Miami’s struggling bus system can’t catch a break.
Bus ridership in in the Florida city is down by 20 million riders since 2013, and in “Where’s My Bus?,” a five-part series that Transit Alliance Miami has been rolling out over the past four weeks, the transit advocacy organization lays out the problems of declining usage in stark detail — and points to a lack of investment in the system as a main culprit.
Miami-Dade County Transportation is “progressively dismantling the system … sending [it] into a death spiral of plunging ridership,” the Transit Alliance Miami writes.
Transit Alliance details the rise in “ghost buses” — scheduled buses that never arrive — and laments the cuts in service and increased headways that lead to riders abandoning the system. Some of the area’s “strangest routes,” the site contends, “appear to be inspired by modern art more … than practical design.”
The series also looks at the role dedicated bus lanes play in expediting travel time. Only one corridor in Miami has dedicated bus lanes, and successfully serves around 2.9 million trips a year, the site said. Three other corridors exceed this amount and a fourth matches it, but do not have dedicated lanes, leading to a situation where taking the bus is no faster than driving, and often much slower.
“Buses without dedicated lanes are like fish without fins,” says the Transit Alliance. “They can’t be faster than the current.”
The problems add up to a situation where people have little, if any, incentive to ride the bus, Transit Alliance says. “If you’re a bus rider, you walk to the bus stop, you wait there,” Azhar Chougle, the director of Transit Alliance, told WLRN Miami in late May. “There’s no shelter because most bus stops don’t have any shelter. It’s raining. It’s hot. And then on top of that, the bus tracker doesn’t work. So it might never come . Now compare that to your experience as a car driver. Your car is in your backyard or in your apartment building. And there’s excellent infrastructure — you have all these roadways, it’s fantastic, you can drive around, the speed limits are high and then when you get to your destination as a society we’ve decided that you must have a parking space so you will have a parking space .… Can we honestly say that people would choose the bus?”
The quality of transit is important. Nobody, especially in Miami, wants to sit outside for 30 minutes for a bus that might never come. But the county’s “continuous and haphazard” cuts to transit service — leading to fewer buses to ride — may be even more important. A recent study from McGill University (dug up by StreetsBlog) found that the more service a bus transit provider offers, the more people ride buses. Uber and bikeshare had no statistically significant impact on transit ridership, the authors said, adding that “These results suggest that the North American transit ridership decline cannot be explained merely by gas price fluctuations or the emergence of new mobility services—instead, it is best explained by declining bus services.”
Transit Alliance is not just focused on buses. In January, as Next City reported, the organization launched a tool to track delayed trains in real time, finding that a lot of trains are delayed.
Transit Alliance publishes its recommended policy solutions for the bus system next week, but Chougle laid out few of the group’s priorities in the interview with WLRN. Cities that have invested in their bus systems, such as Houston and Seattle, have seen ridership actually increase, bucking the national trend, he said. “Miami really can be a city that not only has excellent public transit but can be walkable and can be bikeable,” he said. “It can be a city where you can get around without a car, and it really comes down to the decisions that have been made in Miami over the past decades, that have made us into such a car-centric and car-dependent city. But it’s not the way it needs to be …. This conversation is … just getting started[.] … [T]his campaign, the goal is to get everyone on the same page. Before we can have any sort of significant conversation … we need to start with here’s what’s going on.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly identified which local government runs Miami’s bus system. We’ve corrected the error.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.