It’s time to rethink city buses

MTA bus with new bike racks

NPR’s Talk of the Nation is discussing ways to improve the lowly city bus today. In the segment, Will Doig discussed the piece he wrote on Salon about how buses are often overlooked compared to streetcars, subways and other transit options, and how easily the image and experience of the city bus could be improved.

Making people like the bus when not liking the bus is practically an American pastime essentially means making the bus act and feel more like a train. … When people say they don’t like the bus but they do like the train, what they really mean is they like those perks the train offers. But there’s no reason bus systems can’t simply incorporate most of them.

Much of Doig’s piece focuses on the benefits of bus rapid transit (BRT), but he also discusses improvements that smaller cities like Manchester can make to their bus transit systems, which should build ridership and offset costs. Still, he says frequency–something that is often mentioned as a desired improvement to the MTA bus system–is key.

“All the speed-it-up tweaks in the world won’t mean much on a bus route that runs twice an hour, however.”

Twice an hour sounds pretty good compared to the MTA routes, all of which run every hour with the exception of the much more frequent (and free) Green DASH downtown circulator.

With statewide budget cuts, a legislature that shows no interest in promoting public transit whatsoever, and the City issuing its first budget to comply with the recently enacted tax cap, now may not seem like a good time to look at improving the bus system in Manchester. But Doig explains that investing in transit can have payoffs in increased ridership, and increased transit ridership can lead to greater economic development and certainly a more livable city.

And in the last few years, the MTA has already been making some positive improvements despite the budget woes.

The MTA's free and frequent Green DASH downtown loop bus

Initiating the Green DASH service, which runs every 10 minutes during peak hours on a downtown loop, is probably the biggest improvement to the city’s public transit since the MTA became a city authority in 1973. Shortly after launching the Green DASH, the MTA began running the weekday #1 Healthcare Shuttle route, connecting the major hospitals and medical centers scattered across on the East Side for the first time that we’re aware of. And in an effort to connect Manchester with the other major cities of the Merrimack Valley, the MTA now runs four trips daily to Nashua and two to Concord.

Of course, it’s not all good news. Last year saw cuts in service along some of the lower ridership lines. But the new initiatives are all impressive and ambitious expansions of service, especially given the recent budget cuts.

Things look better for the MTA this budget session than they did last year, when the mayor’s initial budget would have forced major service cuts. While this year’s budget shouldn’t result in any cuts, it likely won’t lead to any expanded service either. And the City still isn’t permitting the MTA to operate on more than a yearly budget, which makes it hard to plan for future service and build ridership.

New Green DASH bus stop sign beneath the regular MTA bus stop sign

The MTA is still planning some improvements this year, though. The authority recently announced that it will be unveiling a new website soon, and hinted that another positive change might be coming as well. While they’ve said that the new website won’t include the Google transit feature used by cities from Boston to Portsmouth to Nashua to Portland, they did say that they’re working with SNHPC to get the trip finding program up and running for the Queen City.

Just last week, signs were installed along the Green DASH route noting specific stops for the downtown circulator in addition to regular MTA stops. This is a good step toward promoting the service, and getting people who might not otherwise ride a city bus to try it out. The signs are good and clear, and as more people become familiar with the service they’ll be a huge help. In the meantime, though, they’re a bit short on information.

As Fortress Manchester pointed out nearly two years ago, clear signage and schedules are critical to growing ridership and getting people comfortable with taking the bus. It would be helpful if the bus stop signs featured the Green DASH logo a bit more prominently, but the color makes that fairly clear. For anyone unfamiliar with the service, though, the sign doesn’t indicate that the service is free and frequent. Adding that information would probably get a few more people to hang around at a stop like the one shown near MCPHS to get a ride into the center of downtown or the Millyard.

That’s a fairly easy fix, though, and one that could be applied system-wide. At major stops in the Boston area, the MBTA displays paper schedules and a conceptual route map in a weatherproof container on bus stop sign posts. It’s an easy, cheap and flexible way to provide riders with information.

And that flexibility is key as long as the City and State refuse to allow the MTA to plan service long-term. If the MTA doesn’t know what it’s funding will be next year and how that might affect bus routes and schedules, it probably doesn’t want to invest in more informative permanent signs like this:

or even this:

 

But providing a bit of information at major stops–probably including all Green DASH stops–would go a long way toward improving awareness of and interest in the MTA bus system.

And a comprehensive system map, schedules and general information should be displayed in all bus shelters. Northern New England’s other major city, Portland, offers such a regional transit guide for their area. It includes the city’s bus service, plus bus service in nearby cities, and commuter transit options. Obviously, Manchester is missing some of those components, but with the MTA now offering connections to Nashua and Concord, it might make sense to start coordinating with those cities on a regional transit map (and maybe integrating graphics and the like). A regional system would obviously be improved if the State could get its act together and get commuter rail to the Merrimack Valley, and if Boston Express would restore much more frequent service to downtown Manchester. Still, even a system map and schedules for the MTA at bus shelters would be a big help.

These are just a few, simple ideas for building on the recent improvements of the MTA. We’re working on a much more ambitious idea–which we’ll post in the coming weeks–to drastically improve the bus system. The MTA may be constrained by budget issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine what a more robust local transit system might be like, and how it might improve life and the environment in the Queen City.

Last year, we looked at the transit system in Portland and speculated on how some of its successes could be applied to Manchester. We’ll be incorporating some of these ideas into our imagined future MTA. What improvements to the MTA would you like to see–big or small? And what would get you to consider taking the bus more, or at all if you don’t already?

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8 thoughts on “It’s time to rethink city buses

  1. I think painting the buses bright green, or something of that sort (unique paint job) would allow them to stand out more. Fresh paint jobs also make them look newer and ultimately make people think they are cleaner. Between that, more reliable frequent stops, and more distinguished stops, it would be hard to imagine that the ridership does not increase.

    1. Oh, and BRT systems are brilliant. Not only is traffic less of an issue, but people find the designated lane easier to find more like rail.

    2. I’m right with you on the new paint job. I have a serious soft spot for the MTA’s 1970′s era logo, and I think it’s fairly iconic locally, but the buses themselves could use a serious rebranding, just as the Green DASH buses and service received a few months ago. Right now, the blocky wording of “Manchester Transit Authority” along the sides of the buses, as well as the overall color scheme make them look boxy and unappealing. A new paint job and design would really enhance their image. And as the article points out, that’s a worthy investment if it gets people considering public transit.

  2. Very cool old bus there that Manchester has. And yes, the Nashua paint scheme is very nice. However, I have to admit, I have never seen one in operation, not that I have spent too much time in Nashua.

  3. The biggest problem with the bus system as it exist right now is the low frequency service and the abbriviated hours of the service. As a Manchester resident the main reason that I rarely use the bus is because the times that the bus is operating are mainly the hours I am at work. And on Saturday when I might run downtown to pick a book up at the library or run a quick errand I know that I would be waiting around for 45 minutes to catch my ride back home.
    I think one possible solution is this: Raise parking prices and hours for downtown parking and put all the extra revenue toward the transportation system. Also, have designated parking lots around the city (the East and Northside plazas, somewhere on South Willow street near the mall and maybe at Macy’s in Bedford) that has frequent bus service until, say, 11PM, where a car can be parked for free and users can take the bus in to town. So in essence whether one chooses to park downtown at $2:00 an hour or use the bus the transportation system is still being funded.
    I also think that running down the Everett Turnpike from Manchester to Nashua is a fairly useless route. I think a Nashua route might be much more utilized if there was an hourly route from Manchester to Exit 5 in Derry, down route 28 to 102 in Derry, down 102 through Londonderry to downtown Nashua and then up through Merrimack via Rt 3 (DW Highway) back to Manchester. Something like this could probably be done with the Concord route as well. I think a regional approach to transportation is what is really needed but there does not seem to be any will to get that done right now.

    1. Raising parking rates to fund a bus line would not raise the funds necessary for any meaningful expansions and it would hurt small businesses downtown. If the city expanded service to meet the needs of a targeted group, say refugees, then they would experience the rise in usage they seek.
      The city needs to target the populations with low car ownership first and grow the system to fit their needs. These riders would be the backbone to support any future growth that includes elective riders.

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