mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Going Off the Rails
Is “Busophobia” Bankrupting America’s Cities?

Urban planners seem to have fetishized public rail projects, but time after time we see that these expensive networks require years of construction, almost always run over budget, and in many cases are obsolete by the time they’re completed. Buses on the other hand shuttle people from one location to another, but with a lot more flexibility, and depending on circumstances, also more cheaply and efficiently. So why aren’t cities buying cheap and efficient buses instead of expensive trains? According to the NYT, public perception of those options could have a lot to do with that:

What if transit agencies spent just a fraction of what it costs to lay new rails to spruce up the buses and tell riders they’re faster than they realize?

[A] 2009 transit report gives reason to believe it’s possible. The researchers conducted focus groups with “choice riders” in Los Angeles: people who have cars but sometimes use transit. These riders had an unsurprising preference for trains.

“Riding the bus carries a ‘shame factor,’ ” the researchers found. “Most of the choice riders would not consider using it, or if they did, they would feel ashamed and keep it a secret.”

But what the local transit agency marketed as the “Orange Line” — really just a bus route in the San Fernando Valley with high frequencies on a dedicated right of way — managed to gain acceptance among “choice riders.”

Bus shame can be overcome; all kinds of fashionable New Yorkers ride out to the Hamptons on the various “jitneys” and “luxury liners” that to the naked eye look an awful lot like buses. But it’s important to understand that the train craze sweeping through the Obama administration, the ‘new urbanist’ movement and conventional green circles is more a fad grounded in irrational prejudices than a revolution in urban living.

In fact, if planners were really concerned about designing efficient systems, they’d be taking the advent of the internet more into account. Remote working and the demise of the big box store at the hands of the Amazons of the world both have profound implications for how people move. Understanding how the country’s transit needs are changing and, often, shrinking, would allow smarter planning for cheaper and more efficient mass transit options. Policies that encourage these trends could help reduce peak load and prevent immense government investments in unneeded infrastructure.

In the meantime, smart state and local governments should be looking at rail projects with more skeptical eyes. Transit needs are likely to shift quite rapidly as shoppers avoid malls and more office workers spend more time at home. Against a background of rapid and unpredictable change, it is much more sensible to avoid long term projects that require heavy capital expenditure. It costs much less to open a new bus route than to build a trolley line — and when traffic patterns change you can change your bus routes a lot more easily than you can move train tracks.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Curious Mayhem

    Is is just me, or has anyone else noticed this ugly fact about the Boomers, especially in late middle age: they’re obsessed with fixed ideas and kooky causes, even in the face of clear facts to the contrary.

    This need for causes — like pushing rail that no one rides over buses or cars, which people do ride — is the political tic of the whole generation. Ultimately, it drives the real craving of the Boomers, their need to prove how morally and intellectually superior they are. In fact, they’re not superior to anyone. But they are history’s most self-absorbed and narcissistic — read grandiose and entitled — generation.

  • wigwag

    As any New Yorker can tell you, our subway system is great while our bus system is a disaster. It’s got nothing to do with shame. It’s the fact that buses are subject to rush hour traffic even if part of route traverses a right of way. There’s also the issue if weather. If it’s 10 degrees out or 95 degrees it’s more pleasant to wait underground where you are at least somewhat protected from the weather.

    People don’t takes buses for a good reason; they are a terrible way to travel.

  • Kevin

    I suspect it is precisely the low capital costs and ability to change quickly that undermines support for buses. The lack of massive capital outlays means there is less support from construction business and union interests. Buses also leave behind much less of a prestige legacy for the politicians who created or expanded their routes. The ability to shift them around in response to changing traffic patterns is actually a drawback for property owners – when there’s a nearby rail stop owners and buyers of property can be sure they will be connected in the future – bus routes and stops can and do change. Environmentally rail looks cleaner – everyone who has ever been behind a diesel bus accelerating remembers the cloud of pollutants it emits. This of course does not mean that rail is better overall- just tat it has some appeal to influential decision makers.

    • Curious Mayhem

      All excellent points. And diesel engines today are not your father’s diesels. They’re cleaner and more efficient than internal combustion. The large buses are, more and more, powered by natural gas, which is even better.

      As we struggle with this in New England, a popular alternative is flexible fleets of smaller buses. They’re even working on apps for them. The regional commuter rail systems also have a legitimate role, but they are hampered by high and growing pension costs that prevent them from spending enough on capital and operations. And we’re now learning that fleets of smaller buses are more flexible in big snowstorms, which have become more common in the last five years.

  • Fat_Man

    I recall reading an article by an economist postulating that the fixed nature of a rail project is a bond given to developers, merchants, and other commercial interests, that the city will maintain transit services in that area. The city’s commitment encourages the commercial interests to commit their capital to the area.

    Bus lines are an involvement, not a commitment. In a plate of ham and eggs, the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed.

    I though the article was by Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, but I couldn’t find it. But, it might have been some other economics writer.

    • Fat_Man

      Whilst searching for that article — no luck — I found this, which is of relevance to the discussion:

      “”U.S. Taxpayers Are Gouged on Mass Transit Costs” Aug 26, 2012

      “Tunneling in any dense urban environment is an expensive proposition, but the $5 billion price tag for just the first two miles of the Second Avenue subway cannot be explained by engineering difficulties. … American taxpayers will shell out many times what their counterparts in developed cities in Europe and Asia would pay.”

      “Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.”

      “… the U.S. legal system is an obstacle to designing and building affordable infrastructure. … judges in New York routinely side with contractors in disputes with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.”

      “The MTA must continue to award contracts to the lowest-price bidder, and without the ability to hold bad contractors accountable, Littlefield said, the agency turns to “writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past.” The byzantine contracts that come out of this process drive entrants away, limiting competition and pushing up costs.”

  • CaliforniaStark

    Am not seeing a point to discuss the relative merits of two 19th century modes of transportation. The advent of self-driving vehicles is going to revolutionize transportation. You will be able to call and schedule a self-driving vehicle that will pick you up at your current location, and take you directly to your destination. The trip will take about the same time as driving by private automobile, and you will not need to find parking. The self-driving vehicle goes back to its garage (which may be a large silo with car elevators like those that presently exist in Europe). By contrast, a bus trip, with transfers, may take several hours for a trip that a driver in a private vehicle can make in less than a half hour.

    Agree with the comment by wigwag – the reason people don’t take buses is because “they are a terrible way to travel.” The article’s attempt to equate a “gucci” charter bus to the Hamptons with a metropolitan transit bus is laughable. How many more millions of dollars of taxpayers money are going to be spent on psychologically-based “learn to love your bus” campaigns?

    It was recently publicized that Apple is developing a self-driving vehicle; at this point most major automobile makers are exploring the technology, which Google has helped pioneer. Am expecting to see self-driving vehicles on the road within the next decade. Perhaps Governor Moonbeam of California will arrive in one when he cuts the ribbon for his multi-billion dollar bullet train from Fresno to Corcoran; although arriving in an Edsel would be more appropriate.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service