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Olivier Thereaux

Fixing the Bus System

What happens when one person moves on her own to an unknown major city is a fascinating way to observe (and hopefully help fix) things that are broken in our urban systems. Newcomers have to go through a period of fairly stressful learning and adaptation to the new city. Any system that is not welcoming or easy to understand for a “native” of the city will also systematically be a major bag of hurt for the rest of us, the impact of bad service design multiplied manifold.

This is true for tourists and travelers, and acutely so for immigrants: while an issue is likely to be shunned by short-term visitors when they can simply avoid it, immigrants are bound to have to deal with it sooner or later.

One could think that language is the main barrier against the integration and adaptation of new inhabitants of a city. Indeed, it took me months, sometimes year, before I approached some institutions of Japanese life without a wince, and language was a large part of the problem. In the near decade that I spent there, I became rather comfortable and acquainted with things such as ordering stuff on the phone, explaining my situation to immigration officials, or going apartment hunting. Visit to Japanese doctors, however, remained to the end a puzzling, stressful and often degrading experience. After so many years, I don’t think the language barrier was the issue any more. The truth is, the doctor-patient relationship in Japan is horribly broken, or rather, it is so entirely alien to my cultural framework that I never quite learned to accept it.

After moving on my own to 4 large cities in the past 15-ish years, and visiting quite a few more, I can start to list a number of behavior patterns which say a lot about myself, obviously, but also about the urban systems. As a puzzled, stressed and curious newcomer, whether I quickly and fully embrace a system, or whether I avoid it for a long time is an interesting measure of how “usable” the system is.

Fare information screen at the front of a typical Japanese bus

Take public transportation for example. I have lived in Rouen, Paris, several cities in Japan, and Montreal – all with both a tram/metro system and bus system. In each case, being happier as a pedestrian than a driver (a much better way to discover a new city, incidentally) from day 1 I was taking the metro, walking around, hailing cabs on occasion. I never took a single bus in Rouen. I only ever took the bus twice in Paris, always because I was tagging along with a friend. In Japan, except for the bus that was the only way to get to my workplace, it took me months before I took buses to go around on a regular basis. Ditto for Montreal.


Set aside the easy explanation that in any country, the odds of ending up with a grumpy, mumbling bus driver is fairly high. You get wonderfully helpful bus drivers everywhere, too. I think the explanation goes deeper: the bus system in every city I know is broken, hardly usable, and we hardened urbanites only cope with it because we’re so used to it. Here are a few symptoms of the brokenness, which could be tackled fairly easily.

  1. The bus system is inconsistent from place to place:How is one supposed to queue? Is one to get on the bus through a specific door? Does one have to pay when entering the bus, when arriving at destination, or at some point in between? These questions aren’t merely rhetorical, and most combinations of answers actually mirror the reality in one city or other.
  2. The bus payment system is as complicated as it is hurried:Unlike the metro systems, where payment is generally made at a time reasonably disconnected from the ride itself, payment for the bus is often required just as one enters the carriage, or as one leaves. Ever had to wait (preferably, in the pouring rain) for a tourist to figure out how much and how to pay the ride before you could enter? Ever had to fumble in your pockets for the exact amount – in small coins – required to get on? And I am not even mentioning the many places with a variable bus fare.
  3. The bus grid is hardly ever mapped:Even assuming that one city has a single public transportation system, and not, as is the case in e.g. Tokyo, a myriad of small-ish private transportation companies loosely connected throughout the urban network, it is rare to find an intelligible map of the bus network for the whole city.The mesh of bus routes and connections in most major cities is too large and intricate to be easily charted on a mid-sized map, yet this is the only map you are likely to get.
  4. (not) Knowing where or when to get off is stressful:This used to be a consistent terror of mine when I used to start using buses in foreign countries: given that I often have no idea what the place I am going to looks like, how am I supposed to know when to get off? How am I supposed to know sufficiently early so that I press the button/pull the chord/holler at the driver early enough? And since the bus is not alway halting at stops unless it has to, I might entirely miss my stop and end up in the middle of nowhere.The Japanese bus system, for all its strange intricacies, has found a solution to this: a marquee screen in several locations in the bus display the current location and next stop, and a voice announces where the bus could stop next. The solution is indeed costlier than forcing grumpy drivers to grumble that information, but the ever-pragmatic Japanese companies have found a way to offset the cost: between stops, the pre-recorded voice will also spew “useful” (and paid for) information about some of the shops nearby.

Granted, contemporary technology for a first-world traveler will mitigate, or sometimes even void, such issues. Who cares if the transportation is hardly usable when one can research its tricks in advance, find out in real time when the next bus is supposed to pass or use a map application on a mobile device to calculate the best itinerary and follow one’s location at every moment?

Yet I find these tech solutions unsatisfying. I find them costly, lazy, unfair, providing only solutions for the rich tourist and the tech-savvy. They make me re-think my reaction to Adam Greenfield’s Read-Write Urbanism post, which at the time had me think “what’s the point of building connected, smart urban appliances when you can provide smart applications on mobile phones”. I may have been wrong – there is value in creating solutions for all, directly in the fabric of the city.

Indeed, there are quite a few solutions to the problems I noted above; some are already implemented in some urban transportation systems (for example, the display-and-speech info on the next stop in Japanese buses), others are mere ideas waiting to be developed. Let’s try to document these ideas and initiatives in comments below.

21 Responses to “Fixing the Bus System”

  1. f8full says:

    I think that Lyon in France has an elegant solution and not only because I lived there. They provide different solutions targeted at different people.
    First is what they call the Visulys system, giving real time information at bus stops, at no cost to the end user (contrary to here in Montréal where one has to have a cell phone, they use simple LCD screens)
    In French : http://www.sytral.fr/4654.0.html
    They seem to be exploring some idea you mentioned about guidance in the network through mean of GPS enabled devices
    In French : http://www.sytral.fr/5602.0.html
    for wealthy and/or tech-savvy people.
    And finally, they explore something for everybody, using LCD screens in vehicles to display real time information
    In French : http://www.sytral.fr/4655.0.html

    You didn’t mention it, but one clever idea to improve a bus system is to give them automatic priority at intersection, using embedded GPS devices. When total time of transit is not guaranteed (and/or worse, out of schedule), the whole point of the system falls apart.

    Finally, the fare paying problem has been fixed in by designing what they call boarding tubes, where you pay in advanced like in a metro system.
    In English : http://neath.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/curitiba-brasil/

    • Awesome resources f8full, thank you! I was somehow expecting Curitiba, the poster child of smart urban design, to come up sooner or later, but I have to say Lyon seems to have made a few really good decisions.

      You make a good point about giving buses priority at intersections – compared to a lot of other transportation alternatives buses tend to be rather slow. Heck, here in Montreal (only in summer, granted) I tend to get faster to work with the sluggish bixi than with the bus, even though the latter happens to stop right in front of where I live…

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by olivier Thereaux, F8F. F8F said: RT @olivierthereaux: “Fixing the Bus”: looking at issues with our urban systems from the perspective of traveler/immigrant. http://bit.ly/cRiI2s [...]

  3. steph says:

    So, an aside: a funny story about Montreal buses. They are now getting standardized, but once upon a time, there were at least *three* ways you can open the door to get off at your stop:
    1) step down one step as the bus stops, the door open when it senses your weight
    2) push a vertical bar, it will cause the door to open if the bus has stopped
    3) wave at a yellow vertical yellow bar that marks the door’s edges, a motion sensor will cause the door to open when the bus has stopped.

    It’s left to random chance which bus model arrives to pick you up.

    The thing was … not only do you have to to know how to read French to figure it all out. You’d have to decipher the instructions written on the door faded by too many passengers’ desperate waving beating hands to figure how to get the hell out.

    • To be fair, I “got” that fairly fast. I was more flabbergasted by the way you ask the bus to stop by pulling on the yellow string that surrounds the whole bus…

  4. [...] Fixing the Bus System : Artsy Techie: “what’s the point of building connected, smart urban appliances when you can provide smart applications on mobile phones”. I may have been wrong – there is value in creating solutions for all, directly in the fabric of the city. [...]

  5. [...] factor 13 August 2010 // 0 I really want to recommend to you this Olivier Thereaux post about broken bus systems and how they might be fixed (and not just because I happen to be taking [...]

    • Go read Adam’s post. Not just because he points here, which is great, but because he takes the issue and looks at it through an analysis of how fear hinders our usage and experience of the city. Fear of being lost, fear of looking like a fool, …

      Here’s a nugget: […] it is the proper and maybe even the primary task of the urban systems designer to work with compassion and fearless empathy to address this difficulty. Good food for thought.

  6. [...] Locals have a better background knowledge of the city so, like power users of a computer system, most things they do become habitual, almost instinctive. But the interface of the city still accommodates their needs. An example of this in many cities is the bus system, which tends to be optimised for locals at the expense of outsiders. [...]

  7. karl says:

    STM is trying to improve by giving a notion of minimum time for waiting 10 minutes max which we know can be a lot in winter ;)

  8. Another good initiative, this time from Paris. I was wondering if there was a way not only to display the itinerary inside the bus, but not bare as is often the case – instead have it overlaid on a map with real landmarks indicated. A company in France seems to be toying with the same concepts, and calling it Navibus.

  9. f8full says:

    Alleluia !
    I dunno if the “tomorrow” makes me wanna laugh or cry though…

  10. [...] other day, I came across a blog post by Olivier Thereaux, a Montreal-based Web Architect. Olivier has lived in different parts of the [...]

  11. [...] a few months ago, I started thinking about what bothered me with bus systems anywhere around the world, it was mostly as an intellectual exercise for myself, a meditation on the city and its system, and [...]

  12. I was in NYC lately and the metro experience was atrocious! No maps, no schedules, no directions. Even the personnel was rude. And the smell! Oh the humanity!

    We felt like buying lottery every time we entered a ride. And you can get very far in a short time in the NY metro system…

    The buses? Are you crazy? We did not even want to take the chance!

    We came to a conclusion that new-yorkers knew which way to go because they had to learn it first. We didn’t. So we walked… and took beautiful pictures! :)

  13. [...] system is pretty decent. The “tube” is reasonably efficient albeit crowded and filthy, (and the bus system) is really good: signage, ticket vending machines at about every stop, clear maps of where to take [...]

  14. Come to Lausanne, you’ll love our bus system :-)


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