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 today 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.

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  • Patrick

    Elitism aside, I can think of one big reason why a train is preferable to a bus. The train is on it’s own infrastructure (track) which is completely independent of traffic. Traffic is erratic and unpredictable.

    It doesn’t matter if I’m in the world’s fanciest bus, a beater car or a Hummer, they all are subject to the same traffic.

    It’s sort of like flying first class on an airplane…first class passengers don’t get there any faster or at all, although they’ll be more comfortable during the delay.

    Other reasons to prefer train travel: more room, the ability to move to another car, eating on board, smoother trip with fewer stops, faster on certain routes.

  • Matt Fisher

    As a resident of Ottawa, mentioned as the supposed model for BRT, I question it, but I am also against “mode wars” between bus and rail. Ottawa’s Transitway is a success, but BRT is not as good as rail.

    I also have a letter published in last Thursday’s edition of the Ottawa Citizen. I referred to that Curitiba is planning to replace BRT with a subway.

    Why should we keep bringing up Bogota, anyway? Ottawa is not the “Bogota of the North”.

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