Redrawing Philly’s bus system is hard. Here are lessons from cities that have done it.
At least seven metropolitan transit systems — including Houston, Baltimore, and Miami — redesigned their bus networks from scratch. Here's what SEPTA can learn.
In most cities, the humble bus has long been the foundation of public transportation, but it didn’t get a second thought or much respect.
“Almost everywhere, the bus network serves the most riders and especially riders who have no other way to get around,” said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Transportation Center, a Washington think tank. “Unfortunately, the bus has been neglected, or it’s been relegated to kind of a second class of transit.”
About a decade ago, that began to change.
At least seven metropolitan transit systems — including Houston, Baltimore, and Miami — redesigned their bus networks from scratch beginning in 2013. They shortened routes for faster, more frequent service.
SEPTA’s currently deep into a “bus revolution,” the first proposed adjustments to the entire network since 1964. It will shift resources to create routes with frequent service and move away from others that are not as highly used.
In cities that overhauled their bus service, plummeting ridership was a major impetus. Buses had slowed to a crawl in traffic. Rideshare companies captured market share.
And riders’ needs were changing. They wanted reliable bus service at off hours and on weekends, not just peak-hour commutes.
Authority general managers realized a well-run bus network was a quicker and cheaper way to improve transit than big rail projects, which can cost billions and take a decade or more to finish, Puentes said.
SEPTA’s revised bus routes are set to launch early in 2024. It is currently considering tweaks to the draft based on public criticism.
Here are three key lessons from transportation experts and other cities.
Get backing from a big-cheese political leader
Politicos can help break through roadblocks and bureaucratic inertia and handle public pushback.
Case study: Houston
Houston’s bus routes changed overnight in August 2015. It was a disruptive event but the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County had political cover — from champions who’d spent two years building support for a comprehensive redesign of the bus network.
Improved bus transit was high on the priority list of former Mayor Annise Parker before the process began.
“It helps planners do their job when there’s a leader from outside the transit agency saying to people, ‘Listen, I understand it’s scary but what we’re doing now is not working. It’s not meeting our goals,’” said Chris Van Eyken, research and policy director for TransitCenter, a New York foundation working to improve public transit.
Houston Metro board member Christof Spieler, an architect, conceived the project and was a ground-level evangelist. He led months of talks with residents about what they wanted from their transit system “way before any maps were drawn,” as he put it to news site Mobility Lab.
People were clear they wanted their buses to get them right to and from college, work, fun, and home without having to roll through the congested downtown first.
Planners took that to heart and laid out a grid of straight, frequent bus routes to replace the meandering ones. The layout is connected closely to the city’s light-rail system and to places where express buses drop off passengers from outlying areas of Houston and suburban Harris County using designated freeway lanes.
Houston saw a 7% increase in transit usage on both buses and light rail in the first year after the change.
How Philly compares
Mayor Jim Kenney and elected officials in the suburban counties have been largely silent in the public debate over SEPTA’s bus-network reorganization. Over the last two months, City Council has raised pointed questions as angry constituents have objected to changes planned for their routes. Council held a hearing late last month to grill SEPTA officials and take testimony from riders.
SEPTA planners and consultants have largely been left to themselves to explain and sell the plan. That’s left some riders shocked by proposed changes to their bus lines; their surprise could build resentment for the new routes even before SEPTA’s rolled them out.
Don’t be too cheap
Most bus-network redesigns, like SEPTA’s, are budget neutral. They reallocate existing service levels but don’t always include money for other infrastructure. The process promises both transformation and fiscal restraint, attractive to chronically underfunded authorities.
“I think this is one of the traps you can fall into as a transit agency,” Van Eyken said.
Experts say truly turning around a bus system’s performance requires investments to help new routes work on the street: Bus Rapid Transit, or separate rights of way that pull buses out of traffic and function like rail lines on key corridors; traffic signals timed to prioritize buses at intersections; new vehicles; hiring more operators.
Case study: Baltimore
Baltimore’s bus system got a makeover in 2017, after former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, canceled the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project, calling it a “boondoggle.” He pledged $135 million for a bus network redesign with more frequent service on high-priority routes, saying the city would get more impact for less.
“There’s a difference between the rhetoric and the reality,” said Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Travel Alliance. “Baltimore transit didn’t get any new funds for improvements.”
Last fall 20% to 25% of bus trips were canceled on many routes daily — even during peak service hours, a transit alliance study found. CityLink Red, the busiest route, canceled up to 30% of runs on its worst days in September and October 2022.
BaltimoreLink, as the redesigned network is called, has an operator shortage, and that has led to some canceled runs, O’Malley said, as have frequent bus breakdowns.
How Philly compares
It does no good to fix up bus routes if the vehicles are still stuck in traffic. Many successful redesigns have included additional money for infrastructure to speed buses through blockages. But in Philadelphia, SEPTA faces financial constraint to using common remedies. It’s complicated to figure what a new network will cost, but SEPTA planners have been told to expect no money for items beyond operational needs — about $655 million in 2021, according to the National Transit Database — which should not grow.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes, which give buses their own right-of-way to separate them from traffic, are popular in many cities. Houston, for instance, opened one shortly after the redesign and three more are planned to come online from 2026 to 2028.
But Philadelphia has less space than Western cities, and BRT here would wipe out street parking. “That’s a third rail nobody wants to touch” said Dan Nemiroff, the project manager for the bus redesign. “We have to be creative.”
Engage the public early and deeply
Change is hard and you don’t want people to be surprised.
Case study: Miami-Dade
In December 2018, two employees from Transit Alliance Miami, an independent nonprofit, rode buses for 24 hours straight all over the region’s serpentine route system, interviewing passengers about changes they wanted to see.
The independent nonprofit, with some distance from the regional transit agency, was hired to handle public engagement ahead of the redesign of the region’s bus system. One researcher on that marathon had already spent 180 hours on buses collecting opinions.
The marathon was hard core, but just a part an extensive consultation effort. The city-county government approved a redesign that enjoyed broad support — though implementation was paused last year because Miami’s transit agency didn’t have enough bus drivers.
Above all else, transit planners need to be transparent and honest about their goals. “The input is very valuable,” Puentes said. “What you don’t want is for someone to say they weren’t consulted on this so they have a negative reaction.”
How Philly compares
When the redesign project began in 2021, SEPTA officials conducted online surveys, held virtual town meetings and some in-person open houses, with occasional pop-up visits to transportation centers. They got thousands of opinions and discussed potential trade-offs in different versions of a redesign.
But when the first draft of the plan came out last October, some riders said they had no idea what was happening or why, and SEPTA soon began taking flak from people who hated what would happen to their route.
Many riders from Black and brown communities have said they felt SEPTA never showed up in person to listen to them.
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson told SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards about a meeting in Wynnefield, saying that the agency planners and consultants there were not diverse, the event was poorly organized, and the presentation used technical language.
“We really need to include the community in a real way,” not just impose a plan, Gilmore Richardson said. “You can’t just come here and say ‘We attended these meetings.’ You have to be culturally competent.”
Richards, the SEPTA general manager, said they’d do better.
“We did adopt sort of, for lack of a better term, a one-size fits-all approach to the meetings,” Nemiroff said. “I think it taught us that we need to more flexible in how we present things.”
There will be another round of public engagement after a revised version of the draft is unveiled next month.