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 ##http://www.mobilitychoice.org/##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?

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

  1. It’s refreshing to at least hear honest debate rather than the pre-conceived established biases for or against different modes of transit. I commend Mr. Lind for accurately portraying the highway subsidy as roughly equivalent to the train/transit subsidy. I also believe that when conservatives acknowledge the important development benefits of transit, our debate will become much more civil and economically based, rather than the emotional and biased conversation to which we have become accustomed.

  2. it’s dishonest for anyone to refer to private bus companies operating ‘without subsidy’ on publicly-financed streets/roads/highways/freeways/bridges/tunnels/etc.

    there’s one way to clear up the confusion, however — nationalize all the rail lines in the country — easy, simple. then we can allow private operators to use the rail lines for free, just like they do the highways.

    other than that, Lind has it exactly right — city buses are an abomination, and BRT is just a way to keep people in their cars, as can be seen in all the developing nations like China, India, and elsewhere — BRT adopting skyrocketing, which is why automobile adoption is skyrocketing — if people don’t have a dignified way to get around via public transit, they’ll just buy a car — this is why Volvo, Shell, and others fund BRT ‘think tanks’ like TheCityFix to the tune of millions of dollars.

  3. buses vs. trains is a false choice. clearly, the people deserve to have both, and whether the one is better than the other depends on the situation.

    buses are cheaper, and they are more flexible. there are places in America, where in the absence of a Japan-sized investment in rail (or even a Japanese private railway company), buses are going to be all that we can afford.

    on the other hand, there’s no doubt in my mind that trains are generally preferred over buses whenever and wherever possible. the capacity is higher, and the permanent rail structures make for excellent centers around which development can be guided.

    I would also add that there is a huge difference between an intercity bus and a transit bus (although in some cases, such as airport express buses, the line gets blurred), and discussions like these really need to make it clear which is being considered.

  4. Bus or train is a choice sometimes. Take the Los Angeles Orange Line, destined to be light rail, ended up as a bus in dedicated lanes, now we are scrambling to figure out how to convert it to light rail to deal with overcrowding.

    Buses and trains have their place. Trains accelerate faster. They have greater capacity. They have a higher quality of ride. They are more expensive. They are less flexible. They are usually quicker (in other countries).

    Buses can connect to train routes or do heavy duty things in their own right. A good bus system will have a mix of services to attract all types of riders. Local bus routes attract grandma and those who are traveling only a few stops. Rapid bus routes help riders get across a city or two. Express routes serve commuters whose routes don’t justify train service.

    The biggest complaint is that the bus is slow. Speed it up by instituting proof of payment, ticket machines, boarding through all two or three doors, bus lanes, dedicated right of way or some combination of those. Just don’t build BRT on a route that should be rail.

  5. ““But you can have buses every 10 seconds on the road and you would not think that road is over-crowded.””

    A bus every ten seconds, each with their own union driver. Talk about expense!

    If you needed 10 second headways on a route, you’d want to lay down from goddamn rail for Christ’s sake.

    “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.”

    Amtrak in the Northeast breaks even. Both services enjoy a capital subsidy. I’m not sure how much the intercity bus contributes to road maintenance.

  6. Regarding available funding, the USofA is building something which will carry a few thousand men and womem around at a good clip: new aircraft carriers – the Gerald R. Ford class – at about 10 billion dollars a pop! 10 billion would buy about 4 to 5000 light rail vehicles. Insert your favourite choir singing “Just sayin’!” over and over. Silly “Americans”!

  7. Disagree with this: 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,”

    60-person buses every ten seconds on a freeway lane: 21600 people/hour.

    1000-person high-speed trains every five minutes: 12000 people/hour.

    OK, the buses win by a fair bit. But it’s comparable. And when you consider the cost of drivers, comfort, speed, environmental impact, and all the other variables, it’s not clear to me that a lane full of buses is at all better.

  8. “60-person buses every ten seconds on a freeway lane: 21600 people/hour.

    1000-person high-speed trains every five minutes: 12000 people/hour.”

    Yeah, and compare those numbers to “1.5 person cars every 2 on a 4-lane-wide freeway”: 10,800 per hour. Yep, a single set of rails, with a train every 5 minutes, is equal to the max capacity of a 4-lane-each-way (8-lane) freeway. Even if you make one of those lanes for carpools you won’t get to the capacity of the train route.

    And if we are talking about regional rail services, trains can easily run every 2 minutes on one track, even if they share stations, which gets you up to 30,000 people per hour per direction, better than even a 60-person bus (double-long, or crush loaded?) every 10 seconds. That’s why rail is the choice for very high capacity routes, and why it is so silly to keep widening freeways from 8 to 10 lanes in urban areas

  9. Full disclosure: I’m a card-carrying railway enthusiast. I love everything on rails, from the Douglas Horse Tramway to 4400-hp American diesel locomotives. So it is that when I have a chance, I speak up for rail improvements and additions. But I also have to tell the story of the Pacific Electric Ry. line that went past my house when I was a boy. I was very sad when it was abandoned and dismantled in 1951. Years later, I heard the story of a well-to-do businessman who lived in San Marino (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Almost every morning he’d walk down to Huntington Dr. and catch the PE Red Car to downtown for a day of business. On some occasions, he would take his car (probably Buick or Packard), but usually he’d rely on the PE. One morning in October 1951, he picked up his briefcase and headed for the garage. His wife commented “Oh, you’re using the car today.” “Yes,” he said, “The Red Cars aren’t running anymore.” And his wife replied, “I read about that in the paper. They’re running buses along Huntington now. Couldn’t you take the bus?” “Certainly not! Buses are for poor people!” This was 60 years ago, but the stigma of buses (a.k.a. “loser cruisers”) is still present. It may not be logical, but it’s real. That said, when my daughters were young, there was a period when I would take them on the local bus (no rail service left in Southern Calif. by then). They thought it was an adventure, and I saw no shame in riding the motor coach. But if the decision of rail or bus is even close, count me in for trains every time.

  10. Um – how do you stop and unload those buses “every 10 seconds” – and, of course that is 360 bus drivers you need to be paying… No, when you think of an actual system that can actually work in the real world you will see that HSR has significantly higher capacity than any intercity bus service. You could really run trains every 5 minutes. Buses? Never ever seen it.

  11. @egk,

    In Colombia, there are some very busy busways where the stations are extra-long, to allow several buses to be stopped at each station at once. Of course, they need at least two lanes each direction at each station, to let buses pass each other, and often the busway is 4 lanes wide (2 each way) for the whole length. So, they get almost a bus every 10 seconds at some places, but not at every station or in each lane. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_rapid_transit

    In New York, the Lincoln Tunnel has a rush-hour bus-only lane which carries 10,000 people per hour, or about a bus every 10 seconds, but there are no stops along the tunnel, and there is an enormous station (the Port Authority bus terminal) at the other end, to handle all those buses. At the other end buses converge from many different places in New Jersey.

    So yeah, 60 person “bus every 10 seconds” is not equivalent to 1000 person “train every 5 minutes”; it should be compared to a 1000 person train every minute on a single track for commuter service, or every 30 seconds on 2 tracks each way, which allows over 120,000 people to travel in the same direction at the peak hour, 10 times as many as even the best bus lane.

  12. I hate Gabe Roth with a passion, but now I feel bad, because the picture he uses on blog posts has him looking 20 years younger. The reason I hate him, he opposes CAFE fuel standards because according to him they lead to production of smaller cars which are more dangerous. Ah yes the arms theory of individual automotive safety. Yes as long as I can buy a bigger and bigger car to keep my family safe to hell with anyone I run into on the roadways. Nice thinking there Gabe!

  13. BUS-BUS-BUS.

    Counting only scheduled intercity bus service, buses move about 2.5 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak. Roads don’t have to be a waste of energy, we can get some of it back…


    If I wanted to go from Baltimore to Boston for instance……I’ve checked Amtrak fares; the lowest price I managed to find while looking was 68 dollars [for the ”Northeast Regional”; a non high-speed rail route]. The Acela’s price was typically always 90 dollars or more for one ticket. 60 bucks will get me ten Megabus seats. So you’d pay 90-300 dollars on Amtrak tickets, when you could buy busfare with pocket change? However if time was really a priority, you’d probably just fly there. Amtrak has only 24 departures per day where as individual bus companies have over a hundred. Overall the Acela really doesn’t go that fast and has to slow down often due to noise complaints in neighborhoods or gradients to deal with or quality of rail track. The ”Northeast Regional” may be slower but its cheaper, has more stops and is more widely used than Acela. Anything overall you do with trains you can do easily with buses. Whether it’s light-rail, high-speed rail, low-speed rail, commuter rail, heavy rail, monorail, streetcars or maglevs. Acela is one of the few profitable Amtrak routes. And despite the billions they’ve already spent, Amtrak only managed to capture less than six percent of the travel market in the Northeast. That’s the best they could do. Still they wanna build high-speed rail everywhere. And in California and Florida or other places it may only capture less than one percent of the travel market or even half a percent. If Amtrak is gonna have trains zipping along the rails at 150 mph or more, they are gonna have to build brand new tracks…..from scratch at an enormous cost. And the energy their supposed to save is marginal to the enormous amount of energy spent building new infrastructure. Even before it pays off, they forget the rails are gonna need constant maintenance and further significant amounts of energy will be spent maintaining and rebuilding every 10 years or so to keep it moving so fast. Buses are far, far more flexible. Bus routes can be re-routed to accommodate where people live and work (several bus rapid transit systems exist to take tens of thousands of people per hour) Trains can’t, there built as extremely rigid models; declines only adapt by raising fares and their not going to skip a station even if it has no passengers. Your just better off as a community or town not building trains by not having to spend millions or billions of dollars and going heavily into debt when you only have to spend millions of dollar or couple of hundred-thousand dollars on buses. In California, they announced a project to start a bus-rapid transit service from Santa Clara to Alum Rock. This was originally supposed to be a light-rail line projected to cost nearly $400 million. As bus-rapid transit, it will cost only $128 million. The light-rail line would not open until 2021; BRT will begin early 2012 so buses have far faster operational deployment. Light rail would operate every 15 minutes; BRT every six. BRT was also projected to attract nearly three times as many riders at a far lower operating cost than light rail. Rail requires a NASA inspired control room with monitors and equipment. Even the most rural town can run a bus operation and do it with just a few buses, some drivers, some walkie talkies and a lot of coffee. BRT systems are still a little pricey….simply having ordinary buses even through traffic is more than enough to provide cheap frequent service on a daily basis. Only really high density regions really need articulated or double deck buses and stuff like that.

    Now there are thousands of transit agencies all over the country, most of which consist of bus lines. And transit agencies have this sort of, inferiority complex. [”I’m not much of a transit agency if I don’t have a train at my disposal”], so they rise to the challenge and begin programs to compete for federal money to build trains. The only challenge really is stigma….Now some are saying “I’m not gonna be caught dead riding a bus” but is it really important that we provide an extremely expensive subsidized transportation option for snobs.

  14. I’ll keep this short and sweet. EXPAND PASSENGER RAIL.

    There is a huge potential for passenger rail in the US and lets face it, the people who chose buses over conventional rail solely based on price are those who are ‘transit dependent.’ Increased speeds, reliability and more frequencies attract a completely different crowd when it comes to rail. Look at Acela ridership for example. I don’t have money, time or patience to continue driving my car at ever increasing gas prices and flying is a failing industry I don’t trust anyway.. If I can get where I need to be by rail safely, comfortably and fast there is no doubt I, along with many others who desire efficient, modern transportation (aka ‘snobs’), will ride.

    We need a modern multimodal system in this country. The argument for rail or bus is obsurd. We need BOTH and the gov’t is the only one with the upfront capital to make it happen.


  15. We don’t need so much rail. The average transit vehicle’s capacity in America is no more than 1/6th to 1/8th full. So if your driving around in a five passenger car/SUV with one person in it, remember your car has a higher occupancy efficiency than the average transit vehicle. Add another passenger and it’s increases efficient. So don’t feel guilty just because you drive a car on a daily basis.

    In Portland, Oregon they built four light-rail lines and one streetcar line since the 1980’s. Before light-rail, about ten percent of Portland area commuters and residents used transit (in the form of buses) to get around. Now it’s below eight percent. Despite the cities population increase, the number of new drivers outweighs the number of new transit riders. When they built light-rail, they encountered cost overruns (typical with nearly any transit project) so the took money from their bus operations to raise the extra capital needed and they lost a lot of riders. A lot of angry very spiteful riders. So now we have a heavily shrunk bus system and some very bitter former riders and a light-rail system that with longer lag times than the buses.

    Overall, rail has a highly rigid model for transport. Operating on a network of permanent stations that takes people where its routed. And they’ll take you to a specific location; a convention center, business district, a office park, a residential housing project or a tourist attraction. But what if something is demolished? Having a station to go to nothing seems rather wasteful. In Portland, Oregon one of their light-rail stations had no development at one of it’s stations for nearly ten years. Eventually they built an IKEA and a Best Buy, but their was little business because they had no parking. They did have a parking lot but it was for the park and ride crowd, not the shoppers. So I can just imagine people using the rail to take home their newly purchased 400 pounds of plywood furniture or biking home with it.

    Portland’s Hawthorne area for example is a typical traditional urban area. With pedestrian streets and storefronts. Yet this area is jammed with cars at all times of the day, with good reason. First, the shops that local people can walk to could not survive if they relied exclusively on foot traffic. Instead, they draw people from all over the city; people who drive. People who live in the neighborhood all have cars because they can’t do all of their shopping in Hawthorne, they too need cars to get to typical, inexpensive grocery stores and dollar stores or wherever. These problems would also be true of an suburban town center. You’d be surprised how many people work in places when they’re not even patrons.

    Once you build rail your stuck with it indefinitely. After 20-30 years, the few people that still use it are gonna form a lobby. Demanding the rail be maintained and forcing the taxpayers to take in more debt. Maybe even expand it to, at best pick up a few hundred additional passengers a day.

    So maybe rail won’t work in your little town. But what about New York or Chicago? Well, the New York City subway is the most cost efficient transit system in the country. Still….it’s very costly. Their agencies is always on the verge of some fiscal turmoil or some scandal. They have ignored maintenance issues in favor of expanding lines under the belief they’ll draw in more riders and fares. A agency employee (before he was fired for leaking information) has said ”We will never have enough money”, ”No matter how much you give us it’ll never be enough”. Because every time you give them more money, they just go out and build more. Same is true for Washington’s Metrorail. One of the reasons nine people died in the Red Line accident, because they don’t have the financial means to upgrade or repair system as is, but their appropriating funds to build a new Silver Line.

  16. Buses or trains? Or cars on congested highways?


    Telecommute. Or live close to work and walk or bicycle to work.

    Do NOT waste your life commuting. We have too many roads, too many motor vehicles, too much smog, too many crashes, too much pavement. We have not enough trees, not enough parks, not enough exercise, not enough fresh air, not enough wildlife. Tune in, turn on, and drop out of the commuting rat race. That era has ended.

  17. I ride passenger rail in Portland whenever it suits my needs. It is easier and much more enjoyable than freeway driving, keeps miles off our car, and I can ride a bike to it and take it on with me. The Max (system’s name) cars are packed like freakin’ sardine cans at peak hours and NEVER run nearly empty. Unless you have some myopic and pathological hatred of mass transit, you have to view the Max system as at least modestly successful. It doesn’t hurt that the same agency, Tri Met, runs a reasonable bus system that connects well to it, too.

  18. Amen–I say this as a sometimes user of the Amtrak Cascade which is a great alternative to driving the open-air psych ward of Interstate 5.

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