need to survive. But I also live near many bus stops and almost never use them. I’m genuinely embarrassed to admit this, but I do so because I’m sure I’m not alone.

This is the first post of several where I’m going to be exploring why I don’t take the bus more often. The easy answer is because I have the choice not to; I own a car and a bike, etc. But I rarely ever drive, and then it’s usually only when transit routes are unavailable — such as on Sundays between Provo and Salt Lake. Moreover, I’m aware that taking the bus would actually be a good thing for me; buses can be more useful in some cases in Salt Lake City and I know that they could  get me closer to some destinations

Where is this bus going? It's hard to tell because there are no route maps.

Where is this bus going? It’s hard to tell because there are no route maps.

Much has been written about why people with a choice tend to favor rail over buses, but over a few posts I hope to explore reasons why one particular user in Salt Lake City — me — doesn’t get on the bus much even when it makes sense to do so.

So here’s my first answer: route maps.

When I take a train, every station has a easy-to-read map that tells me where each line is headed.

Bus stops, by contrast, almost never have maps. Yes, I can look up a map on UTA’s website, but that’s a hassle to do on the run if you even have mobile internet in the first place (which I didn’t until six months ago and which I’m sure many bus riders still don’t have). And when you try to look it up, it takes several clicks to get this convoluted, very difficult to read PDF map. It’s slow, difficult, and impractical.

I don’t know why this difference between bus stops and train stations exists. Perhaps it’s because bus routes can change more capriciously, or because there are typically far more bus stops than train stations. Or, more cynically, perhaps it’s an intentional prioritizing of more middle class rail over ostensibly lower class buses.

Or maybe it’s something completely different.

A minimalistic bus stop on the Brazil-Argentina border.

A minimalistic bus stop on the Brazil-Argentina border.

But whatever the cause, it’s a problem that would be easy and cheap to fix. How much could it cost to produce a laminated piece of paper that displays a single bus route? If that were impractical, perhaps certain street corners near multiple bus stops could have durable signs displaying rail-like route maps. There are enough buses passing through my neighborhood, for example, that nearly any street corner would work. Color or letter coding, as is done with rail in most places, could also help.

I believe this would make a huge difference, especially in downtown Salt Lake City where the buses are part of the free ride zone. If I knew where they were going, I’d probably go hop on buses all the time.

The lack of maps isn’t an excuse, at least on an individual level. I know I should probably just sit down and figure out the routes. But from an administrative perspective, it just makes sense to make a public service like buses as intuitive and user friendly as possible. More maps would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

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8 comments

  1. Alan Peters

    Better maps probably would help, but even with maps the train is still easier to use in a way. There’s a clear route and a set number of stops that the train always stops at. You just have to get on and get off. With a bus you’re not always sure where the stops are and you have to stay alert to pull the string in time for your stop.

    Another thing is trains just seem more glamorous. People of all incomes ride trains, but buses are often thought of as being for low income people. Trains are also perceived as being safer. When I was a kid I rode the bus and train in Chicago to get to school. I always felt more comfortable and safer on the train, but I hated the bus. The people on the bus were often loud and rude, and there was a fight every once in a while. Not so on the L. I also felt safer riding the train through a dangerous neighborhood than being on a bus in one.

  2. Leo

    The bus is really a fine way of getting around. (Although schedules have deteriorated over the past few years, the era of service cuts is more or less behind us.) It’s a higher learning curve than the train, no doubt, but it’s great when it happens to be convenient.

    Additionally, the numbering scheme of Salt Lake County bus routes says a lot about where the route travels. East-west routes will usually take on the first one or two digits of the street along which it runs (2, 21, 33, 39, etc). North-south streets do the same, but append a “2” in front (205, 209, 223, et al). I realize that this still doesn’t say everything (how far along 9th East does the 209 travel, for example), but it helps.

  3. Pingback: Why don’t I take the bus more often? Part 2 | About Town
  4. Leo

    The bus is really a fine way of getting around town, but the learning curve to use it is definitely much higher than TRAX or FrontRunner. The nice thing about Salt Lake County’s route numbering scheme is that the route number will usually instantly tell you two things: whether the route runs north/south or east/west, and along which road the bus runs. However, this still doesn’t relay information such as just how far on that road the bus goes, so your proposal is a sensible, practical one.

  5. Laura

    Leo, that’s fascinating about Salt Lake County’s route numbering- I didn’t know! I just went on UTA’s website to check it out, and it seems that about half of the bus routes are numbered that way. The other half are 3-digit numbers that start with either a 3, 4, 5, 6, or 9? I haven’t figured out what that means (though I do have some guesses) and I can’t find any info on their website that explains their numbering system. It seems to me that they might have numbered them more for internal purposes, and that transit riders can deduce some of the meaning out after studying it out. I ride buses more often in Utah Valley and they don’t use the numbers of streets at all. But they do all start with 8, which I assume means it’s a Utah Valley bus. But their numbers don’t really give any additional meaning beyond that it goes somewhere in Utah Valley.

  6. Pingback: Here’s an example of a route map at a bus stop | About Town

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