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Book Review: Steven Higashide’s “Better Buses, Better Cites”

A well-planned and well-funded bus transit system opens up a community to a larger world, better paid jobs, educational opportunities, and the potential for a better life.”

Let’s face it, transit systems—and especially the bus—are not very interesting or sexy aspects of public life. When we think of a bus, we do not necessarily think about the planning that went into bringing that bus to our regular stop and dropping us off at a convenient place for transfer or a walkable distance to our jobs. We arrive at the designated time, wait a short period, board, say hello to the driver as we pay (or tap our fare), bop along with the poor suspension, and stare out through the window with our headphones blaring a podcast or a Spotify playlist, hoping none of our fellow commuters strike up a conversation and that no traffic holds up the journey. Can you name the last time you had a regular bus trip that was memorable? No, me neither. Unless you were faced with some inconvenience such as a late connection or an irate fellow traveller causing a disturbance, the bus journey should be the very definition of blank and unrecognized time. 

But, of course, there are many people who are very passionate about transit systems. And, in public transportation expert Steven Higashide’s book Better Buses Better Cites: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit (Island Press, 2020), these are explored in great detail and—dare I say—with great excitement.

The book lays out a framework for how to improve or—in some cases—completely reset a bus system. The main focus is on frequency, reliability, walkability, safety, and fairness. To this point, Higashide pulls positive and negative examples from Houston, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, New York City, Indianapolis, and Watertown, Massachusetts. Higashide explores cities and districts where past bus use had been considerably low or badly planned and executed. Changes in structure, municipal budget increases, and creative thinking have allowed these cities to implement transit systems. While still far from perfect (there are too many variables ever to achieve perfection), these changes have greatly improved the lives of those in these communities. When funding is created or redistributed and creativity is employed and encouraged, transit can suddenly transform into a lifeline.

Buses (and broader public transit systems) are an important asset in the fight against climate change, and new buses and public transit policy can be tied neatly to the hopeful rollout of Green New Deal policies. Cities are becoming ever more congested, and smog falls heavy in the air. A transit system that can transport hundreds of people every hour of the day in only a handful of vehicles compared with hundreds and thousands of cars that only transport one or two is an obvious advantage worth continually pointing out, as Higashide does very early on in the book’s introduction.

The book also explores aspects of bus travel not often given much consideration. The bus shelter and its walkability is one example. The focus of policy wonks seems to settle on the journey a bus takes, but really the journey begins when a commuter leaves his or her front door. And many cities have attempted to create accessible, well-sheltered, well-located, and aesthetically attractive bus shelters. While reading the book, it suddenly becomes crystal clear that bus shelters play an important part of the overall journey, and any positive transit experience really starts there. It is the gateway to a positive transit experience. 

Better Buses Better Cites works as a primer for anybody planning and implementing an actual transit system, but its better use is for commuters and community members to organize and become advocates for the types of bus system they want to see serving their cities and towns. By engaging with examples of collective transit advocacy from across the United States, the reader comes to the realization that transit—and, therefore, other public services such as housing, healthcare, education, parks and recreation—are ours for the taking, if we make the leap. Organization is key; knowledge is power, and, as Higashide points out, transit advocacy groups need not replace governmental departments but, rather, prod them towards making the right decisions. A well-planned and well-funded bus transit system opens up a community to a larger world, better paid jobs, educational opportunities, and the potential for a better life. It all starts when you board a bus.

Stephen Lee Naish is an author and essayist, perhaps best known for his 2017 book Deconstructing Dirty Dancing. 

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