(Matthew Wiebe/Unsplash)

Champaign, Illinois, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, are unlikely to make a list of American cities with the best transit systems anytime soon. Neither offers a rail system and neither is known as being a great place to live without a car. Yet the transit systems in these two cities did do something remarkable over the past seven years: they increased their annual bus ridership by about 50 percent.

Consider this: over the same period, between 2007 and 2014, bus ridership in the United States fell by 3 percent. In city after city, fewer people hopped on buses, even as more and more stepped onto trains.

So what makes Champaign and Grand Rapids different—and what lesson can they teach the rest of the country? They have recognized the importance of their bus routes.

In each city, the local transit agency has invested to ramp up the quality of transit service. Over that period, Champaign has increased the miles driven by its buses by 49 percent, and Grand Rapids has increased its miles by 18 percent. Residents in each region have benefited from more buses stopping more frequently in more locations, with the result being increased access to opportunity for those people.

National studies demonstrate why public transportation—even when provided through mundane buses—is so important for the lifeblood of local economies. Additional bus or rail service builds metropolitan-area density and productivity. It also lowers employee turnover, benefiting companies even in small regions.

But better bus service typically—though not always—requires more funding for operations to pay for more drivers and fuel. That means asking more from local and state taxpayers because with few exceptions, the federal government pays only for capital (construction) expenses.

In Grand Rapids, voters agreed in 2011 to increase their property tax bills to improve local bus service and construct a bus rapid transit line. In Champaign, the state government took on an increasing tab, doubling its contribution to the city transit agency, and as of 2013 is accounting for 65 percent of the system’s funding. These investments were necessary to take advantage of the economic benefits derived from effective transit systems. They also required political leadership that acknowledged the importance of spending on buses.

But these cities are the exception, not the rule. After decades of decline, public transit finally has achieved the status it deserves: mayors from Oakland to Omaha see transit as a key element of their development toolkit. They recognize that car-dominated cities are neither particularly livable nor economically vibrant.

But what kind of transit are mayors focusing on? As I wrote in Urban Land in June, streetcars are attracting interest as a way to build economic development—whether or not any evidence exists to support their use as a way to expand business. Indeed, cities are building rail systems of all sorts: the number of American cities with light rail has expanded from nine in 1980 to 36 today, thanks to billions of dollars in funding identified by local leaders who are confident that trains will help them rebuild their center cities.

After investing in new rail lines, cities have spent their operations money—separated from capital spending—on these lines. In many cases, funding for operations has not kept up with the needs of the new trains.

This massive investment in rail has hurt bus riders who, especially since the Great Recession, have received less service. When faced with limited resources, cities have improved the frequency of train service while cutting the number of buses—investing in light rail while cutting bus lines—even though just six U.S. regions have more rail riders than bus commuters.

Without a doubt, the number of rides Americans take by bus is declining, implying that these reductions make sense. The share of total transit trips occurring on traditional bus services fell from 62 percent in 2000 to 50 percent last year—this during a period when local support for public transportation appeared to grow substantially and mayors campaigned for more funding for better service.

One clear explanation for the decline in bus ridership is a reduction in the service provided—exactly the opposite of what has occurred in Champaign and Grand Rapids. As Daniel Kay Hertz has written, in large metropolitan areas, bus service has declined by 5 percent since 2000 even as rail service has grown by more than 20 percent. The National Transit Database shows that in recent years over two-thirds of major transit agencies have reduced bus service, with many cutting it by more than 10 percent.

According to Hertz, the reduction in bus service is not a reaction to declining interest in riding; in fact, ridership change is not a predictor of service change. Rather, the decision to cut service dissuades people from riding. There are competing arguments about whether people prefer trains or buses—some argue that there is no innate preference at play—but the reality is that most people choose the transit option that works if it is available.

And that makes sense. If a bus or train can get you to work in the same amount of time, most people couldn’t care less. On the other hand, if service is reduced, people do care. A small cut in service—such as two buses an hour running on a route rather than four—could increase rider waiting time by 30 minutes a day. That is enough to encourage people to find another way to get to work.

Unfortunately, this reality is rarely reflected in the decisions made by city governments, whose leaders frequently support transit in theory but who are also stuck when it comes to investing in public service in an age of constrained government revenues. For the most part, they’ve chosen not to invest equally in their bus and rail networks but rather to concentrate more and more resources on trains, even if the evidence suggests this approach does not build ridership. Leaders, convinced of the superiority of rail, too often have ignored buses.

For instance, Los Angeles invested in better rail service (Metro increased spending by 45 percent between 2007 and 2013, adjusted for inflation) following the opening of new lines to the detriment of the bus system (spending reduced by 7 percent over that time), and the result was declining ridership overall, despite the public claim that rail would attract new riders. Not all cities are the same: the New York City subway gained more riders between 2013 and 2014 than have ridden Champaign’s bus system in total over the past nine years.

But bus service improvements mostly pay off where they are implemented. In Columbus, Ohio, a bus-only system has attracted growing crowds thanks to a dedicated transit sales tax. Despite recently adding a light-rail line, Charlotte, North Carolina, has doubled down on buses thanks to a sales tax that guarantees for them two-thirds of its revenues. The Champaign and Grand Rapids bus systems had no rail to compete with.

Cities that want to increase transit ridership must avoid the assumption that ramping up rail service will address the needs of bus riders adequately enough to warrant reduced bus service. Transit agencies should be held to a standard that guarantees adequate bus service even when they invest in rail. This requires political leadership—mayors who recognize that transit is not just about shiny new trains, but also about providing adequate money to keep paying bus drivers.