Bus vs. Rail: Transit’s Quiet Culture Clash?

The question of running buses or building rail has preoccupied transit planners in many an American town, with Maryland’s Montgomery County being the latest locality to choose between trains and bus rapid transit (BRT), which tends to be the less expensive option.

brt_bogota_poster.jpgBogota’s Transmilenio BRT has won praise for its roomy coaches and well-designed stations. Photo: Aaron Naparstek

But another, far thornier aspect of the bus versus rail debate has made its way into the public dialogue, giving fodder to transit-minded bloggers from Matt Yglesias to Atrios: Is there a cultural bias against buses? The issue, fraught with social equity implications, made its way into a debate on conservatives and transit held yesterday by Transportation for America.

The debate focused largely on the themes of the book Moving Minds, in which co-authors Bill Lind and the late Paul Weyrich aim to convert their fellow conservatives into transit advocates. But Lind is also an unabashed critic of buses, which he believes are unappealing to average American travelers and impede the prospects for transit expansion.

"Most Americans like transit but don’t like riding buses," Lind said today, adding that "if you give them a bus, they drive," but rail would be a more preferable mode than the auto.

Sam Staley, the Reason Foundation director enlisted as the conservative transit skeptic for the debate, was put in the unlikely position of defending well-designed BRT’s ability to serve communities.

Depicting buses as second fiddles to rail is "underestimating the importance of the quality of service
provided," Staley said. Where rail is treated as superior, he added, often it is "doing a better job of getting point to point, and doing it faster,
than a bus," but well-funded bus systems "are doing a good job at competing."

For a more in-depth look at the bus-rail dichotomy, check out the Transportation Research Board’s recent paper on how the choice affects local transit goals.

  • I’m one of those people who prefer rail.

    My most immediate problem with buses is that they directly couple my body to a diesel engine. This aggravates my tinnitus — my ears rrriiinnnggg the whole time. A trip of more than an hour leaves me feeling drained for the rest of the day, and this was true before my hearing was damaged. Trains with diesel locomotives pass less of the vibration to passengers and are therefore much easier to take. Electrified rail is the best of all possible worlds. I’m not passing judgment on all-electric buses until I get a chance to try one. The hybrids are little better than pure diesel in terms of vibration and stress.

    My other concern is what happens to any form of rubber-tired, asphalt-dependent transportation when the rubber can no longer be imported and peak oil diminishes or eliminates the source of the asphalt. It astonishes me how routinely this concern is ignored, like the 10-ton gorilla in the room. Electrified rail is a better longterm investment: no rubber, no asphalt, the rails and carriages last a long time, and the necessary energy can be generated in many different ways, some of which are sustainable.

    That’s why I feel buses in general are a second best option, and BRT is at best a transitional stage, creating a right of way and station structure for its eventual replacement by surface rail. Of course it’s still a lot better than cars. For now.

  • Though I understand that it hurts to invest public money and make decisions to accommodate irrational cultural biases, I think that we really need to do just that if we are to shift the transportation paradigm in a more transit-oriented direction. My father, for example, lives in the urban core of Baltimore, MD, and ardently refuses to board a bus. When he visits me in Brooklyn, he is more than happy to ride the Subway. However, I have once suggested to him that we take a bus in NYC (as part of a sub-90-minute round-trip, taking advantage of the free subway-to-bus transfer) and he balked at my suggestion. Same city, same MTA, but the idea of a bus still disgusted him.

    Those of us who study trends in mass transit clearly understand the difference between traditional local bus service, and BRT. However, tell my dad that a new BRT line has opened in Baltimore, and he will hear, “there is a new bus line available.” He will get in his car. Tell him about a new rail line, be it heavy or light, however, and you may have just grabbed his attention.

    I believe that we need to invest in light rail at this stage of the game, and as people in other parts of the country get used to the idea of mass transit, begin to phase in BRT as the economics call for it. In cities such as New York which are already transit-oriented, I say bring on the BRT today!

  • Nate Briggs

    In Salt Lake City we now have both transporation methods, but light rail has many, many sincere supporters (including myself) whose enthusiasm does not extend to the bus.

    Putting the bus experience together – long waits at the bus stop, diesel engines revving, sudden acceleration, sudden decceleration, seeming to stop at every single traffic light, seats too close together – travel by bus is urban transportation for “losers”.

    Everything about the bus reminds you that you are a second class citizen. You have to accept what the bus offers because you don’t have a car.

    Nate (Salt Lake City)

  • east sider

    An American BRT system could overcome the bias against buses if it were really as nice as a rail system, as the world’s best BRT systems aspire to be. But it’s hard to imagine that ever happening here, because it’s too easy to compromise with a BRT system.

    Unless it operates in a physically separated, signal-prioritized lane for every inch of its route, and unless every single station is climate- and fare-controlled, and unless the vehicles don’t buzz or rattle, etc., any BRT system is going to feel to most riders like nothing more than a somewhat-less-crappy bus route. It would be possible to overcome these biases by building a truly world-class BRT system, but doing so would be so expensive that it would more or less defeat the point.

  • Ride a cross-town bus in Manhattan. Then ride the light rail in Zurich. You’ll quickly understand why people prefer rail over buses.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    I see the bus bias changing radically thanks to Megabus and Bolt with free wi-fi and cheap cheap prices. The older generation may be a lost cause but young riders see the bus as hip and the train as overpriced and stodgy. Can’t the local express buses introduce the wi-fi and add cup holders?

  • Zac

    You are all touching upon interesting differnces in the aspects of bus versus rail service. That said I think there are some cultural aspects of each that have nothing to do with waits in line, speed, comfort, etc. Rather they are tied to the history and development of “American Culture”.

    Buses still carry with them the historical stigma (which is taught in every classroom in the country) that there was a time where they themselves were the “vehicle of segregation.”

    Trains as a form of public transit were heralded as an egalitarian modern invention come the turn of the century. Dating before that during the days of the coal powered passenger and freight trains they were either viewed as 1) a way to keep farming economy viable by transporting goods faster, making them appealing or 2) a symbol of class and elegance (Pullman cars).

    Times have changed quite a bit, but if you were to read a third grade history text book it is quite clear that this country has much more positive associations with rail than with bus that are completely independent from the efficacy, comfort or actual experience of travelling by either method.

  • Check out the New York Times article about New York’s new turbine hybrid buses, which they say are almost completely quiet and also give you a ride that feels like you are in an electric vehicle. This could make BRT much more acceptable politically and much more appealing to the public.


  • east sider

    Zac’s point is interesting but incorrect.

    Trains were famously “vehicles of segregation” for many decades. Pullman trains notoriously had well-paid white conductors and poorly paid black porters. And the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld “separate but equal” laws, concerned racially segregated passenger trains.

    And as for the associations people form at a young age regarding trains versus buses, I don’t believe that they’re very independent from their “efficacy, comfort or actual experience.” My preschooler knows that trains are faster and more comfortable than buses, and he’s still a long way from third grade history.

  • Larry Littlefield

    People confuse two aspects of the transportation systems that could be segregated: the vehicle vs. the right of way vs. the propulsion system.

    A bus is a rubber tired vehicle with full directional flexibility. A railcar is a steel wheeled vehicle than can only run on rails.

    You have dedicated, grade separated rights of way and mixed street traffic. A rail car that runs in mixed street traffic is a street car. Give a bus a dedicated lane on a limited access highway (without taking it away) and you have the equivalent of commuter rail.

    There are plenty of diesel trains. With enough battery capacity, electric buses may become feasible; hybrid buses already are.

  • ‘”Most Americans like transit but don’t like riding buses,” Lind said today, adding that “if you give them a bus, they drive,” but rail would be a more preferable mode than the auto.”

    No. Put a bus and a train side by side and then you have an apt comparison. For example, in Boston, the B line runs parallel to the 57 bus for 2 miles. Guess which mode is faster? The bus! Now lets say there’s a mechanical problem. The entire train line gets shut down until it gets fixed, but buses can drive around the problem.

    The problem is, from the 1940 to the 1990s, american transit was in steep decline and the only thing left were buses. People associated bad transit with buses because the only transit left were buses, and that transit was bad! When comparing the bad transit (bus only) situation in a city like Dallas with the good transit that managed to survive in NYC, Boston, Chicago and Philly with their subways, of course the train was better. An american going to europe would be excited to ride the tram because they didnt have it at home. Theyd then come back with a favorable impression because transit in general is better in europe than in the US. The association was bus=bad, train=good when in reality the comparison was “badly funded american transit” bad and “well funded european transit” = good.

    When there is a fair comparison, that is, GOOD bus system and a GOOD rail system, then we can see what people prefer.

    Someone above mentioned Zurich. Well, downtown Geneva has more trolley buses than trams. They use electric bi-articulated buses.

  • JK

    Let’s not forget that buses already carry 2/3rds of transit riders nationally. Many of those transit riders are facing fare hikes and service cuts. Transit dollars are scarce, and the decision on how to spend them involves trade offs. The problem with advocating for capital intensive light rail and commuter rail is that new transit is typically built to please affluent suburbanites or affluent urban neighborhoods. Rarely is LRT or BRT built as an “upgrade” of a heavily used bus line. (NYC gets credit for “upgrading.”)Nationally, the rationale for building new transit is usually to shift motorists to transit, not to provide better service to current riders, or more capacity on current routes. The racial politics are fairly obvious and in part speak to the failure of congressional social justice caucuses to see public transit as a crucial service for their constituents.

  • Doug Irvine

    I believe there is a stigma to riding the bus. Separately, I heard someone say once that, “Development follows rail whereas buses follow development.”

    What that means to me is that although the initial investment of rail is higher, it will pay off later in economic terms through commerce attracted to the stations.

    Buses, on the other hand, don’t have the same effect on improving land use (higher densities) which is the biggest root problem we have.

  • Giffen

    “Everything about the bus reminds you that you are a second class citizen.”

    In this country, **** yes. In Western Europe, no.



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