Margaret Thatcher was once quoted as saying, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” In fact, according to Wikiquotes, “There is no solid evidence that Margaret Thatcher ever quoted this statement with approval, or indeed shared the sentiment.” Nevertheless, people still insist that buses carry a “stigma” not shared by trains.
Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.’” In fact, he says, transit systems are designed by elites who rarely use transit at all, but who might be able to see themselves on a train. So they design expensive rail systems for themselves rather than planning transit systems for their real market, which is mostly people who want to travel as cost-effectively as possible and don’t really care whether they are on a bus or train.
This view is reinforced by the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and particularly by a report it published written by planner Ryan Snyder. Ryan calls L.A.’s rail system “one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer money in Los Angeles County history,” while he shows that regional transit ridership has grown “only when we have kept fares low and improved bus service,” two things that proved to be incompatible with rail construction.
In particular, Los Angeles transit ridership grew rapidly in the early 1980s when it kept fares low; it plummeted in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it raised fares and cut service to help pay for rail; it grew again after 1996 when a court order required the agency to restore bus service. Unfortunately, the court order mandating restored bus service expired in 2007, and the agency almost immediately cut service and ridership has since dropped.
Moreover, the improvements the agency did make in the late 1990s included both more frequent buses and the purchase of 2,500 “clean” natural gas-powered buses. Again, this caters to elite non-transit riders but does little for bus ridership. Companies like Limoliner and Wi-Drive have shown that bus travel can be as comfortable and luxurious and rail travel. If Los Angeles had invest as much in buses that were more comfortable as it did in buses powered by unconventional fuel sources, it probably would have gained even more riders than it did.
Transit agencies seeking funds for rail transit want their potential funders to believe that they can have it all: trains plus buses. This has been disproven by cities across the country, from Miami to Portland, from San Francisco to Atlanta, that were forced to cut bus service after starting construction or operation of expensive rail lines.