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.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

Transit Vote 2016: What’s at Stake on Local Ballots and How to Track Results

|
With federal transportation policy stuck in DC gridlock, more cities and regions are taking it upon themselves to shape the future of their transit systems. Today there are 78 local ballot measures that will affect funding for transportation in some way, with $200 billion in transit investment at stake, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence. Since 2000, 71 […]
STREETSBLOG USA

New Evidence That Bus Rapid Transit Done Right Spurs Development

|
More American cities are considering bus rapid transit, or BRT, as a cost-effective method to expand and improve transit. One of the knocks against BRT, as opposed to rail, is that it supposedly doesn’t affect development patterns. But a new study [PDF] by Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Arizona and released by Transportation for America finds that BRT lines can indeed […]