The Stigma of Buses

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.

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36 thoughts on “The Stigma of Buses

  1. LazyReader

    Regardless of whether or not she actually said it, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did.

    And the trend itself is spreading. Cities like Honolulu are first facing cutting school bus services across the island. In vain attempt to maintain progress on their 6+ billion dollar rail transit system that’ll only serve passenger in and around the Honolulu area. Meanwhile San Franciscans (is that what they call themselves?) are stunned over the previous and recent cuts to Muni buses. Cuts made on every single line. Some wont run as often, others not at all. SF needs the money to purchase new rail cars for BART and expand Bart out to the Silicon Valley area 40 miles away. One website that reported on the cuts literally said… “In Cutting Bus Stops, San Francisco Points Towards a More Efficient Bus System”. I laugh.

    http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/11/15/in-cutting-bus-stops-san-francisco-points-towards-a-more-efficient-bus-system/

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    Buses are not a cure-all, and the former (1981) land use plan in eastern Montgomery County, Maryland foolishly assumed that they were.

    But – buses have many advantages over rail, starting with this reality – they can run almost anywhere, and the infrastructure they use can be shared with other traffic.

    Some of the fastest-running transit I have ever seen are buses on managed lanes (they can be HOV lanes or tolled lanes or HOV/Toll lanes or even exclusive bus lanes, though I am not so enamored of those in most cases, because that means that bus traffic has to be extraordinarily heavy, as it is in the exclusive bus lane approaching the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey).

    Dan Reply:

    buses have many advantages over rail, starting with this reality – they can run almost anywhere, and the infrastructure they use can be shared with other traffic.

    I’m sure the people with the stigma against riding the bus use that as a negative when asked why they don’t ride the bus: “why, yes! I don’t ride the bus because the bus has so many advantages over rail! Yeeeeeah…that’s it! Advantages!”

    DS

    MJ Reply:

    I’m sure the people with the stigma against riding the bus use that as a negative when asked why they don’t ride the bus: “why, yes! I don’t ride the bus because the bus has so many advantages over rail! Yeeeeeah…that’s it! Advantages!”

    Those people probably aren’t riding either trains or buses, so that argument is a non-starter.

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Dan, I used to ride those buses in the eastern part of Montgomery County, Maryland, but because they ran in super-congested mixed traffic, I found it was taking an hour to go eight miles in a bus with broken air conditioning on steamy summer days in Maryland (most buses working that route routinely had broken AC all summer long), so I found other ways to commute that did not involve that mode of transportation. Now the people that wrote that master plan in 1980 and 1981 probably did not consider that choice riders might not want to sit in a hot and slow-moving bus.

    Had the bus had working AC, and been able to run in fast-moving traffic, I might have stayed with it.

    Dan Reply:

    because they ran in super-congested mixed traffic, I found it was taking an hour to go eight miles in a bus with broken air conditioning on steamy summer days in Maryland (most buses working that route routinely had broken AC all summer long), so I found other ways to commute that did not involve that mode of transportation

    Yes. Another reason why this mode is suboptimal. I suspect the proponents writing praises of buses simply want more road infra., fossil fuel consumption, etc. Just a thought.

    DS

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Dan, my sympathy regarding the mass murders at the movie theater in Aurora.

    Beyond being infuriated that we as a society seem to regard these episodes as a “cost of doing business,” there’s not much I can say or do.

    Dan Reply:

    CPZ, thank you. I’m infuriated for the same reasons.

    DS

    FrancisKing Reply:

    “or even exclusive bus lanes, though I am not so enamored of those in most cases, because that means that bus traffic has to be extraordinarily heavy, as it is in the exclusive bus lane approaching the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey).”

    Bus lanes can provide this facility, without substantial costs, and without reducing the capacity of the road network. Typical flows are 4-6 buses/hr.

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    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.

    Don’t forget the forced transfers from bus to rail that are usually one of the products of a new rail line – and that frequently leads to slower and less-convenient travel times for transit customers.

    MJ Reply:

    But it does wonders for reported transit “ridership”.

  4. Frank

    I get terrible motion sickness on the bus. I also get really sick when the guy next to me pisses himself and smells up the entire bus. I walked clear across SF rather than sitting on such a bus.

  5. transitboy

    I must take offense to the inference that Metro wasted money on CNG buses. First, air pollution regulations PREVENTED Metro from buying diesel buses. Second, bus riders, even non-elite ones, appreciate the fact that they don’t have to smell diesel fumes while riding on CNG buses. Also, it is disingenuous to refer to LA transit ridership declining when you only provide ridership information for Metro. Over the past few years Metro has given many bus routes over to municipal operators such as Long Beach Transit, Foothill Transit, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Montebello Transit, DASH, etc. – all of which have much higher ridership than they used to have. Of course, even if there was a decline in Metro bus ridership how much of it can be attributed to cuts and how much to the bad economy, for example? You also have to take into account pre – automated passenger counter ridership calculations, which calculated ridership by multiplying an average ridership by trip by the number of trips operated. What this meant was that cutting trips that had no passengers on board in fact caused a ridership decline!

  6. LazyReader

    There’s a transportation option beyond the typical bus. The paratransit vehicle. Essentially it is a bus, but more specific it’s a minibus. In January 2010, the Metro Council of Saint Paul, Minnesota warned that Paratransit ridership may grow by as much as 6% per year for the next 10 years. Paratransit ridership growth of more than 10% per year was reported in the District of Columbia metropolitan area for 2006 through 2009, a trend that was expected to continue. In response to these trends, transit agencies serving Saint Paul, the Washington, D.C. area, and other cities have been implementing communication and computer technology to control costs and improve service. It’s not just retired or people out of medical necessity anymore. Of course one way of securing transit for the people who really need it (namely the poor and handicapped) is going after the heavily regulated taxi industry that stifles individuals from being taxi entrepreneurs.

    http://townhall.com/columnists/walterewilliams/2011/08/03/cruel_laws

  7. Matt Young

    Rail is used by oligarchs to push urban renewal.

    I could make HSR work in California, but then it would not be about urban renewal, it would be about speed and service times. For a hint, the California HSR passed under one condition, LA and SF do not have to participate until they feel like it. That is a strong clue that using steel ribbons to force urban renewal does not work. So rail has attracted the stigma of being a tool for fraud on the part of oligarchs.

    Remermber how LA got out of the depression in 1930, they ripped out the rail and went to the rubber tire and asphalt. This depression, LA and SF plan to rip out all the light rail and replace it with intelligent, high speed bus rapid transit.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Why would you want to go from low cost rail to high cost buses, are you involved with the bus drivers union?

  8. Andrew

    Randall:

    LA ridership stats are disingenuous. Early 1980′s was boom time in the LA Basin with the ramp up of defense industry spending. Late 1980′s/early 1990′s and post 2007 in southern California were two of the most brutal economic crashes to happen to any area of the country, and unsurprisingly, with mass unemployment comes falling bus ridership.

    Buses are slower than rail and more expensive to operate at the same density of service. The average speed of an urban bus is 8.5 mph. Rail is typically 25-40 mph average speed. Rail vehicles are bigger and provide more space per rider. Even modern intercity buses are extremely cramped compared to rail.

    No real person moves to a house or apartment because “it is near a bus stop”. But people purposefully look for property near rail stations where it is available. Just ask a real estate agent.

    And of course, its always fun making comparisons to ignore the infrastructure costs of buses, from more frequent resurfacing of roads, provision of exclusive bus lanes and bus ways, and bus expressways disguised as HOV lanes to pretend they were actually built for cars, confiscated parking spots in street reserved as bus stops, as well as to ignore the alarming frequency in which buses must be replaced – typically every 10 years or so – as compared to 40 years or more for rail vehicles, and the well known tendencies of bus drivers to run redlights and rear end vehicles that fail to respect the “most to lose” rules of road versus actually following traffic laws resulting in alarming claims payments and accidents where the driver gets wcrewed by Public Transit sovereign immunity insurance that refuses to recognize its tort liabilities to its victims.

    FrancisKing Reply:

    “Buses are slower than rail and more expensive to operate at the same density of service.”

    With proper provision for buses, they can more than keep pace with rail.

    “to ignore the alarming frequency in which buses must be replaced – typically every 10 years or so – as compared to 40 years or more for rail vehicles,”

    During that period, the rail vehicles have to be refurbished. There is nothing special about what they are made of Рthe d̩cor is out of the same factory as the buses.

    FrancisKing Reply:

    ““Buses are slower than rail and more expensive to operate at the same density of service.””

    Lower operating costs for rail only apply once there is a sufficiently high level of patronage.

    Craigh Reply:

    No real person moves to a house or apartment because “it is near a bus stop”. But people purposefully look for property near rail stations where it is available. Just ask a real estate agent.

    What an incredibly arrogant and ignorant statement. People [especially poor people] are very interested in finding apartments near a bus stop. You must be talking about the more affluent who wouldn’t be caught dead riding a bus. In other words, the people this article is about.

    Frank Reply:

    Not only is it an incredibly arrogant and ignorant statement, it’s wrong:

    Through an eight-person focus group, he found that participants incorporated commute mode choice and access to work into their RC, and that all participants were commuting by the mode (including car, bus and train) that they had expected to use when looking for a residence (although one participant planned to change mode). Therefore, people selectively locate in a residential neighbourhood to realize their travel preferences.

    Not only do we continue to see extensive use of loaded language in Andrew’s posts, we see his continued hasty generalizations and absolutist thinking. And a No true Scotsman to boot.

    Andrew Reply:

    All:

    Find me a real estate listing for a house for sale touting that it is “near a bus stop”. i’ve never heard of such a thing, but am more than willing to be enlightened since you are all so much more knowledgable about this than I.

    Thank you.

    Frank Reply:

    Lots of rentals on Craigslist advertise proximity to bus stops, in Seattle at least.

    Some places for sale also advertise proximity to bus stops.

    MJ Reply:

    I’ll do you one better. Here is some research that documents such a relationship.

    Andrew Reply:

    MJ:

    Really? Bogota, Columbia is your exemplar of homes for sale being near a bus stop being a selling point?

    MJ Reply:

    What specifically about the research do you dispute?

    Andrew Reply:

    MJ:

    What do I dispute? That the research is based on a foreign country inhabited by fopreign people with different preferences, standards of living, and preferences for living arrangements.

    I find it hilarious that buses are pushed so hard on here by a clique of people who quite honestly would never set foot in a bus in any normal setting in the US – i.e. Greyhound or urban inner city mass transit.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Andrew: I find it hilarious that buses are pushed so hard on here by a clique of people who quite honestly would never set foot in a bus in any normal setting in the US – i.e. Greyhound or urban inner city mass transit.

    THWM: You’re absolutely right about that!

  9. FrancisKing

    “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.””

    Even if she didn’t say this, she believed it, as did her transport minister. It was the peak age of car use in the UK, where people without cars were considered to be losers.

    “Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.’””

    The stigma is clear, and is part of the way in which the system is set up. You have to wait for a bus, and then it never quite goes where you want to go. If you want to make a connection, then the miserable nature of the service is only enhanced. And for this ‘delight’ you have to pay up front in cold, hard cash.

    Of course, as TfL has demonstrated, is it not difficult to make a good bus system, without the stigma. And I can suggest some simple ways of making things even better. But many municipalities insist of ramming their ill-considered system of dirty diesel buses down car driver’s throats.

    “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.”

    Diesel buses are dirty. The map of pollution is an exact match for where the buses are waiting for customers in town. Improvements to bus engine technology is therefore a no-brainer. A country that can afford $2bn stealth bombers can find some money for decent buses.

  10. Sandy Teal

    I think the reluctance of many people to take a bus is a billion dollar transportation issue. I don’t think anything I have seen describes the problem very well, much less the answer. I don’t know the answer, but “stigma” is not the right description.

    P.S. I know several people who have made “being near a bus stop” to be a big factor in where they move. Living near a train stop might be more important in some cities, but even in medium size cities living near a bus stop can be a big factor. If they have a car, they usually don’t care. I once moved across the street from a bus stop by accident, and ended up using the bus to commute a lot just because it was there.

  11. Andrew

    Francis King:

    With all due respect, buses cannot keep up with the traffic on the full length of a trunk rail line in major rail city (Philly, DC, Boston, Chicago, NYC, Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, San Francisco).

    100,000+ riders in a day (which is not even the full ridership of a single subway line in any of those cities) works out to around 20,000 at the peak hour, which would require 500 buses. The practical issues of moving 500 buses down an urban street in an hour at the speed rail can move are obvious.

    The PATH system, between Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken, and NYC carries around 300,000 people per day, which would require additional 1500 buses in the peak hour into NYC. Totally impractical to say the least.

    The individual subway lines in Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and Chicago each carry 7+ times the ridership of the busiest bus routes, which typically run on a 3-4 minute headway. Itis difficult to see how the same numbers could possibly be carried at speed on the surface.

    FrancisKing Reply:

    Where I come from, it’s called “Preaching to the choir”.

    “The PATH system, between Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken, and NYC carries around 300,000 people per day, which would require additional 1500 buses in the peak hour into NYC. Totally impractical to say the least.”

    Which is the point that I made to Antiplanner – I’m not sure that the point was taken, though.

    However, many rail lines are operating with very low flows. That’s the salient point. Under those circumstances, the operating cost per seat is higher, not lower, with rail. Additionally, many benefits that could have been obtained with the money are forgone. So if you don’t live on the rail line, there goes your bus service.

    So it makes more sense to run buses, with the proviso that if a threshold is reached then the conversion to rail WILL take place. This avoids the temptation to put in rail from the first – on the basis that if buses are put in then they are less likely to get rail in the end. This silly politics should be rejected.

    Buses can be much enhanced. Things such as – timetabling that people can understand – diesel-electric buses (which unlike CNG, use the same fuel that the bus depot’s got) – trailers to take bicycles, and secure bicycle parking at the bus stations, to increase the passenger base – videos of the bus journey on Youtube, so that potential passengers can see how there journey looks before making it for the first time – and above all, cleanliness. Lots of lubbly hot soapy water.

  12. PerfectTiming

    “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.”

    This statement indicates a dangerous lack of knowledge about cost-effectiveness on the part of the author. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of CNG, it is currently much, much cheaper than conventional diesel fuel. I work for a transit agency that currently has both types of vehicles, and our total cost for a gallon-equivalent of CNG is around $1, whereas diesel is around $2.50. Based on this tremendous cost difference, we are looking to transition to CNG as much as possible as we retire buses. This will allow us to operate more service with the same funding.

    If you want to see taxpayer resources used as carefully as possible, you should be supporting LA’s CNG fleet.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    What portion of your operating expenses is gas/fuel?

    PerfectTiming Reply:

    Fuel accounts for around 15% of our operations budget. However, our agency only has about 15% of our vehicles as CNG right now (we’ll be increasing to closer to 30% within the next year, and higher each year).

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