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.