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Bus 2.0

From Boston to Brazil, city planners and transportation gurus are reimagining the possibilities of the humble motorbus, using high-tech 'smart mobility' to challenge the preeminence of the car -- and revive the urban commons.

It is a bus stop like none you have ever seen. Curved and gleaming like a Frank Gehry structure, it anchors a neighborhood like a piece of public art. Its shape can adapt to fit different needs, emphasizing more shelter in bad weather areas or more seating in high-usage zones. The shelter is wrapped in an LED "skin" that can play video. It's wired to a larger communications network. It features displays that tell when, exactly, the next bus will arrive. It is, in a word, intelligent.

This Jetsonian bus stop is only a prototype, built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a recent exhibition on the history of bus transport, but it's emblematic of a very real, almost seismic, shift in thinking about the possibilities of the humble motorbus. In 2005, Seattle began outfitting some long-haul buses with wireless Internet access (other cities have followed). Los Angeles built America's largest fleet of clean-burning "green" buses and initiated traffic-signal priority on many of its routes. Bus riders in Curitiba, Brazil, pay their fares at bus stops before they board, thus reducing the average stop time to about 17 seconds.

Much of the most innovative thinking now focuses on improving the passenger experience, instead of the more difficult challenge of moving buses faster along crowded streets. But city planners, armed with affordable global-positioning and computer technology, hope that meeting these seemingly modest goals can make bus trips a far more pleasurable, even productive, experience.

With fuel costs high and public concern for the environment rising, some public transportation officials sense an opportunity to challenge the car's preeminence.

"I've got the car beat when it comes to cost," said Daniel Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "Our system needs to be at least as convenient and as comfortable as [the] other options."

Massachusetts, in fact, is in the midst of a substantial effort to modernize its bus fleet. With new marketing strategies being tested (expansive maps at selected bus stops, touting the virtues of bus-subway connectivity), new buses being deployed (costing more than $500 million in total), and new technology being implemented (a GPS system that will help the agency better track and manage the pace and progress of buses), the MBTA is betting that its buses will be a vital part of the state's transit future.

Good bus systems have the power to improve states and cities in a deep way, enthusiasts say. From the time of the first motor-driven bus, introduced by Karl Benz in 1895 in Germany, the bus and other forms of mass transit have literally moved people across cities divided by race and class. Now, as telecommuting and suburban expansion are making urban life increasingly decentralized, these thinkers argue that the bus and the subway lines are the new agora -- that they represent one of the few remaining urban commons. Boosted by the latest technology, they say, riding the bus should be as rich an experience as possible.

"The more communication that happens between citizens, the stronger the urban garden," said Federico Casalegno, an MIT sociologist who led the team that developed the futuristic bus stop prototype.

At the heart of much of the new thinking is a concept that some urban planners call "smart mobility" -- integrating the flow of people with the flow of information. Whereas transit companies have traditionally seen their passengers as ciphers who want nothing more than to be physically moved from one place to another, the future of transit reform lies in seeing these passengers as active participants in a constantly evolving information cluster. The transportation system should share as much information with passengers as possible -- how buses are flowing, when the next one is expected. It should give passengers access to information about the outside world -- from international news, to e-mail, to data about the passing neighborhoods. And passengers, in turn, should be empowered to share information with the system and, if they want, with fellow riders.

"The general concept is to increase connections between people, places, and transportation systems," said Casalegno, who is the director of the Mobile Experience Laboratory at MIT. "It shouldn't just be about getting from Point A to Point B."

Last year, the city of Paris celebrated the 100th anniversary of its motorized bus system. In preparation for the centennial, the city asked the Mobile Experience Laboratory to consult on ways to rethink the system.

Among Casalegno's communication-enhancing ideas were real-time maps delivering neighborhood information that would be projected onto buses' interior ceilings and an "electronic concierge" at bus stops that would transmit information about local businesses and attractions.

The MIT team also suggested several hardware innovations. One is an expandable bus with modular sections, which works like a leafed table that can be adjusted to fit the number of expected dinner guests. They also proposed a segmented, snake-like bus that can wind through twisting city streets, and a hybrid "snake/worm" bus that winds its way underground through special tunnels.

Casalegno's innovations, while admittedly futuristic, could easily be useful in other cities. The snake-style bus could travel down winding New England streets that had been unnavigable. The reconfigurable bus could mean a Kenmore Square bus that expands during Red Sox games or shrinks during Boston University's winter break.

Other communications ideas could be especially suited to Boston, a city that claims a notably tech-savvy population. Think of the No. 1 bus, which runs on Massachusetts Avenue from Dudley Square to Harvard Square, ferrying commuters between the universities and Boston proper. By providing commuters with new ways to interact wirelessly, this bus line could serve as an idea-incubator of sorts. You could imagine a system that would make virtual introductions and allow passengers to share files, personal contacts, music playlists, and restaurant recommendations. It's social networking on wheels.

"You transport people, but don't give any means for people to share anything else but their physical presence," said Casalegno. "If they had another way to be connected, they'd probably create smart communities."

Of course the reality today, in Boston and elsewhere, is that the bus can be crowded, dirty, late, and unreliable enough to evoke a very real existential dread. Sartre's "No Exit" easily could have been set in the rear-window seats of a crosstown express at rush hour.

Buses can also be frustrating to operate. City buses run on an open, public set of streets. All the city planning in the world can't stop a Dodge from running out of gas in the middle of Mass Ave. Because they're in continual operation, carrying heavy loads at varying speeds, they're also hard to maintain. As the Globe recently reported, some of the MBTA's buses are literally cracking under the pressure, and their rear suspension systems are now being upgraded. More importantly, the expenditures required to completely overhaul bus systems are often beyond the reach of many urban transit authorities.

"With new capital equipment, maintenance, training of drivers -- it's just hard with limited budgets to do them all well," said Dr. Martin Wachs, director of transportation, space, and technology at the RAND Corporation.

Still, improving the bus grid will almost always be a bargain compared with expanding rail systems, which can easily come in at a per-mile cost of $35 million, according to a 2001 General Accounting Office report. And the basic idea of substantively improving buses by making them cleaner, safer, and more usable is already being put into practice around the country.

Seattle offers reading lights, wireless Internet, luggage racks, and high-backed seats on many of its buses. Boulder, Colo. operates several routes as a sort of "open source" bus system, drawing on residents to help establish bus specifications and hiring local artists to design the bus exteriors. Knoxville, Tenn., sent its trolley-bus drivers to downtown hot spots to serve as "ambassadors" for bus service, answering questions and making recommendations. Each of these cities has seen bus ridership increases, according to a 2005 Federal Transit Administration report.

GPS, the ubiquitous locating technology that seems to have endless applications in bus transport, represents the next frontier, and cities are embracing it in various ways. Over the past 11 years, for instance, London has spent approximately $70 million equipping 4,000 bus stops with LED displays that utilize GPS readings to announce when the next bus should arrive.

The Massachusetts system is bringing in GPS technology to improve bus performance, according to Grabauskas. Among the applications: Communicating in real time with its drivers in order to help avoid "bus bunching"; identifying, isolating, and ameliorating traffic congestion hot spots; improving dispatching quality in general. Eventually, he said, the MBTA will let commuters access bus arrival information via telephone, text message, or the Internet.

The basic challenge of 20th-century transit planning was one of engineering: how to actually build the complex structures that got the public where it needed to go. Today, the challenge is more one of network engineering: how to take the system that's already in place and make it responsive, intuitive, and intelligent. It's a daunting challenge, but one that has the potential to be no less transformative than the first.

The metaphor of the city as urban garden has been around for decades. But public transit can be the root system, feeding and nurturing the disparate stems. Thinking of the primary goal of bus transit as one of connectivity -- in all senses of the word -- will be the unifying thesis that helps bring buses into the 21st century.

"In the urban garden, the bus stop is the landmark of the community," said Federico Casalegno. "[We'll] see if this is a better way to navigate through society."

Justin, Peters, a frequent contributor to Slate, is the editor of Polite (politemag.com). He lives in Jamaica Plain.

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