Changing Bus Routes

How does my city decide on what the bus routes are?

And a related question, how can I influence my city to make their bus routes better for me?



Dear R,

Bus routes are generally decided by trained transit planners but their priorities in choosing routes can be influenced by agency policy. This a very complex process that takes into account factors like how far people are willing to walk to the bus stop, how many buses are available, and where people want to go.

These planners generally don’t work directly for city governments. Instead regional transit agencies generally run bus and other types of transit (for example light rail or subways). These agencies tend to have names with the words Metro or transit in them, for example there are several Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA). These are public, tax funded agencies that typically cover a metro area — that is a city and its surroundings. Sometimes they overlap. For example in the Bay Area: AC Transit runs buses in the East Bay, Muni runs the buses and light rail in San Francisco, and BART, the Bay Area wide commuter rail, is run by its own board.

The heads of these agencies are public officials, many of them are elected. So you can contact them the same way your would another public official by calling or writing to express your concerns. To find out who runs your local transit search for the name of your transit agency or “[your city] buses”. The transit agency should have a website. If the public transit officials are elected you could also consider running for the office.

Another way to influence bus routes is to get involved with transit advocacy groups in your region. These are activist groups which focus on improving transit. I’d be surprised if any big metro area in the US didn’t have at least one of these groups.  However if you do live in an area without one you could try starting your own. <a href=>NAPTA (National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates)</a> maintains a directory of local transit advocacy groups. You can also try searching for “[your city] transit advocacy”  There are also a variety of national groups.

Another way you can impact local transit policy is by voting. Many/most states allow ballot measures for local districts. Many of these are transit related for example measures that raise taxes to pay for transit. So pay attention and make sure to vote in those types of elections. Since we are on the topic of local elections you should pay attention to the elections of local officials too. If you have chance to ask candidates questions be sure to ask them about buses and the changes you would like to see specifically.

The specifics of bus route planning are not very publicly accessible but as member of the public can try to impact the routes in a variety of ways. It important to let the people who do make these choices know what the public’s priorities are.

Reading Between the Lines and Multi-unit Buildings

Dear Building Community,

I have an urban planning question, though I don’t live anywhere very “urban” – how can I read between the lines in planning documents or town meetings to find out what the actual issues in a municipality are, and who’s being included/excluded?

I.e., when we were outside Chicago, our town was one of the few that banned backyard chickens.  I’m guessing this impacted land use & the people who lived there at least a bit, but also I think the actual rule was maybe a decade old & mostly involved one set of neighbors & their dispute.

Now that I’m living in a small town, it seems relevant to ask what it takes to have multi-unit dwellings, and what kinds of residential businesses are allowed? Maybe? I know that local planning is a policy statement, but I don’t know how to read it.  Suggestions?



Dear J,

Ok, I’m going to give you some general advice about policy then talk more specifically about multi-unit buildings and zoning.

One thing to do when reading policy or listening to neighbors’ complaints is to pay attention to words that seem to mean one thing but imply racist motives. For example if people are worried about an “increase in crime” or “maintaining property values,” that can be a cover for not wanting brown people to move in. Another example is “neighborhood character” which can mean “I don’t want anything to change ever” and change is needed in most places. Because populations change and people move around communities need to adapt to new circumstances. Besides many places in the US have have legacies of poor or just plain  unjust choices that should be rectified.

So more positive words to look for are “affordable housing”, “smart growth”, “Neighborhood density”(this refers to how many units are in a land area), “walkability”, and “transit oriented development”. Obviously you don’t want to judge a project or policy just by the words its supporters or detractors are throwing around, but you can use them as flags to see what you need to pay more attention to.

For general understanding of planning policy in your town I recommend checking out the general plan. These are are non binding (in most states) policy documents describing where the city planner(s) hope the town is headed.  The non-binding nature of these is frustrating but as an activist these documents can be useful for holding officials accountable. The general plan should contain policy statements about a variety of issues such as housing, transportation, historic preservation, and natural resource preservation. You can just read the parts that are relevant to you. It will be written for the general public, not lawyers. Some general plans are very vague and some are more concrete. But either way it should give you some sense of your town’s key issues and priorities.

To understand what’s happening on the ground it can helpful to actually be on the ground. Walk around as see if anything is being built. Some places have signs that go up during the permitting process. Read them. If you see something that concerns you, talk to your neighbors or your city councilperson.

To find out about residential businesses you are going to have to take a look at your town’s municipal code or talk to the city planning department. Municode is frequently available online but is quite dense and difficult to make sense of, especially since it tends to reference other bits of code by number that then in turn reference other bits of code. It can be frustrating.

For a multi-unit building to be built a bunch of conditions need to be met. First, there needs to be some kind of zoning that allows multi-unit development. This is another place where you’ll need to look at the municipal code. If it’s not online you’ll have to call the city planning office or the city clerk. You are looking for the zoning code or ordinance. Look for zones labeled Residential. Generally higher numbers are more dense. So if your city has zones labeled R-1 through R-4, R-4 will generally be the densest. Some places also have mixed used development zones that allow both residential and commercial

One you have a zone that allows multi-unit development the next condition is to have an area of your city that is zoned with that zone. Here it is helpful to be able to see a zoning map. Once again these are often available online, but if not, you’ll have to ask the planning department for one. A zoning map is a color coded map of a city (or county) with each zone marked by its own color. Related zones are generally marked in similar colors. So for example all the residential zones might be marked in different shades of yellow. Smaller towns tend to have fewer zones with less gradations than larger towns and cities.

Next you need someone willing to build a multi-unit building. This will generally be a private developer who expects to make money off of the project, but you might also see a non-profit focused on affordable housing in this role. Whoever the developer is they will have to get the project approved by the local planning process.  This might involve several public meetings where residents will have the opportunity to speak for or against the project, especially for large projects, or projects that are larger than standard in the community. It can be helpful for people to go and say they support the project.

If you are wanting to see more density and affordable housing in your small town it might also be worth looking into Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs as they are called in planner jargon, also know as in-law units or granny flats). These are small apartments built on the same lot as an existing single family home. They can be attached or detached — think backyard cabins. Allowing these types of units can create more density without changing how things look from the street.

Getting involved in your local planning process can be pretty time intensive, especially because it takes time to learn about all the issues, but I hope you can find a way to be take action. What gets built where is very important and will impact your community for years to come. Good Luck!

Hello and Welcome!

Recently political events have gotten many of people interested in being more involved in local politics. All this interest is great because the way US federalism works is that important decisions get made at the state, county and city levels. In the US we have very little centralized urban planning.That means that almost all decisions about the built environment are made at the city or county level. This isn’t ideal because a lot places (like the San Francisco Bay Area where I live) could use a more regional approach to planning, but it does mean that your one voice can be heard more clearly. So let’s talk about urban planning and why it matters.

Why planning matters

I know the subtitle of this blog says “urban planning” but planning is not just an urban issue.  Planning happens across many scales — from street corners to national parks. Planning shapes the built environment – it is about who can build what, where. This has lot of impact on daily life, from how easy it is to get around, to what kinds of buildings people live in and how close the nearest grocery store is.

Planning is an equity issue. The built environment is not apolitical nor race blind. People of color frequently live in worse environments and their communities are more likely to be disrupted by new developments. And of course the build environment directly impacts how people with disabilities can move around. There is a spate of new research on how eviction can reinforce cycles of poverty. All these issues making planning a key part of social justice movements.

Planning is also an environmental issue. Good urban planning makes cities more resource efficient, more pleasant to live in, and can preserve farmlands, wildlands and waterways. Urban density means more things are closer together so cities take up less land, and getting around them is faster and easier. Planning can also address clean water as cities have to manage storm runoff.

Planning is about our values. While we may not always think about it, what we build on the ground is the result of what we, as a society, are willing to spend money on and what types of issues we prioritize. The fact that we’ve spent a lot on highways and not a lot on mass transit says something about how we value different transit modes in the US. I want to help more people think about planning this way and work to make sure that what gets put on the ground reflects what they truly value.

I look forward to answering your questions and helping make your communities better. Email me at