Over the past few years — both in New York and nationally — urban planning advocates and city politicians have taken a liking to buses. Bus rapid transit, deployed successfully in developing nations, has become the hot new item while pushes to increase rail capacity and reach have died at the hands of a number of factors. It all rubs me the wrong way.
The latest entry into this discussion came from the keyboard of Matthew Yglesias. In a piece at Slate with an intentionally inflammatory sub-head, Yglesias says that buses are the future. Building new trains, he says, isn’t the route to improving transit, but networks of bus rapid transit systems are. While there are some lessons to be learned from Yglesias’ argument, it’s almost defeatist in its framing. Here’s his take:
When it comes to moving large numbers of people efficiently through urban areas, it’s hard to beat good old-fashioned heavy rail subways and metro lines. But these projects come at a steep price, especially in the United States, and don’t make sense in many areas. Yet, politicians looking for cheaper options too often fall for the superficial idea that anything that runs on train tracks must be a good idea. The smarter strategy in many cases is to look instead at the numerically dominant form of mass transit—the humble bus—and ask what can be done to make it less humble…
Buses often fall down on the job—not because they’re buses, but because they’re slow. Buses are slow in part because city leaders don’t want to slight anyone and thus end up having them stop far too frequently, leaving almost everyone worse off. Buses also tend to feature an inefficient boarding process. Having each customer pay one at a time while boarding, rather than using a proof-of-payment where you pay in advance and then just step onto the bus, slows things down. That can generate a downward spiral of service quality where slow speeds lead to low ridership, low ridership leads to low revenue levels, and low revenue leads to service that’s infrequent as well as slow. Closing the loop, a slow and infrequent bus will be patronized almost exclusively by the poor, which leads to the route’s political marginalization…
Of course the problem is people who drive cars won’t like it—the exact same reason that shiny new streetcar lines are often built to drive in mixed traffic. But public officials contemplating mass transit issues need to ask themselves what it is they’re trying to accomplish. If promoting more transit use, denser urban areas, and less air pollution is on the agenda, then annoying car drivers is a feature not a bug. If the idea is to have a make-work job creation scheme or something cool-looking to show off to tourists, buses may not be the best idea. But while upgraded buses clearly isn’t the right solution for every transit corridor in America, it deserves much more widespread consideration as an affordable path to mass transit.
I’ve generously excerpted beginning, middle and end of Yglesias’ argument. The end and how he eventually gets there is right. To have a fully functional bus rapid transit network that moves buses quickly requires some pain on the other side. Unlike New York City’s half-hearted Select Bus Service network of slightly faster express buses, BRT requires truly dedicated lanes, level boarding areas and signal prioritization. It requires, in other words, prioritizing street space, curbside space and travel lanes for buses at the expense of cars. I have no problem with that argument, and in fact, I fully embrace it far more than anyone in New York City’s Department of Transportation has.
But how we get to this conclusion to me is problematic. Yes, rail projects are expensive, but rail projects are also better. A crowded bus can carry 60-100 people; a crowded train can travel much faster with over 1500 people on board. Operating ten or twelve trains per hour means transportation for 15,000-18,000 people while operating that many buses results in transit for 600-1200. It’s apples to oranges.
The better answer is to figure out how to get costs down. Other countries have managed to build reasonably priced rail lines, and so could we. The answer isn’t to punt to buses but rather to figure out a way to make a bus network work with a train network. Nearly every major American city would be better served with some version of a rapid transit network involved rail. It could be light rail, a surface subway or an underground subway, but such a network would combat sprawl, pollution and congestion far more effectively than a bus rapid transit network would.
Ultimately, the two modes of travel shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, but for some reason, we seem to make it into a battle. Buses make sense in certain areas and for certain travel, and rail makes sense for others. Discarding rail because it’s hard to see through due to costs just means we’re ready to give up.