Last week I asked bus advocates to answer these questions: "Is there a bus you love? What is it, and why? How often do you take it? Would you complain if someone replaced it with a train that was at least as fast?"
One of the reasons I asked is that bus advocates so often come off as scolds, telling us that in this new economy we're going to have to make do with less, so we should all get used to buses. Then they try to tell us that buses are really just as good as trains. Yeah, right.
My daily commute involves two subway trains and a local bus. I also take express buses on a regular basis, and I'm a pretty frequent passenger on commuter trains and Amtrak. I'm intimately familiar with rail and buses, and all other things being equal I'd take a train over a bus any time.
Jarrett Walker has often cautioned us against using coincidental characteristics to judge buses and trains, and assuming they're universal intrinsic characteristics. For example, most buses operate in mixed traffic, and most trains operate in dedicated rights-of-way. Those trains, all else being equal, deliver more value than those buses, but a train operating in mixed traffic (often called a streetcar) delivers less value than a bus in a dedicated right-of-way (often called bus rapid transit), all else being equal.
I want to talk about a characteristic that I've observed in every bus trip I've taken but relatively few train trips. I believe bus professionals call it "ride quality," but I'll call it the Lurch, and I think anyone who's ridden a bus for any length of time knows what I'm talking about. Buses almost always have to change lanes. Unless there's a bus bulb, or they run in a curbside lane, local city buses have to do it at every stop. They also do it if they have to overtake another vehicle, or when preparing for a left turn across traffic.
This is a big deal for me and many others, including Adron Hall. I can get violent motion sickness, especially if I'm reading or writing or doing anything with any kind of computer. I get it in cars if someone else is driving, especially if I'm sitting in the back seat. I get it on buses and planes, but never on trains - with the single exception of the Acela Express. I get it most often on winding country roads, but I still get it on city streets, especially if the bus has to make a lot of turns.
I haven't taken any of the prototypical "BRT" systems in Curitiba, Bogota or Guangzhou, but all the pictures I've seen have space at some stations for the buses to pass each other, and that would cause a Lurch. Select Buses here in New York certainly do the Lurch. On the other hand, the rubber-tired subways of Paris and Montreal don't.
The only time you get a really strong lurch on a train is when the train changes tracks. One such switch that I know well are the one just east of the Times Square station on the #7 line, where trains can enter or leave either of the two terminal tracks. The other is just west of 75th Avenue on the Queens Boulevard, where F trains switch from the express track to the local track and back.
These switches can cause the train to lurch, but they're not Lurches. One big difference is that they're very predictable. I know almost exactly when the train will go over the switch before Times Square, and if I feel it I know that I need to stand by the doors on the right side of the train if I want to get out first. The train operators also know well in advance, and they usually slow down. Just when I was writing the last paragraph, in fact, I went over the switch at 75th Avenue and we didn't even lurch a little.
The big difference, I think, between a little lurch and a bus Lurch is predictability. Every train has a set of movements, but you can be confident that unless there is some extreme event (short stop, derailment, giant scorpion sting), those movements will not exceed a certain range. With buses, the range of possible movements is much bigger.
I mentioned this to Jarrett once, and he asked if it helped to have a low-floor bus. After a couple years' experience, I have to conclude that it doesn't. The movements may feel a bit different, but they're not significantly better. He has acknowledged this on his blog: "Ride quality in buses is improving, and guided busways may give buses an even more rail-like feel, but new rail systems will probably always have an advantage with their smoother running surface. Is the smooth ride of rail indispensible to a useful network? This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another."
Having lived in cities with all-bus networks, I definitely wouldn't say that the smooth ride of rail is indispensable, but it makes a big difference. As I said at the top, all other things being equal I'd choose a train over a bus any time, for that reason. And whenever a bus advocate tries to tell me that buses are just as good as trains only cheaper, I wonder: when was the last time that they felt the Lurch?