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Glaeser: Building better buses
First Published Mar 06 2014 06:27 am • Last Updated Mar 06 2014 06:27 am

[Editor’s note: This column is specific to Boston’s public transit system. But the situation there, and the author’s proposed solution, sound a lot like an issue facing Salt Lake City.]

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Boston needs cooler buses. For decades, economists like me — and other budget nerds — have argued that buses are vastly more cost-effective than trains. Yet trains cause hearts to flutter, while buses elicit groans. For buses to take on more of this region’s transportation needs, they must please riders more and bean-counters less.

Flexibility and customization are hallmarks of our age of innovation. That should favor buses. Train routes are fixed; bus routes can change overnight. Buses can be tiny minivans or soaring crimson double-deckers. They can speed on a dedicated lane between far-flung stations, or stop at every street corner. Buses can be low-cost workhorses, but they can also be glass-encased wonders equipped with WiFi and flat screen TVs.

Unfortunately, the amiable adaptability of the bus has meant that ride quality is eaten away by penny pinchers who demand Spartan vehicles, and by crowd pleasers who won’t take the tough steps needed to keep them moving quickly.

The Washington Street Silver line typifies a system designed to please accountants rather than riders. The elevated Orange Line that once ran along Washington Street from Dudley Square to Downtown Crossing was taken down and rerouted in 1987. The neighborhoods near Washington Street were deprived of rapid transit. The MBTA responded initially with the sluggish bus route 49 and then with "bus rapid transit" — what’s now known as Silver Line 5.

Silver Line 5’s financial numbers are fantastic: 15,472 riders per day and a profit of 3 cents per rider. Indeed, the entire Silver Line project is a financial home run, especially in a bus system where many routes require subsidies of $2 or more per passenger. But the Silver Line’s Yelp scores aren’t nearly so nice. Critics howl that it is "just a bus," without the speed, comfort, or mystique of a sleek train. Sadly, they are right.

Improving speed is easy conceptually but hard politically. In most of the city, its diamond-painted lanes aren’t properly dedicated at all, and travel is slow. Boston can keep buses moving quickly by defining bus-only lanes even in the congested heart of the city and imposing serious fines on drivers; New York City keeps its bus lanes clear by photographing the license plates of cars that obstruct them.

A further complication is that the Silver Line has 11 stops from Dudley Square to Downtown Crossing; the old elevated Orange Line had four. No wonder a 2.7 mile route that, Google Maps tells me, can be driven in six to eight minutes takes 13 minutes on the Silver Line schedule and often takes 20. The Silver Line must stop less often.

Yet there’s another problem that transportation planners often overlook: Silver Line buses have no Wi-Fi or style within, and little design outside. Even buses need a little magic to them.

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London Mayor Boris Johnson has sought to replace that city’s articulated buses (which look a bit like the Silver Line buses) with a modern version of the beloved double-decker Routemaster. A design competition attracted such brand-name talent as luxury carmaker Aston Martin and architect Norman Foster. Winning designs were passed along to bus makers. Wrightbus, a firm in Northern Ireland, produced the Routemaster of the future.

The new Routemasters coolly combine tradition with sleek design. They are electricity-powered double-deckers covered with curving glass and sport an open rear platform for hop-on, hop-off access during peak times. We can’t just copy that bus — it was designed for London, not Boston — but we can copy the process that produced the bus.

For better or worse, the obvious economic benefits of buses won’t win hearts and minds. We need tough medicine on the city streets that reduces stops and competing traffic. But we also need a heavy dose of design — some beauty in our buses. It isn’t free, but costs far less than building miles of rail.

Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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