Buses vs. Rail: Conservatives Do Battle Over Which Mode is Better

Bill Lind is a big man. The director of the Center for Public Transportation at American Conservative stands well over six feet tall, and when he really gets going, he seems to loom even larger. Maybe that’s why he hates buses so much. “Those seats are designed for garden gnomes,” he said.

Gabe Roth, left, and Bill Lind battle out the bus vs. rail question at yesterday's roundtable. Photo courtesy of the Mobility Choice Coalition

A roundtable discussion yesterday sponsored by the Mobility Choice Coalition on ways to make public transportation align with principles of fiscal conservatism quickly morphed into an all-out brawl over buses vs. rail.

Lind is a rail guy. “Most Americans will not ride a bus if they can drive,” he said. “Buses carry primarily transit dependents.”

When others tried to “defend the honor” of buses, Lind stepped up his rhetoric, first declaring, “buses have no honor!” and then this stunner: “Live like a roach, ride a motorcoach.”

That was more than enough to raise the hackles of Daniel Hoff: “The American Bus Association represents those roaches.” He said bus riders in the Northeast Corridor make over $60,000 a year. And modern intercity bus service is clean and comfortable and has wi-fi.

Lind acknowledges that it’s the urban transit buses, not the intercity coaches, that he’s calling “rolling torture racks.” But still, he says, middle class people want to ride trains and streetcars, not buses. “Basic fact of life,” Lind said. “You can call it rational or irrational – it’s a mixture of both – but it’s a basic fact of life.” He said the user experience of buses just isn’t pleasurable enough to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

He chalks it up to “the stink factor.”

“Somebody gets on who hasn’t bathed for three months,” Lind said. “If this happens on the train, you can get up and move to another car. On the bus, you’re breathing it for three hours.”

Train travel, Lind said, is travel. Buses make you feel like you’re being packaged and shipped.

“Why should we subsidize snobbery?” asked Ed Braddy of the American Dream Coalition, who earlier had made it clear that he thinks cars are next to godliness. “If people are too good to take a bus, why should we subsidize that?”

In a conversation about how to make transit less dependent on public subsidies, intercity buses come out head and shoulders above rail. Much of the intercity bus market is entirely private, requiring no public money at all (except, of course, for the massive public subsidies that go to the construction of the highways they ride on.)

“Fine, lets go to ox-carts,” Lind said. “They’re even cheaper than buses.” And he contends that urban buses aren’t as easy on the public purse as their intercity counterparts. The average urban rail transit system covers just over 50 percent of their operating costs from user fees – “same as highways,” Lind said. But urban bus fares cover only 25 percent of their operating costs, on average.

Plus, Lind said, “Rail transit, but not buses, has a tremendous effect on development.” That’s a large factor in the appeal of streetcars: permanent, fixed lines reassure businesses that transit will be there for a while, whereas a bus route can change overnight, leaving that commercial corridor unserved.

Lind met his match in the form of Gabe Roth, a conservative transportation economist from the Independent Institute.

“We love train travel but not the costs,” Roth said. The cheapest Amtrak fare from Washington, D.C. to New York that he could find on a given day was $76 one way; $139 for a higher-speed Acela. But there are multiple bus companies competing to give you a seat for under $20 – and without a public subsidy.

Part of the problem, Roth contends, is that there’s not enough competition in rail. Railroads don’t carry competing rail companies’ trains, whereas highways don’t pick favorites among bus carriers.

But more importantly, Roth said, rail requires its own dedicated right of way and can’t be packed as full as a freeway. “A high-speed train requires miles of empty track in front of it because a steel wheel on a steel rail cannot stop quickly,” he said. “But you can have buses every 10 seconds on the road and you would not think that road is over-crowded.”

Even Lind acknowledges that “high-speed rail is killing us.” It’s “icing without a cake,” he said. “What we need is a much denser network of intercity buses and passenger trains so you can go from anywhere in America to anywhere else in America without flying, without driving, where the buses feed the trains.”

“Buses have to be more than just a feeder network to a rail vision that’s 20 to 50 years and hundreds of billions of dollars away,” said Hoff of the ABA.

Anne Canby of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership took some of the heatedness out of the debate with these words of wisdom: “There are very different markets. I have a grandchild who takes the bus wherever she goes. I take the train.”

Both/and, not either/or. Now, people, was that so hard?