$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Take the bus — it's better than you think. Sometimes.

Phil Berg
The Detroit News


Addicted to cars all of my adult life, I never really embraced bus travel as an alternative until I spoke with Jarrett Walker. He's a Portland, Oregon, mobility analyst and author of the 2011 book “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives.”

I am impressed by Ann Arbor's bus system because it's been using hybrid-electric bio-diesel buses. The technology also is used exclusively in San Francisco and around Puget Sound in the state of Washington, and recently planned to replace conventional buses in other systems, such as Portland's. The idea of deep-fryer or gas-to-liquid fuel oil and electric motors appeals to my high-tech car nut side: the last eight winners of the famous Le Mans prototype sports car race have been hybrids, half of them with special diesel fuel.

I had been told by several folks who use the Ann Arbor bus system (Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority) daily that they enjoy the ride to catch up on podcasts, meditations, and saving the costs and hassle of commuting by car and parking. But I've also heard from about a dozen residents that the Ann Arbor bus system was unreliable, slow and causes traffic jams.

Walker told me: “I hear this all the time, buses are stuck in traffic. Well, we choose to have buses stuck in traffic. Being stuck in traffic is not an intrinsic feature of a bus. It's an historic feature of how we have chosen to use a bus. What matters is what can get in the way of the bus.”

So for the past 60 days I've used the system exclusively for commuting and errands in the city. And I've coupled the bus system with my bicycle and walking shoes, to see how it works for me. Here are the quick pluses and minuses:

During rush hours, buses are consistently delayed. Often that's because they are stuck behind a row of cars on single-lane avenues. In addition, when there are a large number of passengers, some folks take a while to fish their payment cards or cash out of purses and packets. However, on the routes I used, this was rare.

Often I've found buses are much quicker than driving a car. When heading downtown, parking can often take up to 10 minutes, is uncertain, and can cost up to $10 a day. I love the ability to step off the bus and never worry about feeding a meter all day, or collecting a parking ticket if I'm running late.

It's easier to use the bike rack on all of the system's buses than the one I have for my car. For this reason alone I'd take the bus to a riding trail.

It took me almost the entire first month to decipher the 34 intricate main bus routes, which almost all collect at two transportation hubs, in downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. I used a combination of studying the routes, as well as a live GPS-based app showing how early or late each bus is running.

Almost anywhere in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti can be reached by bus within a mile, which was my measure of how far I was willing to walk. Mile-long hikes cost me 20 minutes of time on a trip, but they saved an untold amount of aggravation in traffic.

After the second month of busing, I found Walker's description of what works best to be true: “If you want speed and reliability you need an exclusive lane, it really doesn't matter if it's a track or a bus lane. What matters is what can get in the way.”

My conclusion: Because sometimes buses run late, commuters favor driving. When the density of cars rises, it forces buses to run late. So it's a vicious cycle without dedicated bus lanes. And without exception, every one of the human drivers of the bus system was vastly smarter, more pleasant, more interesting, and entertaining than any user interface I've sampled on advanced driver assist and autonomous cars and shuttles I've ridden.

Phil Berg is a Detroit-area freelance writer.