One of the first “urbanist” blogs I found was Copenhagenize. It’s a brilliantly simple name that carries its argument in a single word: Here is a place, Copenhagen, that does something right, so let’s be more like them.

The thing Copenhagenize has in mind is biking. From particular styles of bike lanes, to more general street design, safety management, and so on, Copenhagenize uses real-life examples not to show what a really bike-friendly city might look like on a planning mockup, but what it actually looks like in the world today. It’s not a bulletproof approach, of course—critiques range from standard “but Boston/Dallas/Overland Park is different” objections to calls to hold up non-European cities as urban exemplars—but when your task is to convince people to change to something that’s new to them, you need to have a clear and positive vision of how your changes might function, and an attractive real-life city that has implemented them well is as good as you can get. More than one city planner has been converted to the bike infrastructure gospel on a trip to northern Europe.

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But other forms of urban transportation haven’t been as fortunate. People come back from New York, Paris, or Tokyo and marvel about their subways, but heavy rail is far too expensive and logistically impractical for the vast majority of American cities to consider as a major form of transit. Other people return with photos of street-running trams in Europe or Portland, but the record of the new generation of streetcars has been decidedly mixed—and, again, they’re too expensive to really serve more than a few lines in most places. Visitors to Mexico City or Bogotá might be convinced of the utility of Bus Rapid Transit—but, once more, only as an approach for a few flagship lines, and even then few US cities seem interested in pursuing the full-on BRT treatment adopted widely in Latin America.

What we need instead is a model that can be applied broadly to entire transit systems, like the bike infrastructure highlighted by Copenhagenize, in metropolises and small cities.

Allow me to humbly suggest: Londonize.

Really, any number of cities could fit the bill in terms of smart, high-quality routine bus service, and I don’t make any claim that London is necessarily the best. But London is a city everyone is (at least vaguely) familiar with, and—perhaps more auspiciously—it has those iconic double-decker buses that are a worldwide symbol of friendly public transportation.

Credit: oatsy40, Flickr
Credit: oatsy40, Flickr


Moreover, though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3 billion passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3 billion), close to the New York City subway (2.8 billion), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1 billion), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

So London has buses that are iconically attractive and manage to be useful enough to garner millions of rides per day—without massive, or massively expensive, infrastructure projects. What are the basic building blocks of its success? If Denver or Cincinnati wanted to Londonize, what might they do?

Transport for London (TfL) itself identifies four pillars of its service:

Frequency. TfL says that if it can run buses at least every 12 minutes all day, people will think of that line as “show up and go” service—convenient enough to just turn up at a stop without having to go through the hassle of consulting (and the psychological leap of trusting) a schedule. That makes them much more likely to depend on the bus. Wherever possible, then, 12 minutes is the minimum standard frequency for bus lines. Some American cities have started to reflect this principle in “frequent networks,” which come at least every 12 to 15 minutes—but just like a handful of marquee protected bike lanes don’t add up to much if most streets are bike-hostile, a loose network of “show up and go” bus lines aren’t worth much if most routes remain very infrequent. That’s especially true in networks that rely on transfers for much of their reach.

Reliability. If you say a bus comes every 12 minutes, they should come every 12 minutes—not two every 24 minutes. Bus bunching, and the long gaps between buses that result, is a problem that plagues many systems, but it’s not unsolvable. Technologies like transit-signal priority, which holds green lights and shortens red lights to speed buses, as well as bus-only lanes (about which more in a minute) and good dispatch management, can help maximize reliability.

Simplicity. The bus system should be easy for new and experienced users to ride. At a macro level, this means designing routes that are intuitive and as straightforward as practical. At a micro level, it can mean good signage at the actual bus stops—ranging from metal signs that show where a route goes, how often it comes, and where you might transfer to other services, to electronic signs that can show bus arrival time estimates, real-time notifications about delays or other service changes, and other information. London has more than 2,500 of these boards all around the city, and some US systems like Chicago and Boston have begun to install similar boards as well.

Credit: Tom Page, via Flickr
An electronic bus countdown screen in London. Credit: Tom Page, via Flickr


A new static, high-information bus sign in the Twin Cities. Credit: Metro Transit
A new static, high-information bus sign in the Twin Cities. Credit: Metro Transit


Comprehensiveness. TfL’s service standards suggest that Londoners ought to be no more than 400 meters, or about a five minute walk, from a bus stop—and in fact about 90 percent of residents are that close or closer. Low population densities in American cities might make that goal impractical, but the principle that people are supposed to be able to walk from their origin to a bus stop and from another bus stop to their destination does mean that extremely wide spacing between lines simply won’t make for a practical network. (See Jarrett Walker for a discussion of the tradeoffs between coverage and ridership.) In sparsely-populated areas where a denser network wouldn’t work, it might make sense to look into subsidies for taxis or rideshare services to solve first/last mile problems.

To these four principles, I would add three more:

Speed. To make buses a time-efficient way of getting around, they need to come frequently and reliably, but they also need not to crawl along once you’re on board. One way to avoid that, especially in cities with traffic congestion problems, is bus lanes—sections of the road that cars and trucks aren’t allowed to travel in. Because of their incredible space-efficiency, buses are able to move many times more people through a single lane than private vehicles, without creating congestion—as long as those private vehicles aren’t allowed to get in their way. For that reason, London has created nearly 200 miles of bus lanes.

Another common problem, especially on high-ridership routes, is the amount of time buses sit waiting for each new passenger to pay their fare. But many London buses have a fare card reader at each door, allowing for much faster boarding than the standard single fare reader at the front door. In the US, San Francisco has also begun implementing this form of “all-door boarding.”

Land Use. Of course, if you’re a regular reader of City Observatory, you know that transportation isn’t just about transportation—it’s also about land use. By American standards, London is an exceptionally compact, walkable city. That means that it’s easier to make sure everyone’s within a five minute walk of a bus stop; easier to ensure that destinations are near a stop; and likelier that trips will be relatively short, which suit a frequent-stop service like most bus lines. But while most American cities won’t be hitting London-level density any time soon, that just means they have lots of room for improvement. “Transit-oriented development” has become a well-known buzzword in the planning world, but research shows that TOD works in places that only have bus service, as well as near rail stations.

And finally: Road Pricing. London put in place a system of a congestion charge for its central area in 2003. It charges private cars 11.50 pounds (roughly $15) per day to travel in the cordoned area between 7am and 6 pm. This simultaneously reduces car traffic, and provides a source of funds to help subsidize transit improvements. In 2015, the charge generated more than 170 million pounds of net revenue to support the transit system. Reducing car traffic helps buses move faster, benefiting a majority of London commuters, and speeding all traffic through the center.  

In large part because of the movement that websites like Copenhagenize have helped push forward, over the last decade or so American cities have made incredible strides in making cycling a safe, viable, attractive option for getting around. It’s time to take the same approach with the most broadly accessible transit mode: the city bus.