Thursday, April 19, 2012

Us and you and how much you should love your buses

"Don't you think I've heard the talk? Nobody's going to tell me who to love." - Freedy Johnston

When Will Doig told us, "It's time to love the bus" last month, he was repeating a mantra that I've heard over and over from other proponents. Kate Slevin, Joan Byron, Aaron Naparstek, Walter Hook - the message is always the same: buses are just as good as trains but cheaper, we can't afford trains, so you should love the bus.

You know what I've never heard any of them say? "I love the bus." They may get excited about a snazzy bus system in some faraway country where they'll never live, but not about buses that are here and now. They never say, "If we had this kind of bus, it would make my commute so much easier." It's never about them, it's about you.

Contrast this with a train advocate like Ben Kabak or Alon Levy, or a bicycle advocate like Doug Gordon or Clarence Eckerson. When they talk about trains or bikes, it may be about you, but it's also about them. You get the feeling that Ben would take an apartment off Second Avenue when the subway opens, and that Doug cares about bike lanes in Brooklyn because he can imagine himself riding on any of them.

I don't know how Doig or Slevin or Byron or Hook get around. In New York I'm guessing it's not by bus, or else they'd be late to every meeting. I know that Aaron likes to ride bikes: I've seen his Dutch cargo bike in person and in photos.

To be fair, journalists, advocates and consultants aren't supposed to be thinking about themselves all the time. But you'd think they'd be able to find one person who loves buses, and prefers them to subways, for themself. If they can't, how can they ask us to do it?

To anyone I called out here, or to anyone who advocates buses instead of trains, you're welcome to prove me wrong. 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?


Red said...

What, no mention of "I <3 the M15?" I know you are talking specifically of advocates here, but I believe in the past you've talked about the lack of spontaneous rider declarations of appreciation for BRT. Which, as far as I can tell, is exactly what this is.

Helen Bushnell said...

I think the best people in Denver ride the 28. And I think that a lot of people ride the 20 are going to band together to save it.

Emily Washington said...

ne thing that I really like about buses might be overlooked by some in the male-dominated transit world. Bus stops are much denser than subway stops, perhaps especially in DC. I am a fan of wearing heels and not a fan of carrying an extra pair of shoes, so I appreciate shorter walking commutes. I can see anyone who chooses uncomfortable shoes or has trouble walking feeling the same way.

Also a shout out to DC's 50 buses. When I lived in Columbia Heights and worked on K Street, commuting by bus took less than half the time as the metro.

Red said...

Emily, I think that bus-stop density vs. rail-stop density was one of the reasons I loved London's buses so much as a student. That plus the bus lanes plus being above-ground made riding the London bus network a real joy.

By contrast, the Tube stations are so far apart (and the map so non-geographic) that frankly I found riding the train a real chore, and one I often looked at as a necessary evil. I legitimately enjoyed riding the buses.

kantor said...

No surprise that somebody loves buses; my impression is that the love is not for buses as a mode of transportation, but rather for a route that one finds comfortable and suited for his/her needs.

In Europe the ideological divide between buses and streetcars/light rails is not nearly as deep as in the USA, mainly because buses are not perceived as a low class/low income mean of transportation.
However I've never met anybody who actually prefers buses over streetcars or subways.

C.P. Norris said...

"In Europe the ideological divide between buses and streetcars/light rails is not nearly as deep as in the USA, mainly because buses are not perceived as a low class/low income mean of transportation."

I think this is true anywhere with buses that don't suck.

kantor said...

"I think this is true anywhere with buses that don't suck."

I do not know about that; some cultural bias are totally independent of reality. In a country as conservative as the USA, once something is blighted it is blighted forever.

I do have a bias against buses, since I have a very serious motion sickness problem. And no matter how nice a bus service is, I'm always worried when I board one.

capt subway said...

It would be hard to love a NYC bus. In most cases I can walk almost as fast, just as fast as, or, in some cases (as with almost any crosstown bus), probably faster than the bus. And with a bicycle there'd be no contest. Thanks but I'll stick with the subway.

tangentiallearning said...

I'm from Denver and used to ride the 20; can't believe that service is threatened? In NYC, I ride the M5 on Riverside Drive without a destination in mind. However I love all the NYC buses for the unique view of the street that they afford. Except crosstown through Central Park, which is surprisingly boring after the first couple times.

threestationsquare said...

I'm rather fond of Megabus (and similar), especially when I manage to get a $1 fare. (Recently they had a promotion with $0 fares; I booked a free itinerary stretching from Chicago to Boston, amongst others.) Amtrak is generally a bit more comfortable but a lot more expensive (though at least Amtrak finally got wifi).

When visiting SF I've been pleased with the 22-Fillmore and other hilly trolleybus routes; the inherent slowness of local surface transit is mitigated when the grades make walking/biking unappealing, and the electrification makes the ride quite a bit more pleasant. The existing surface rail in SF is no faster than buses, and electric streetcars might have issues with some of the steeper grades if they tried to convert the hilliest lines. I expect you can find a fair bit of love for trolleybuses where people are aware of them, as a way of making both the bus ride itself and the street the bus runs on more pleasant. (Indeed it seems suspicious when someone is pushing "BRT" and doesn't point out the clear benefits of electrification.)

In the New York area (where I live), the only local bus I prefer where a rail alternative exists is the NJT #62 when going to Newark Airport. Rather than paying tourist-gouging fares to ride an infrequent and crowded commuter train and then in a cramped monorail compartment, I can get off PATH at Newark Penn and take the relatively frequent #62 straight to the terminal. (Sometimes I take the Q10 to JFK instead of the Airtrain because I'm a cheapskate, but in the JFK case the Airtrain is definitely a faster and more pleasant way to go.)

Phil LaCombe said...

I feel fond for WMATA's New Flyer BRT buses. They're beautiful. Stylish, dignified transit. However, the main reason I like them so much is that their low-profile seating reminds me of the Danish S-Tog--an even more beautiful train. I'm pretty sure that I will always favor a train over a bus.

Zoltán said...

Funnily enough, I was just talking about people having difficulty with high-heeled shoes on the low-platform-high-floor MARC trains.

Where local stop transit is frequent and not all too slow, it can certainly be joyous in its convenience for yours and a whole lot of other reasons, like having heavy bags or just being really tired. Mind you, local stops aren't inherently a bus/rail thing; a streetcar does local stops just as well (or better, because electric traction=better acceleration), and a bus can do limited stops.

busplanner said...

Okay. I'll say it. I love commuting by bus. And not just because I'm a bus planner. I commuted by bus long before I began working in the transit industry. (Now, I've commuted by train, too. The decision is and should be based on what works best for the specific commute.)

Non-commute trips? Bus is often the better option.

More importantly, from a transit panner's perspective, you really need a certain volume of passengers in a given corridor to justify frequent light rail or heavy rail service. Second Avenue in Manhhattan, a subway? Sure. The volume is there. York Avenue in Manhattan, a subway? Most likely, the bus will always make more sense.

The appropriateness of bus vs. rail depends on the situation. Listen to Jarrett Walker's explanation in his interview with a Calgary radio station at

Cap'n Transit said...

Right, Busplanner, there are some times when buses make sense, at least in the short term. You can see on my blog that I've often argued for specific bus improvements.

This post is about inspiration, though. Buses are really not very inspiring to most people, compared to trains or even cars.

Thanks for all the great comments!

David said...

The no. 22 in London is great and I rode it daily for most of a year. The 265 was good. In MSP the buses are cromulent at best. The U of Mn Campus Connector does exactly what you want it to. I don't love any vehicles really, they are inanimate and don't love me back.

The Underground trains in London are not generally pram-friendly The buses are. One more criteria to consider.

neroden@gmail said...

London buses are the only ones I've ever been on which don't suck, and I've been in a lot of the world.

I actually did love London buses, and other people do too; the Routemaster inspires love poems and people collect them. I cannot think of another bus system in the world where this actually happens.

You could ask London what's special about their inner-city buses. There are a lot of answers:

(1) They're not trying to be trains. Many are on routes where even streetcars were never viable; the buses replaced horse-drawn buses.
(2) They're not trying to be fast, either. This is 20 mph stuff. This makes it a lot easier for them to be comfortable (less lurch).
(3) Mayor Livingstone got the cars out of the way, through bus lanes and the congestion charge, so they don't get stopped in traffic.
(4) Great views.

If I were to try to describe it, I'd say they are basically replacing taxi service on high-volume routes. Nobody in London seems to consider them to be competing with trains, as far as I can tell.

...and I know historically they did replace many electric streetcar routes, and honestly I'm sure the streetcars would have been even better. I can't see any reason to prefer unguided rubber to guided steel.

Matt Fisher said...

Then I guess riding rail is sexist? I might as well say that BRT will probably be better for Ottawa, and we should "get used to BRT", and rail is a luxury we can't afford.

Matt Fisher said...

I forgot: One thing that I find frustrating from bus advocates is when they say that rail advocates who don't fully agree with them on BRT is "anti-bus" or "anti-BRT", as seen in this comment on The Overhead Wire by a BRT advocate:

I am from Ottawa, but I was originally born in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, and I (fairly) like riding the OC Transpo buses and the BRT Transitway (and I am just learning how to drive), and even then, I would like to see the whole Transitway be light rail (which it is supposed to be converted to "when ridership gets high enough", however vague the ridership levels may be). But it is a bit of a longshot, and when I'm on the bus, I try to pretend to say that Ottawa "will never be a rail city" and that "we don't have the population for rail" (a defence used to build the Ottawa Transitway) just to attempt some pseudo-realism, when in reality I'm an idiot. The same anti-rail argument is made by some people, such as at this link:'sTransitSystem.htm
(that's not Jarrett Walker who wrote this treatise, it's an Ottawan who makes the same "buses can be just as good as trains, or better" argument, John Walker, but Jarrett supports what is proposed in this, as does Andy Haydon, a now retired politician and engineer in Ottawa who helped make the Transitway exist, and wants to see us have a downtown bus tunnel to "complete the Transitway")

Also, I request to have my use of the "-ence" spelling excused, being that I am Canadian and this is what we use, the same way that, for instance, we generally pronounce the letter Z not as "zee", but instead "zed".

But in closing, I want to say that I, along with the Cap'n, am a confirmed rail advocate, and I'd acknowledge that some bus advocate would insult me as a "rail fanboy".

eric said...

I live in Cambridge, MA, and my friend Jason loves the bus. I don't understand it, but he does. True, he commutes to work by bike, and he owns a car for longer-distance travel, but he often talks about how much he loves the local city buses. He takes his kids to and from Harvard Square on the bus. His daughter goes across the city to hockey on the bus, with all of her hockey gear. Every week he used to take his kids to an art class or something out in Arlington, the next town over, on the bus. Maybe he likes it because you get a better view. I myself used to like taking the bus when I lived in Paris. It was better for sightseeing!

EngineerScotty said...

I'd second Matt. I've never yet a transit advocate who is truly anti-bus--i.e. who thinks that the bus has no role in a functional and useful transit system. All the rail advocates I know--including myself--consider bus to be a fundamental part of public transit. (I actually hesitate to call myself a rail advocate, because I'm staunchly multi-modal). That doesn't stop the we-hate-MAX-and-Streetcar crowd over at PT from calling me a railfan.

(Don't worry, I'm used to it.)

There has been, recently, a bit of an anti-rail backlash in Portland. While the Eastside Streetcar project is nearly on schedule (opening later this year) and the Milwaukie MAX project is under way and planned to enter service in 2015; one other local project (the Lake Oswego Streetcar) was axed at the DEIS phase (though this was IMHO the correct decision--this was a bad project), and many have suggested a moratorium on further capital projects. Some of this is the economy and concern about the cost of rail (MLR is a rather expensive project, especially for surface rail), but a lot is a growing concern that rail expansion is more about pork-barrel politics than about quality transit. When you open new rail lines at the same time as you cut back bus service, it has really bad optics. Many riders don't know (or care) about the long lead times on construction projects and the non-fungible nature of FTA grants, but they do know that their bus line is now less frequent than it use to be, but a shiny new train is running to places they have on interest in going...

The Amateur Transporter said...

Sorry that I'm late, but I had to add that my siblings in Manhattan adore the M15 SBS on the east side. The first time my sister rode it, she missed her stop by about 10 blocks because she didn't realize how quick the ride would be.

DennisReynolds48 said...

Here's one: Sarah Jessica Parker.