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: Streetfilms)

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.

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.

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
than a bus," but well-funded bus systems "are doing a good job at

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.

  • Robo

    Most Americans have never experienced a true BRT system. Once aboard, they will notice little difference between BRT trains and LRV, except that BRT tends to be quieter and smoother than metal-rail vehicles.
    Another advantage to bicyclists in particular is the lack of dangerous tracks.
    Once we have more BRT experience, Americans will embrace the service with an equal fervor that they have for LRV. It’s just a process of educating the BRT naive.
    BRT has more in common with an efficient LRV (sad,y, we don’t have any of those in SF, BTW) than common buses.

  • For a summary of this issue from a transit planner’s perspective, see here: http://www.humantransit.org/2009/12/bus-vs-rail-an-oversimplified-comparison.html

  • zsolt

    Bus != BRT. Bus is here to stay and real, BRT is a future still theoretical possibility, the implementation of which varies from place to place and could, in some cities, well turn out to fall short of expectations.

    In that sense, dismissing complaints about buses with “BRT is nice”is not really useful. That’s like saying “if you’d know how nice it is to fly business class, you wouldn’t complain about flying economy”.

    Much as I am a transit advocate, I can’t dismiss the reality that buses, as in San Francisco, are miserable, slow, dirty and foul things. Period. Paragraph.


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