Can Buses Ever Be Cool?

 

shutterstock_112350695Recently, at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead highlighted a UK think tank’s efforts to persuade the government that buses are superior to trains. “The great train fantasy” is, he argues, preventing us from generating sensible solutions to transportation problems. Trains seem fancy and futuristic, but in reality are expensive and lower-capacity than buses. Also, buses are more flexible. When urban development and demographic changes alter people’s travel needs, you can just change the bus routes. It’s much harder to reroute a train.

Despite all that, buses still seem déclassé, which is presumably a major reason why trains and light rail continue to streak their way through the dreams of liberal urban planners. Trains seem sleek and streamlined and their doors make that cool whoosh noise. Is the coming technocratic paradise going to run on buses? Yeah, right.

For the record, I personally hate mass transportation. As a mom with several small kids, it’s fairly useless to me, and I hated everything about St. Paul’s recent light rail project (which, as far as I could tell, was motivated entirely by the argument, “Hey, Minneapolis has light rail, and we’re just as wasteful and technocratic as they are”). Meanwhile, the people I know who lobby for more and better mass transport are childless urban professionals whose claim that it’s “a quality of life issue” mostly seems to boil down to a demand that we all help offset their transportation expenses so that they’ll have even more money for sushi bars and snorkeling trips. (What? No, I’m totally not bitter.)

Nevertheless, as a reasonable person, I realize that mass transport can, in some circumstances, be practical, and open employment possibilities for more than just childless hipsters. Insofar as we’re going to have it, then, can we at least do it efficiently?

To that end, I’m trying to think of ways to give buses a makeover so that people will decide that they’re cool. One component, obviously, is just good upkeep. The Silicon Valley commuter buses appear to have comfortable chairs and, of course, Wi-Fi. Do many people want Wi-Fi on regular city buses, or is that just a commuter thing? For city buses, it also seems to me that the double-decker would still be more appealing to most Americans (partly because it seems quaint and British), and might be even more so if the top deck had large windows or retractable roofs, making it easier to enjoy pleasant weather on the bus. Pleasant lighting and other small design measures can signal class and comfort in a way that most bus designs currently don’t.

Are there other things that might help? Again, my only interest here lies in figuring out how to persuade people to give up on really stupid mass transport projects (like light rail), in favor of possibly justifiable ones like more efficient bus systems. Redesigning buses would probably be worth a little trouble and expense if it could defuse the allure of high-speed rail.

 

Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s growing community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 85 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  1. Member

    In my town, they bought some double-decker buses. People seem to like ’em.

    One of the down-sides is that the driver needs a video monitor to keep an eye on what’s going on in the upper deck. Keeping an eye on the security monitor rather than the road may have contributed to a bus being ripped to shreds at a railway crossing a few years ago, resulting in several (apparently rather gruesome) deaths.

    They could hire security guards, but that would increase costs for an already “cash-strapped government service”.

    • #1
    • February 17, 2015, at 9:34 AM PDT
    • Like
  2. Contributor

    Of course they can be cool.

    luxury-buses-10

    But I suspect this isn’t what you had in mind.

    • #2
    • February 17, 2015, at 9:38 AM PDT
    • Like
  3. Podcaster

    As the great Kate McMillan of Small Dead Animals reminds us, “Riding Mass Transit Is Like Inviting 20 Random Hitchhikers Into Your Car”

    • #3
    • February 17, 2015, at 9:38 AM PDT
    • Like
  4. Inactive

    Urban planning is the art of inventing a problem, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying all the wrong remedies.

    • #4
    • February 17, 2015, at 9:48 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. Moderator

    If there were such a thing as a large city populated mostly by small-government-type voters, the city wouldn’t have to come up with a public transportation system. You’d just have privately owned bus lines and that’s that. But in the real world, people who live in big cities believe that government must be the provider of mass transportation. I agree with Rachel that among the alternatives, buses make a lot more sense than trains. Need to change a route? The roads are already there. With a train, you’ve got to buy property (possibly from people who really don’t want to sell) to build tracks on. That takes a long time and costs a lot of money.

    The way to make buses more attractive than trains is to make the passengers pay the full cost of their ride. Ditch the taxpayer subsidies. If people know that the price for a given ride will cost twice as much on a train as a bus, they may be less interested in the glamor of the trains.

    • #5
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:00 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. Member

    Back in the day (before they built the DC subway) I used to walk out of my Virginia apartment, board a public transit bus (individual plush seats), ride nonstop all the way into DC on the 395 express lanes, alight three blocks from my office and walk to work. Doing the reverse got me home again. Once they built the subway, all the buses terminated at the Pentagon. I then had to fight the crowds to transfer to the subway for a circuitous trip into DC that dumped me two blocks farther from my office. The fare also increased.

    I’ve never forgiven public rail.

    • #6
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:03 AM PDT
    • Like
  7. Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    This is the argument I keep making, Randy. So there are zillions of young professionals who want the opportunity to ride mass transport to work instead of driving? So this has all kinds of benefits (builds community! maximizes efficient use of time! reduces traffic and parking space!)? Great, then. Have mass transport. But why do I need to help pay for it? It seems like exactly the kind of situation the market is perfectly suited to handle. There’s a demand, and the people demanding have money to pay for what they want. What’s the problem here?

    Urban professionals fall pretty far down on my list of people whose lifestyle society needs to be subsidizing. But that’s just me.

    • #7
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:16 AM PDT
    • Like
  8. Member

    My area has a much different problem: ferries.

    washington_state_ferry_map

    Not everyone uses them, but everyone has to pay for them. I live near Kingston, which has a ferry, that goes to nowhere near Seattle. People who work in Seattle and chose to live in the more rural area (read affordable) where I live must make a hard choice, driving to Bremerton or Bainbridge Island (30-45 minutes, depending on traffic, and mass transit makes it closer to 2 hours), or take the Kingston ferry and drive south into Seattle. Both choices involved additional costs. If one drives on the ferry it costs considerably more. If one parks then walks on the cost of parking skyrockets the price of convenience. The solution for the people in the north end of the county that simply will not ever die is a passenger only ferry from Kingston to Seattle. It would be awesome, except that the mere handful of people who demand this service cannot afford to pay for it themselves.

    Now if they would just build light rail from Edmonds to Seattle these people would be set! Oh wait, I’d have to subsidize their commute that way as well…

    • #8
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:20 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Reagan
    iWe

    Wifi is ALWAYS good.

    The more the passenger can act as if they are not in transit, the less important the actual means of transport become.

    • #9
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:24 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Member

    I think the Silicon Valley bus proves the point many are making in this thread: buses are attractive when they are run privately. Of course the irony here is that the people who need public transportation the most are those who might otherwise be unable to afford a car (or the parking space for it in the city), but everyone on those Silicon Valley buses is making enough to comfortably buy themselves a Mercedes.

    This seems to be the trend in every city I’ve lived in: public transportation is touted as a way to help the poor, but invariably the lines which service the affluent are much more comfortable and convenient than those which service the lower-middle and lower class neighborhoods. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that modern light rail, with its comfortable seating and right-of-way lines, almost always goes to the rich suburbs, while the poor are stuck in old buses which are always stuck in traffic.

    • #10
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:24 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Member

    Randy Weivoda:But in the real world, people who live in big cities believe that government must be the provider of mass transportation.

    Well, except that there are cities which have privately-operated bus lines.

    In Britain, for example, lots of local bus services are operated by First.

    Heck, if Germany can privatize its post office, surely North American cities can privatize some bus services.

    • #11
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Reagan
    iWe

    Randy Weivoda:If there were such a thing as a large city populated mostly by small-government-type voters, the city wouldn’t have to come up with a public transportation system. You’d just have privately owned bus lines and that’s that.

    Indeed. And the cool way to do this is to use the AirBnB model of rating. Passengers could book, and based on their past rating by other passengers, be refused admission.

    Then the ENTIRE bus becomes a far more pleasant environment.

    • #12
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:29 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. Member

    Basil Fawlty:Back in the day (before they built the DC subway) I used to walk out of my Virginia apartment, board a public transit bus (individual plush seats), ride nonstop all the way into DC on the 395 express lanes, alight three blocks from my office and walk to work. Doing the reverse got me home again. Once they built the subway, all the buses terminated at the Pentagon. I then had to fight the crowds to transfer to the subway for a circuitous trip into DC that dumped me two blocks farther from my office. The fare also increased.

    I’ve never forgiven public rail.

    That’s what’s about to happen in my town once they open the new “light rail” service. Instead of taking a single bus from one end of the city to the other, people will be required to take a bus to the light rail terminus, transfer to the train to cross the downtown, and then transfer to another bus to continue on their journey.

    It’s really quite asinine.

    • #13
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:32 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. Member

    I think the way to appease both libertarians and public transportation lovers would be to charge tolls for driving on city streets, while allowing private bus companies to operate and rent bus stop space with few regulations.

    Charging people for the wear they put on the roads is more equitable than making everyone pay equally for unequal use of resources. At the same time, it would lower the amount of traffic on city streets, make riding a bus (private or public) more financially attractive, and probably allow those buses to get to their destination more quickly – a real problem with buses used to commute in most major cities today.

    Of course this will never happen.

    • #14
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:34 AM PDT
    • Like
  15. Member

    Misthiocracy:

    That’s what’s about to happen in my town once they open the new “light rail” service. Instead of taking a single bus from one end of the city to the other, people will be required to take a bus to the light rail terminus, transfer to the train to cross the downtown, and then transfer to another bus to continue on their journey.

    It’s really quite asinine.

    I believe that light rail (or subways) are indeed more efficient above a certain density of commuters. Light rail/subways) can definitely transport more people more quickly than buses can, so once a certain number of riders is reached, the overall amount of time traveled is reduced with light rail, despite the inconvenience of having to transfer.

    However, this advantage rarely outweighs the huge construction and procurement costs of light rail, not to mention the loss of usable road space it nearly always entails.

    • #15
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:39 AM PDT
    • Like
  16. Moderator

    The problem with buses is that they are still public transit monopolies. Route assignment is political, fares are political, schedules are political, convenience is political.

    Here in Columbus, Ohio, COTA (our bus system) is a perennially money-losing affair, requiring frequent subsidies and bailouts. The routes go to where city council wants them to go, and have a perverse bias towards downtown or towards trendy areas the city wants to promote at that moment. Inter-suburb service is terrible, inconvenient, and takes longer than driving. Certain routes are “free” or reduced-fare, just to give the semblance that the system even works.

    If COTA were truly independent, allowed to operate where people want it, and allowed to charge market-fares, it might actually be used. But instead it must operate at a deficit for “the needy”, over-emphasize ridiculous routes, under-serve neighborhoods where it might actually operate at capacity, and otherwise serve the whims of city planners.

    • #16
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:40 AM PDT
    • Like
  17. Member

    Mendel:I think the way to appease both libertarians and public transportation lovers would be to charge tolls for driving on city streets, while allowing bus companies to operate freely and rent bus stop space.

    Instead of tolls, I would suggest that not only should the law state that revenue from gas taxes can only be spent on road infrastructure (so that feckless politicians don’t use gas taxes as a cash cow for their pet projects), but that only gas taxes can be used on road infrastructure (so that feckless politicians can’t ding non-driving taxpayers by dipping into general revenue).

    • #17
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:44 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. Member

    I agree. They are way more flexible than trains. And don’t require huge infrastructure.

    My suggestions to improving the bus experience is more room, plush seating, a drop down table top (like at an airplane seat), plug ins to charge electrical devices, and wifi.

    • #18
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:44 AM PDT
    • Like
  19. Moderator

    Mendel:I think the way to appease both libertarians and public transportation lovers would be to charge tolls for driving on city streets, while allowing bus companies to operate freely and rent bus stop space.

    Charging people for the wear they put on the roads is more equitable than making everyone pay equally for unequal use of resources. At the same time, it would lower the amount of traffic on city streets, make riding a bus (private or public) more financially attractive, and probably allow those buses to get to their destination more quickly – a real problem with buses used to commute in most major cities today.

    Of course this will never happen.

    This hits near another issue though. I hardly ever have any reason to go to our downtown, despite the many many many attempts to make “downtown” appealing. If I had to pay extra for the few times a year I actually drive down that way, I’d be even less likely to go.

    • #19
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:45 AM PDT
    • Like
  20. Member

    Mendel:I think the Silicon Valley bus proves the point many are making in this thread: buses are attractive when they are run privately. Of course the irony here is that the people who need public transportation the most are those who might otherwise be unable to afford a car (or the parking space for it in the city), but everyone on those Silicon Valley buses is making enough to comfortably buy themselves a Mercedes.

    This seems to be the trend in every city I’ve lived in: public transportation is touted as a way to help the poor, but invariably the lines which service the affluent are much more comfortable and convenient than those which service the lower-middle and lower class neighborhoods. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that modern light rail, with its comfortable seating and right-of-way lines, almost always goes to the rich suburbs, while the poor are stuck in old buses which are always stuck in traffic.

    In the pre-subway days of DC, the Virginia express buses were much more comfortable than the DC buses. They only accepted passengers going to Virginia (no local riders) and had their own bus stops in the city. It sort of reminded me of the old gold/silver segregation in the Panama Canal Zone.

    • #20
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:46 AM PDT
    • Like
  21. Member

    skipsul:

    This hits near another issue though. I hardly ever have any reason to go to our downtown, despite the many many many attempts to make “downtown” appealing. If I had to pay extra for the few times a year I actually drive down that way, I’d be even less likely to go.

    I don’t see that as a problem. Personally, I think cities are great (I live in one now and enjoy it). But they have lots of obvious drawbacks, and we shouldn’t use subsidies to minimize those drawbacks.

    If stores in a downtown want to attract people from the suburbs, let them assume the costs of making access more convenient themselves. If they can’t do that profitably, perhaps such dense urban areas weren’t such a great economic idea in the first place and deserve to unravel.

    • #21
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:50 AM PDT
    • Like
  22. Member

    Mendel:

    Misthiocracy:

    That’s what’s about to happen in my town once they open the new “light rail” service. Instead of taking a single bus from one end of the city to the other, people will be required to take a bus to the light rail terminus, transfer to the train to cross the downtown, and then transfer to another bus to continue on their journey.

    It’s really quite asinine.

    I believe that light rail (or subways) are indeed more efficient above a certain density of commuters. Light rail/subways) can definitely transport more people more quickly than buses can, so once a certain number of riders is reached, the overall amount of time traveled is reduced with light rail, despite the inconvenience of having to transfer.

    However, this advantage rarely outweighs the huge construction and procurement costs of light rail, not to mention the loss of usable road space it nearly always entails.

    The overall amount of time traveled is something of an abstraction. What’s important to me is the time it takes an individual to complete the trip. In the case of the DC subway, the combination bus/subway trip took much longer than the bus trip had and the transferring made it much more unpleasant. I stopped using public transit entirely and started carpooling.

    • #22
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:57 AM PDT
    • Like
  23. Moderator

    Mendel:

    skipsul:

    This hits near another issue though. I hardly ever have any reason to go to our downtown, despite the many many many attempts to make “downtown” appealing. If I had to pay extra for the few times a year I actually drive down that way, I’d be even less likely to go.

    I don’t see that as a problem. Personally, I think cities are great (I live in one now and enjoy it). But they have lots of obvious drawbacks, and we shouldn’t use subsidies to minimize those drawbacks.

    If stores in a downtown want to attract people from the suburbs, let them assume the costs of making access more convenient themselves. If they can’t do that profitably, perhaps such dense urban areas weren’t such a great economic idea in the first place and deserve to unravel.

    Just speaking for Columbus, there are no stores of any significance left downtown – they moved out to the suburbs 2 decades ago. What remains are restaurants (who mostly cater to the government workers and other day workers), theaters, and hotels.

    • #23
    • February 17, 2015, at 11:05 AM PDT
    • Like
  24. Moderator

    Mendel:I believe that light rail (or subways) are indeed more efficient above a certain density of commuters. Light rail/subways) can definitely transport more people more quickly than buses can, so once a certain number of riders is reached, the overall amount of time traveled is reduced with light rail, despite the inconvenience of having to transfer.

    That’s a good point. In very densely populated cities the trains are used a lot and the high level of usage probably makes them economical, provided that the system was laid out correctly. If everyone in Tokyo or New York City who currently rides subway or light rail system were put on buses, there wouldn’t be enough roads. There are a lot of American cities, though, where people report that the trains – as well as the buses – are usually running around with just a handful of passengers. What works for Tokyo probably won’t work for St. Paul, MN.

    • #24
    • February 17, 2015, at 11:18 AM PDT
    • Like
  25. Inactive

    Rachel Lu:

    Urban professionals fall pretty far down on my list of people whose lifestyle society needs to be subsidizing. But that’s just me.

    I’m sure urban professionals would trade the money you give them for buses for the money they give you for highways.

    I don’t much use buses or highways so nuts to you all.

    • #25
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:25 PM PDT
    • Like
  26. Moderator

    Casey:

    Rachel Lu:

    Urban professionals fall pretty far down on my list of people whose lifestyle society needs to be subsidizing. But that’s just me.

    I’m sure urban professionals would trade the money you give them for buses for the money they give you for highways.

    I don’t much use buses or highways so nuts to you all.

    But the highways are not funded out of the general fund, or at least they’re not supposed to be. They’re typically funded through gas taxes and tolls, so the urban professionals who don’t drive aren’t paying for the highways.

    • #26
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:37 PM PDT
    • Like
  27. Member

    In my limited big-city experience, the subway usually gets you much faster from Point A to Point B than the bus. This is often true even if the bus station is quite a few steps closer to Points A and B. This has to do with more frequent stops and the reality that buses have to deal with traffic, and lights, and people honking horns and cutting in front of you. If you can design a bus system that eliminates those frustrations, you probably don’t need to be quaint.

    • #27
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:51 PM PDT
    • Like
  28. Member

    1. Make the bus more expensive.

    2. Put an Apple logo on the side.
    3. Your bus is now a cool bus.

    • #28
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:53 PM PDT
    • Like
  29. Inactive

    Of course buses can be cool. Doesn’t anyone watch Top Gear?

    • #29
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:18 PM PDT
    • Like
  30. Inactive

    After living 12 years in the city, I will tell you that buses are certainly more pleasant than subways but not nearly as efficient. Buses are held hostage to traffic jams and subways generally cruise efficiently to their next destination in half the time. This is especially true after Mike Bloomberg made the absolutely insane decision to install bike lanes on major streets in Manhattan.

    • #30
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:23 PM PDT
    • Like
  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3