October 1, 2015 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

The Atlantic’s publication, CityLab, has published a number of sound, thought-provoking pieces. Perhaps man’s inherent fallibility dictated they would eventually get something spectacularly wrong. In any case, they did, specifically Eric Jaffe’s February 23rd article, “The Myth that Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses.”

The errors begin with the title. Anyone who knows transit knows that the transit-dependent often prefer buses to trains, not on an individual ride basis but on a system basis. Why? Because buses running on “free” city streets (paid for by the tooth fairy presumably) can offer a denser network of service in urban areas than can light rail or streetcars whose dedicated rights-of-way are expensive to build. At one time streetcars did offer a service network as dense as buses, but so long as we insist on paying more than necessary to build new streetcar lines, restoring that network is unaffordable.

People who are transit dependent want a dense service network because it reduces the distance they must walk from home to a transit stop and from a transit stop to wherever they are going. So buses usually serve them better than trains, and many of them know that. “Advocates” for the poor (many of them well-paid) now often oppose new rail transit lines and demand more money be spent on the bus system instead. They are reflecting the interests of their constituents.

The supposed ‘myth” Jaffe attempts to discredit is that middle-class transit riders from choice prefer rail to bus. Only it’s no myth: they do. Jaffe’s article provides yet more data, buttressing that from many ridership surveys, proving the point. He writes of a study that surveyed 1,370 people in six Australian capital cities.

For the study, [the authors] gave survey respondents the two images above (modern light rail and modern busway in identical settings), plus two others whose only difference was older-looking vehicle styles (one bus and one train), and asked them to rank the four images in terms of “which one would you like to travel in most.” They found that 55 percent chose the modern light rail image, and another 18 percent chose the older light rail. Only about 17 percent chose the modern BRT. Just 10 percent chose the classic old bus.

Jaffe goes on to argue, as a number of other articles and studies have done, that this preference is irrational. It is not. People are not idiots. They are correct that for riders from choice, rail transit is the superior product. The same is true from the standpoint of the transit system. Rail is superior both ways in serving riders from choice. Jaffe’s statement that “advanced bus systems can perform as well or better than streetcar or light rail systems for less money” is false.

If we compare modern light rail with the modern busway, we find that light rail vehicles offer better ride quality, less energy consumption (you can’t beat steel wheel on steel rail), and most important to riders from choice who have comfortable cars, more space per passenger. The latter advantage is one buses cannot match. Why? Because you can add capacity to a train by adding more cars, each added cars offering comfortable seating. Buses cannot run in trains. They have a fixed ratio of operators to passenger space. That leads bus systems to cram in both seats and standees, making the trip uncomfortable.

Ironically, the two illustrations Jaffe offers upfront in his article, showing bus on busway and light rail in identical settings, illustrate this difference clearly, though Jaffe misses it. I recommend you go to CityLab and take a look at them. What big difference will you see? The light rail train is longer, which means it can offer more space per passenger. Yet like the bus, that longer train has just one operator.

This is why light rail is preferable from the standpoint not only of the passenger but the transit system. The biggest item in any transit budget is labor. Rail can carry a much larger number of passengers, in greater comfort, than bus per operator. So while Jaffe claims bus on busway is cheaper than light rail, that is only marginally true for construction costs (the difference thus shrinks dramatically when fully grade separated construction costs are added in). Light rail’s operating costs are significantly less, primarily because it uses labor more efficiently.

The labor inefficiency of bus on busway is so great that busways put themselves out of business by succeeding. When their ridership reaches a certain level, both operating costs and capacity issues compel the busway’s conversion to light rail. Jaffe cites as a success Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway. In fact, it now faces conversion to light rail because it is too many riders. [Ed. note- see “California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit”] Busways only work for a narrow spectrum of ridership levels. And no, busways in South America that carry large numbers of people do not disprove the point, because South American labor is cheap. North American labor is not. And most of the people on those South American busways are transit dependents, not riders from choice. They accept uncomfortable travel because they have to.

In the real world, bus systems best serve transit dependents and rail best serves riders from choice, who demand more than a qualitatively minimal product. Trying to bridge the difference with bus on busway falls flat, because the service quality is not equal to rail and the operating costs make it uneconomical beyond a certain ridership level. It turns out all those stupid people who prefer rail to bus aren’t so stupid.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation



  1. Claude says:

    I remember this article. The key point I remember is that the survey was done in cities that had both rail and BRT, so the people responding actually had experience with both and knew what they were talking about.
    In my own personal example, when I travel by air I carry my bag the 4 miles across El Cajon to the San Diego Trolley stop rather than take the bus. I like the trolley, but an hour walk is preferable to being in the bus.

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