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Why Trains Shouldn't Be Better Than Buses

And why, in America, it probably doesn't even matter.


From the age of 14 onward, I made consistent use of public buses to get from my hometown just over the northeastern border in Prince George’s County, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. Once in the city, though, I mostly used trains. I found comfort in the stations: You would wait with other passengers, helpful signage let you know when the next subway would arrive, and the rail maps were easy to read and digest. The trips were wonderfully fast. With bus stops, you’d be lucky to get a roof to cower under. The maps and timetables, those that weren’t weather-beaten into illegibility, seemed to be written in some cabalistic language indecipherable to those not already in the know. I understood my hometown routes, but the rest of the Metro buses were a mystery.

I’ve now lived in Philadelphia long enough to master a few bus routes through my neighborhood, but when I have the choice I pick rail. According to Bill Lind, conservative transit activist and rail booster, my preference is just The Way Things Are. Middle-class people, in his conception, will largely reject bus transit, which merely serves poor people: “Live like a roach, ride a motorcoach.” That’s an inflammatory way to sum up one side of an utterly skewed debate: Trains are better than buses because people think they are.

It’s a perception that’s hardened into an uncomfortable reality, one that has turned public transportation into a class and racial divider. But, really, why should a train be any better than a bus? And in a context of sweeping austerity, will the debate be decided by political exigencies instead of rational policy choices?

SOURCES BOTH ANECDOTAL AND scholarly seem to prove that the bias against buses is widely shared. Consider the Urban Dictionary entry for one of my favorite slang terms for the bus: “the peoples [sic] chariot is never on time.” A recent study from the Scottish government, conducted to discern the basis of anti-bus sentiment among non-users, found that “Train times were seen as more reliable and more predictable than bus times. ... Trains were also viewed as quicker than buses.” German and Swiss studies tracked a “psychological rail factor (i.e., a preference for using rail assum­ing equal service conditions) of 63 percent for regional train and 75 percent for trams compared to bus services.” Or as a friend noted, upon alighting from a Metro bus in my Maryland neighborhood, “That ride makes you feel like a prole.”

“There is a hierarchy when it comes to public transportation, the lowest on that pecking order are buses and then you get to rail, and commuter rail at the top,” said Robert D. Bullard, dean at the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and author of Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity. “If you look at the demographics of commuter rail vs. the demographics of who rides the bus, you’ll find a higher concentration of people of color and lower income persons on the bus than you do on the trains. All transit is not created equal.”

That’s certainly true of the Philadelphia region, served by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). A recent press guide (PDF) shows that only 20.6 percent of regional rail riders earn under $35,000, compared to 50.5 percent of city bus and rail riders and 67.1 percent of suburban bus and rail riders—the latter mostly refers to buses, as the majority of suburban lines are of the regional variety. (SEPTA was unable to provide differentiated numbers for bus and rail ridership; it’s also worth noting that it’s substantially more expensive to ride commuter rail than any of the intra city transit modes, regardless of their rail or road usage—subway/elevated, trolleys, or buses.) “Buses don’t come as frequently, the stops aren’t as nice, they don’t keep their schedules in the same way, all those problems exist ... because of the structure of the boards that emphasizes the commuter rail line,” said Lance Haver, longtime Philadelphia transit advocate, referring to the composition of SEPTA’s 15-member board which only includes two Philadelphia appointees. (The city provides two-thirds of local subsidies, ridership, and fares).

Public transit is in trouble in America. Since the beginning of the recession, 85 percent of American transit systems have been forced to cut services or raise fares.

These trends hold nationally as well. In 2007, the American Public Transportation Association released the “largest ever on-board survey study about the national public transportation industry” (PDF) with data collected between 2000 and 2005. Almost 21 percent of rail trips were made by people from households with incomes of under $25,000, while over 43.3 percent of bus riders came from households with similar income levels. But these numbers aren’t immutable proof buses are an inherently inferior form of mass transportation. New routes can be more easily created with much smaller capital costs and, once established, bus lines are better at avoiding problem areas. (If a car stalls out or crashes in front of a streetcar, the ride is over until the thing is moved. A bus can just maneuver around.) And none of the problems I’ve experienced with bus transit are insurmountable. As Matt Yglesias recently pointed out in Slate (and a few years back in Think Progress), there are a ton of relatively cheap ideas that can be implemented to make bus travel more efficient: Dedicated lanes, fewer stops, and clearer timetables and maps.

With the proper attention and service given, perceptions can change, too. A 2009 study (PDF) of public opinions of bus rapid transit in Los Angeles—which operates more like a rail line due to dedicated road space and well-spaced stops—found that it was universally considered superior to all other buses. A 2000 study (PDF) found that different groups of people in Stockholm, Sweden, tended to value buses over trains and vice-versa. Yet only 36 percent of commuter train riders were “very satisfied or satisfied” with the frequency of service, compared to 56 percent of bus riders and 70 percent of subway riders, while the interior of buses were considered far cleaner than either of their rail counterparts. A follow-up in 2002 by the same authors, cited in the “psychological rail factor” survey found “the subway had more negative attributions than other public transport sys­tems in Stockholm ... [partially because] Swedish prefer daylight to underground situations for cultural reasons.”

IT WOULD APPEAR THAT the only thing needed to change public perceptions, and usage, of buses is to make them competitive with rail. But that’s easier said than done, for a reason that transcends the rail vs. bus debate: America’s anti-transit bias. Due to federal investment in highways and other suburban infrastructure, U.S. development after the Second World War solely favored sprawling, auto-centric living. Ninety-five percent of American households own cars, 85 percent of people get to work by car, and in most areas of the country it is almost impossible to survive without one. There are costs to living like this. Auto-centric developments tend to strangle communal street life, while creating gridlocked roads that crush the soul and destroy the body. Huge numbers of deaths and injuries are caused by drunk, careless, unlucky, or momentarily inattentive drivers every year. Sprawling development with poor transit access decreases economic mobility, stranding low-income populations far from jobs, social support, or government services. Then there’s the environmental impact of driving, which poisons both the air we breathe and the global climate. The good news is that America seems a little less in love with cars than it used to be, with public transit rides increasing and vehicle miles traveled falling.

But despite the relative decline of driving, public transit is in trouble in America. Since the beginning of the recession, 85 percent of American transit systems have been forced to cut services or raise fares. Pittsburgh was forced to eliminate a third of its bus routes, while Detroit has lost half of its bus lines since 2005. Now it looks as though Philadelphia will be next.

Neither the rail infrastructure, nor the bus service, is going to be improved any time soon because SEPTA’s tiny capital budget—$308 million—is not even large enough to maintain the current system. Harrisburg is run by hard right, mostly white Republicans, while transit systems are in urban areas with majority black, solidly Democratic populations. (Pittsburgh is Philadelphia’s only other urban ally with a strong public transit system.) The likelihood that Republicans will substantially increase revenue for public transit in cities where no one votes for them is exceedingly slim. And this is a relatively common political dynamic. From the perspective of a rural or exurban Republican politician, Lind’s desire for more rail lines and Yglesias’ advocacy for upgraded bus systems look equally unpalatable.

Nationally our increasingly paralyzed government is proving just as incapable of nudging people out of their cars and into buses or trains, regardless of a continuing stream of data indicating the popularity of transportation alternatives. In an environment as gloomy as this, the bus vs. rail debate seems almost meaningless. Or maybe that’s just the way it looks from Philadelphia, where SEPTA’s doomsday scenario would replace all trolleys with buses, scrap most of the commuter rail network, and close one of the city’s two subway lines. It looks like I’d better start devoting more time to the secrets of the bus schedules.