Open Thread: Buses, Light Rail, Heavy Rail?

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130 Responses

  1. Jim Heffman says:

    People love trains because they seem more romantic and interesting than a bus. A bus is the same thing as the car you drive, only with more people in it; plus which most American schoolchildren rode the bus for a lot of their time in grade school. But trains are exotic and cool, so they look more exciting than a boring old bus.


    It’s important to keep in mind that trains only get a schedule advantage when they have their own dedicated track that doesn’t interact with road traffic. Most metro-based light-rail systems get hosed on schedule because they have to deal with gridlock and surface traffic.Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    I never understood why some people look down their nose at the NYC bus system while not-at-all doing the same with the subway. Both systems have their pros and cons and it is certainly possible that one system or the other is preferable for individuals for any number of reasons. But a whole bunch of people — most of them wealthier and white — see the bus as beneath them. When I told people how I rode crosstown on the bus, they were shocked. It’s not like the buses are decidedly dirtier or smellier than the subways. Is it just a class/cultural thing? I really never got it.

    FWIW, I think I had the attitude I did because I grew up in Bergen County, NJ, where the primary public transportation system was the NJT buses. So, growing up riding buses probably prevented me from internalizing any sense that they were not “for me”. But why do so many others think this? Why are the buses seen as for poor people while the equally gross subways are ridden by all?Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think NYC needs both the buses and the subway.

      I usually walked across town when I needed to because doing so is good exercise and I like walking. Then again, I am know for going on long walks when most people would drive or take public transport.
      Sometimes I will walk from my apartment to downtown SF for the exercise and back. This about a 3.5 mile walk, one way.

      I think why the bus is seen as being for poor people is the million dollar question.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Oh yes, I walked all the time. NY seems to breed walkers.

        But lots of people seem to avoid the bus for pretty unseemly reasons, which they were often visceral about. More than one person said comments to the effect of, “People like us don’t ride the bus.”

        The bus can be miserable during high traffic times. Sometimes it is faster to walk!

        I also felt like the bus was safer. You had the driver (and his radio) in shouting distance. Not so much with the subway.Report

      • A probable answer to the million-dollar question: three-quarters of the US population lives in rural and suburban areas where the bus riders are poor, for the most part.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        But do you think that 20-somethings in NY look at the M79 and think, “Ugh… poor people in Des Moines probably travel that way?”

        If there response was more subconscious… the sort of baked-in ‘sense’ that comes from consumption of media and the like… I could understand that as a primary root cause. But I have had people flat out say, “The bus is for poor people.” People who’ve only lived in major cities or wealthy suburbs. I have a sense there was more explicit messaging going on somewhere, somehow.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’m pretty sure any explicit stuff comes from Greyhound. Most college students experience it at least once, and it can be a horrid, horrid experience.

        City buses? Man, at least you can Get Off if the company’s too bad.Report

    • Mo in reply to Kazzy says:

      I know some women who avoided the subway, but took the bus quite often. It was about something, something underground transportation. Also, the bus feels safer because the “conductor” is in the same car as you on the bus, so creepy actions are dealt with and no empty car issues.

      OTOH, the subway has the major advantage of no cell phone calls going on until you get about ground in the outer boroughs.Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    Politicians like trains more than buses because they provide for better photo-ops. This helps when it comes to campaigning.

    Americans avoid the bus because they associate busses with poverty and more importantly, those non-white people that can’t afford a car. Sometime shortly after 1920, Americans began to associate needing to use public transportation with really bad poverty for a variety of reasons. After American cities began to dismantle their trolley systems and replace them with buses in the 1930s, most people just decided to buy a car and drive it rather than use transit. Most of the public transport systems were maintained as a sort of welfare service rather than as a transportation service. Outside a handful of cities, mainly NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and maybe Seattle, you weren’t supposed to take transit if you could afford a car. This public image problem with buses is decades old and buses still struggle under it.Report

    • j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Americans avoid the bus because they associate busses with poverty and more importantly, those non-white people that can’t afford a car.

      This is a strange sentence because for some reason you’ve decided that Americans are a separate group from the poor and non-whites.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to j r says:

        Really? Because in my experience, poor and non-white Americans avoid the bus when they have the chance for exactly the same reasons that rich white American do. They just are less likely to have the chance.Report

  4. Damon says:

    When the ex and I were still together, she decided to take “light rail” into work rather than pay for parking and enduring the commute. After one summer of taking the rail into downtown, she quit, not wanting to stand or sit next to “those stinky construction guys” who took the line back home from their jobs downtown.

    So there’s that too….

    That and the fact that many communities can’t seem to have rail at any reasonable cost. My state famously installed a light rail system and before it went live they had problems with the cross ties cracking, rendering the whole line a waste until new ties could be installed. Running a bus is a lot less complicated and cheaper it seems…but, no sexy photo op!Report

    • morat20 in reply to Damon says:

      Two of my friends work downtown (Houston) and live pretty far out. They both take park-and-ride — the bus, basically — to and from work. Both are engineers, one is management. The bus apparently beats the snot out of fighting traffic personally AND dealing with parking.

      But then, the people on the bus both ways are pretty much all people going to and from work from their place in the suburbs and outlying small towns, which is probably a factor.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to morat20 says:

        Unless you’re on an inner city bus, that’s going to be who is going out there. There’s never anything to DO in the suburbs (yes, I know I’m biased).

        I know people who commute from more than a county away on public transportation.Report

      • Chris in reply to morat20 says:

        Houston’s light rail downtown is generally considered a success (as is Dallas’), because they built it in the right place, with the right principles. That is, it’s a case in which the wonks preferred light rail to buses.

        Another case where they prefer trains: currently there is a plan to build a regional rail system, primarily aimed at commuters, that will connect DFW, Waco, Austin, and San Antonio (I don’t know if they have plans to extend it to the East toward Houston at any point). The wonks love this rail, and have been pushing really hard for local governments to get on board. It would allow someone to commute from Austin to San Antonio, or vice versa, in a little over an hour during rush hour, which is insane (it’s an hour drive when traffic is light), and it’s relatively inexpensive.Report

      • morat20 in reply to morat20 says:


        Actually, Houstonians have been really annoyed with the light rail. Mostly because it DOESN’T connect the suburbs and outlying towns (ie, everyone that commutes) to the city. Of course, it doesn’t because you have to start somewhere — the light rail connects the main areas of downtown together, with the plan being to slowly replace the park-and-ride bus system with light rail lines.

        The initial problem being is that ‘riding into town for work’, with Houston, is problematic as there are a number of places you might work inside the Loop that aren’t in walkable distances from each other.

        You have to be able to get from say, the Medical Center to the Court district to Rice Village once you’re IN Houston. No point in riding a rail line to downtown and then being 10 miles from your job. 🙂Report

      • Damon in reply to morat20 says:

        And here’s another issue:

        Back in the day, a coworker would take public transport as follows:
        Drive to the Metro parking lot and pay for parking
        Metro to Union Station for connection to nearest metro stop to office
        Take buss to closest buss stop to office, walk the 1/2 mile to work

        It took him @ 30 minutes or more vs diving. The cost for his commute on public transport was greater than the cost of him driving each week (main’t costs included in the car expenses) When I asked him why he did that, he said he didn’t have to drive in rush hour. OFC he was coming into the office at 8am…so…..He probably could have avoided a lot of the rush by leaving for work at 6am and he wouldn’t have to walk that last half mile in the snow / rain.

        Light / heavy rail doesn’t address the commute from one suburb to the other well. Sure it’s great if you live near a stop….Report

  5. Kimmi says:

    One of the reasons people like Bus Rapid Transit or Rail lines (where they aren’t on-traffic) is the faster commute time.

    For most buses, you’re looking at a longer commute. (I don’t mind the longer commute, but it only eats an hour out of my day.)Report

  6. dragonfrog says:

    At a literally gut level, I much prefer trains – buses move in a stop-and-go motion, they sway back and forth, and can easily lead to motion sickness. Trains move much more smoothly.

    Regular buses are also absolutely limited to be slower than any mode of transportation besides walking (and don’t even reliably beat walking) – they can move at most at the speed of traffic, but must stop every couple of blocks, so they can never ride a wave of greens even if the lights are timed to support it. Trains typically either bypass traffic altogether (subways) or preempt the lights, so they always get a green (LRT).Report

    • Kimmi in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Bus rapid transit gets around this.

      And trains sure as hell do sway when they’re driven at well over the speedlimit (Amtrak!!).Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Kimmi says:

        Fair enough – in my city, the most rapid of buses is the “express” bus, which just means it has further between stops, but still shares road space with all other traffic. Meanwhile, the trains are a light rail system, and for whatever reason don’t seem to get particularly seasickness-inducing.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Kimmi says:


        The express/limited bus stops are the same and they don’t tend to get express until one is far from downtown.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kimmi says:

        When I was in Ottawa, there were express bus routes that were on separate roads from the traffic and had very few traffic lights in addition to having more widely spaced stops. They were very fast and convenient, and provided all the key benefits of rail at a much lower cost.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to dragonfrog says:

      +1 to this.

      In my hometown of Madison, Wis, if you’re trying to get from downtown to relatively near-East or West sides, it’s really a crapshoot whether waiting for the bus will ultimately save you any time at all. Start hauling on foot, and likely as not the bus you would have waited for catches up to you a couple of blocks from your destination. All you would have done by taking the bus is pass up an opportunity for some exercise and spend a couple of dollars (which, to be fair, is often enough exactly what I’m in the market for).

      Now, if you’re going from the West side to the East side, then certainly taking the buss will save you time. But I guess what I’m getting at is that, where there are metro trains (eg. NYC, Chicago, & Minn-St. Paul in my range of experience), they tend to run on much more frequent intervals – on the order of 10 minutes, 15 at the longest. Whereas it seems like buses frequently come at 20-30 minute intervals. I don’t know the reasons for this, and I hear all the time about proposals to change it. But it has seemed like a pretty constant fact across various cities I have been in.

      Whatever the underlying feelings people have about riding buses versus trains, so long as trains consistently offer more frequent departures (thus increasing the value of the trip to the stop and decreasing the cost of mistiming said trip), that demonstrated preference will, I expect, stay robustly in place.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Drew says:


        It isn’t just frequency, it’s also accuracy of the stop time. If I want to catch the 0900 train, barring an incident on the track, I can be fairly certain that the train will be at the station before 0900 and it will remain at the station until 0900.

        Buses I have to plan on it being possibly 5 minutes early, & up to possibly 10 minutes late, with the risk of it not showing up at all (even in Madison, I used to bus a lot in the winter, when I didn’t feel like riding my bike to campus). Then factor in some routes at some times are so crowded you can’t get on…Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:


        I guess the reason I focus on frequency is that it kind of obviates accuracy of schedule. If a train in NYC happens to get delayed or something (which does happen) that’s a bother, but regardless the biggest impact it is likely to have on your commute is 8 or ten minutes or so, since that’s when the next train is schedule (unless the whole line gets disrupted). OTOH, in Madison if you miss a bus for whatever reason – your fault or theirs – it can screw up your whole day because it can be a half hour or more before the next bus. It would just be much less of an issue if the next bus were ten minutes out rather than 30.Report

      • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Frequency is the #1 thing transit experts stress, for the reasons Michael touches on. If you make buses frequent, you get riders. Next is dedicated lanes and straight routes.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Yet somehow it never really seems to happen for buses, while it seems like the norm for trains.

        I wonder if this isn’t in a sense a closed- versus open system thing. A train system is closed in that there is a limited set of routes and no variable really other than the rails and the cars. Bus systems otoh basically serve most of the roadways of a given city. Just simply the volume of service up-scaling involved in raising frequency across a whole bus system is probably daunting compared to doing it for a more defined train system.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …also, more bus frequency equals more buses in traffic ( or fewer lanes for cars or both), which puts it in conflict with the interests of car commuters, which is where the real political power lies as far as people interacting with their local government as commuters (which is a big part of that overall interaction) goes.

        Whereas no one really gives a crap as car commuters if train frequency goes up. Doesn’t impact me; that’s all happening in its own track!Report

      • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with the conflict with cars reason.

        I’d make the whole place carless, of course. 😉Report

      • aaron david in reply to Michael Drew says:

        A huge portion of Sacramento’s light rail is on surface streets as it moves around the capital building. This is by necessity, but it does tie up many of the roads leading downtown.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Drew says:

        @michael-drew, its perfectly possible to run a competent bus system with heavy frequencies. It doesn’t even need to be BRT. Many cities in Europe and Asia manage to run bus systems really well based on personal experience.

        America’s problem is that a lot of public transportation systems are treated more as social welfare programs rather than as transportation services. In cities without rail-based transit of some sort, buses are seen as being for people who can’t drive a car for some reason rather than for people who just want to get around without a car. This means that the agencies that run them don’t have a lot of reasons to run them well. Rail-based transit has a wider class range that uses it so cities with rail based transit tend to treat public transportation, including buses, as a general transportation service rather than as a welfare service.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Drew says:


        That ties into what I was saying to Chris downthread. If buses are treated as minimalist, spartan conveyances unworthy of care, you will discourage those for whom that matters. I’m sure some would rather people just disregard their preferences and ride buses because it’s the right thing to do, but as we all know, people aren’t interested in that. If you want riders, you need to cater to them.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Drew says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist, everything is a service and the service that caters to the widest possible group will be the best used.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Michael Drew says:

        We have 10 minute buses on our east busway.
        The corridor from Oakland to Downtown also has about 8 different routes that service it — so even if each of them is only a 30 minute bus, you’ve got 8 of them, so… you tend to average out to something quick and convenient.

        Some routes really don’t need all that much in the way of frequency, but it’s always, always nice if the “core routes” have something approaching instantaneous travel.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Not sure if @leeesq is agreeing with me, or being facetious in some subtle fashion…Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Buses can beat cars on highways if there are HOV lanes. The problem in the Bay Area is that electric cars, which have HOV privileges even when single-passenger, are now plentiful enough to make all lanes go at roughly the same speed.Report

  7. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    My opening thoughts:

    Heavy Rail:

    Pros – Fast, usually dedicated rail/right of way, large passenger capacity, comfortable
    Cons – Expensive to build & operate for just passengers

    Thoughts: Good system for moving people between distant areas (city to city, metro to metro, state to state).
    Moving people by heavy rail is not usually the most efficient use of that resource, moving freight is. Perhaps, like many airlines do, passenger rail lines could offer freight service as well?

    Light rail:

    Pros – Can be fast on dedicated rails, usually comfortable. Fixed stations & routes offer predictability.
    Cons – Godawful expensive to build and operate. Like, seriously, WTF? New lines have to either displace traffic, or homes – neither is politically a fun thing. Difficult to move if populations shift around.

    Thoughts: When placed correctly, light rail can offer an excellent way to move people around. Light rail/subways/elevateds work best when connecting areas where the populations are stable and not prone to large scale shifting of demographics. Manhatten does well with subways because it is a heavily developed island, surrounded by other heavily developed metro areas. Absent an event that leaves large scale destruction in the area, the NY Metro area will continue to get good service from it’s rail system. Similarly places like Chicago and San Francisco. Portland can get a similar effect thanks to the Urban Growth Boundary.


    Pros – Cheap to setup & operate. Incredibly flexible to changing needs. Effective & efficient at moving people.
    Cons – Uncomfortable, unpredictable, usually subject to traffic conditions.

    Thoughts: Buses should always be the primary public transit option for a community. As a city ages and it becomes clear that there are certain bus routes that are high capacity and very stable, those could be converted to light rail. The biggest issues with buses are the unpredictable nature. Not just of whether or not the bus stop sign will be there tomorrow, but even the day to day concern of if the bus will be on time, or even arrive. And if it does arrive, will it be too full to take me on (especially if I have a bike, or a stroller, etc)? Couple that with the fact that buses tend to be very uncomfortable, etc. and you do get a lot of the middle class ridership avoiding the buses.

    Bus transit could be, IMHO, fixed in two ways:

    1) The technology exists, right now, to track vehicles in real time. The cost to place a GPS transciever on each city bus that reports back to a central server that puts that data on a smartphone map is something that is already being done with things like ZipCar. There is no good reason why I can’t have a transit app that lets me track the buses on a route or routes of interest, with etas to given stops, so I can decide when I need to leave my home or office to catch the bus without having to get there too early and stand out in the weather. Likewise, each bus should be able to report exactly how many passengers it has on board, what % capacity it is at, if it has any bike racks open, or wheel chair spaces, or spots for strollers, etc. Not only would such information inform ridership, so perahps that can find another route, or just wait for the next bus, but the data such reporting would provide to the trasit authority would be invaluable for planning purposes.

    2) Transit has to do better about prohibiting trouble riders. Part of why transit works is because people respect that fact that we are all letting everyone into our personal space for the sake of getting where we need to be. People who can not be peaceful about that, should not be allowed to ride. This means people who have a history of starting fights, or trying to rob people, as well as people who just can not sit quietly and who have to tell you about Jesus, or the latest government conspiracy, etc. A system of warnings, followed by prohibition, would go far. Even if enforcement of prohibited riders would be problematic, letting the majority of the ridership feel as if the system has a plan in place and they can take part in it is a big step. Right now, for the most part, ridership feels helpless, as if the very fact that they get on a bus means they may have to be subjected to someone elses bad behavior.

    Finally, dedicated lanes for express buses do help a lot. I remember in Everett, we had Swift Buses, which used dedicated lanes, had signal priority, and ran on very consistent schedules. You paid your faire at the platform kiosk and just boarded with a ticket. Quick & easy & comfortable.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Maybe Pittsburgh just doesn’t have its share of kooks, but… about the only really noisy people are the high schoolers, and they’re just talking with each other.

      Not that I haven’t heard descriptions of abuse or gang violence, but they don’t “happen” on the buses.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


      NYC-Metro appears does not have much light-rail. The suburban commuter lines and subway are all considered heavy rail. I don’t think I have ever seen a suburban commuter line in the U.S. as good as NYCs. My hometown had at least two trains an hour to and from the City, seven days a week. There were more trains during weekday rush hours. Most other heavy rail commuter trains seem to only operate during the business hours. NYC commuter trains operate from about 5 AM until 12 PM or 1 AM daily.

      I generally like the T in Boston but it does seem to have problems. Veronica D can tell us all about the current woes of the T because of heavy snow.

      Re: Trouble Riders. This is where you get into the problem of local politics and activism. Animals are officially banned from public transport except service animals but the only question bus riders (and other places are allowed to ask) is “Is that a service animal?” and they have to take yes as an answer. There are a lot of nuisances on public transport but I think there is a real enforcement issue in large cities and people will probably be more annoyed about delayed travel if a bus driver needs to stop to eject a disruptive passanger. Suppose SF has 2000 people who should be banned from public transportation for always being disruptive? How are you going to enforce this? How are you going to get bus riders to remember 2000 faces?Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Re: subways & light rail – ok. I consider heavy rail to be on par with AMTRACK, but that’s just me.

        Trouble Riders – yes, enforcement would be tough (I acknowledge that in my original comment). Still, don’t discount the psychological value of having a way to report trouble riders, and knowing that action can happen. Also, riders won’t remember 2000 faces, but they will remember the ones on their regular routes that cause trouble. Which means trouble makers will have to keep changing routes & times, and if they just can not help but be trouble makers, they’ll run out of routes pretty quick where someone won’t recognize them & report them.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Don’t crazy people have a right to public transportation too?
        I mean, I’ve seen people obviously drinking on the bus, eating — doing tons of objectionable things. Noisy folks ain’t the half of it.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        Crazy people have exactly the same privileges & responsibilities as the rest of us. They have the privilege to ride the bus, and the responsibility to not harass those around them. Can’t avoid harassing people, you lose the privilege.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        PS Thanks for the shout outReport

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist @saul-degraw

        A clearer definition of the difference between light rail and heavy rail would be very helpful.Report

      • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @kazzy heavy rail is what you usually think of as rail: train cars carrying freight or passengers (e.g. Amtrack or the LIR) with a separate engine car (or multiple engines for really long/heavy freight trains) pulling it along.

        Light rail can vary in the types of cars it uses, but it’s basically streetcars, at least one of which will be self-propelled, riding on rail tracks.

        Here in Austin the one commuter rail route operates with light cars on existing freight track. In Houston and Dallas, the track was built specifically for the light cars, in places right down the middle of the street, like proper streetcars.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        What advantage do trains that lack of a dedicate right of way have over buses? Seems to me they combine the the downsides of rail (cost, infrastructure, defined routes) with the downside of buses (traffic)?

        NYC’s subways go above ground in some spots but never interact with traffic. Meanwhile, the worst lines on the T in Boston (the Green Line B and E spurs, the latter in particular) are easily the worst because they have to compete with traffic. Why?Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I think (don’t know for sure) that it’s easier to put another car on a light-rail, and bus drivers cost a lot.Report

      • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Streetcars avoid most traffic, so they are generally faster than cars in dense areas during heavy traffic times (morning and afternoon rushes, e.g.). They are somewhat limited by traffic, but for the most part have right of way over cars.

        They may not be better than buses with dedicated lanes (it’s going to depend on the specifics of the location), but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get buses dedicated lanes in the dense areas where light rail works best. Here in Austin they had to move buses off of the center of the city core to get semi-dedicated lanes (they are bus only, except people turning right, which means there are a lot of cars in the lanes during rush hours). Light rail would easily outpace the buses in those lanes.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        bus only… except for people turning right? that’s worse than pittsburgh! (we have a wide street — fifth avenue — it’s one way for cars, but two way for buses (they get a single lane heading the opposite direction)). Naturally, newcomers (and it runs right by a uni) often say “ooh, free lane no one’s using!”, not reading the multiple signs. We try to flag them before the cops get ’em, but… It’s still a headache.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      I’m going to add one other fix for buses – the idea of Ready 5’s.

      On Navy Carriers, the Ready 5 is any aircraft that is ready to launch in 5 minutes, so it’s standing by, pilot in the cockpit or nearby, fueled, armed, and ready to go.

      At certain times, on certain routes, buses operate at or near capacity, such that any unexpected influx of riders will leave passengers behind. A bus driver should be able to radio his base and say something like, “I’m almost packed, I got 10 more stops before I hit downtown & start unloading passengers, I need a Ready bus to start following me.”, and the depot will dispatch a ready bus to do just that, follow the full bus & keep taking on passengers on schedule.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      I strongly oppose the idea of barring people (who often can’t afford other forms of transportation) from using bus systems purely on the basis that other people find them aggravating. Yes, sometimes it’s annoying when someone on the bus wants to talk to you and sometimes you don’t want to talk, but a gaggle of teenagers gossipping with each other constantly can be equally annoying, or someone on their cell phone, can be equally annoying, so the idea of what sort of people should be banned from transit is largely class-based.

      Using warnings and restrictions to prevent violence on transit systems is fine; using them to exclude people whose behaviour (or attire, or smell) we don’t like is not.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to KatherineMW says:

        I think there is a difference between the annoying person on their cell phone, or the noisy teenagers, versus the person who has to share the ramblings in their head with YOU!

        The former are annoying by proximity, but not threatening; the latter is creeping into the territory of harassment (no physical contact yet, but you are in my personal space, apparently unhinged, and I am possibly trapped in a fashion).Report

    • Van_Owen in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      In Chicago you can use a smartphone app to get ETAs for any bus or El stop in the city, which is pretty nice. No GPS tracking though, which would be nice. What’s interesting is that you can see some bus positions through Transloc, which is an app that affiliates with colleges/universities and shows nearby transit. If you’re in Hyde Park (where The University of Chicago is located), you can see where the busses that serve the area are through the UChicago Transloc page. Not sure why they haven’t added that functionality on the general CTA smartphone app.

      ETAs are nice but often inadequate. I’ve spent ten plus minutes in the past waiting for a bus that was “due” more times than I’d care to remember. The rest of that info, fullness etc, would be very cool as well.Report

  8. Chris says:

    Wonk people don’t prefer buses over trains, but they recognize that each serve a purpose. Bus lines are easier and cheaper to build and maintain, while trains often provide speed and frequency that buses cannot in really dense areas, or over long trips (say from suburbs and exurbs into city cores). It’s true that some politicians are enamored with rail, but for the most part, the choice of bus or rail and where to put it is so complex, with so many stakeholders, and so much money and influence being thrown around, that the result is rarely the optimal or even one of the least suboptimal options.

    As for “bourgeois” buses, I just happen to have some experience in this area. I’ve lived carless in Austin (I suspect there are more cities in which it’s possible to live carless than you think) for several years now, and ridden the bus almost exclusively (we have a commuter train that runs from a northern suburb to downtown, which I’ve taken once). Last January, Capital Metro, the city’s transit agency, introduced its first quasi-BRT route, which it pretty explicitly advertised as train on wheels and “bourgeois” busing. That first route uses brand new, spiffy-looking double buses with free wi-fi, scanners for electronic passes, and shiny new stops with scrolling arrival information updated in real time. In June, they added a second quasi-BRT route, this time with shiny new larger (but not double buses), that happened to be on my daily route, and which I now take daily.

    When they added the “rapid” route to my daily route, I noticed a change almost immediately. I often joke that my bus is now really boring, as gone are the drunk people, the homeless people, the really, really smelly people (except the students — seriously, UT students don’t shower), and I don’t remember the last time I witnessed an “incident” on a bus. Instead, I now ride with mostly young professionals and students typing on their computers with headphones on, or reading a book with headphones on. Everyone’s well-dressed, well-groomed, and well-behaved. It is, in other words, a completely new ridership, one filled with people I’d never seen on my buses before last June.

    To further stress the point, this new “rapid” line that I ride’s northern terminus is in the incredibly bourgeie, expensive residential and shopping mecca The Domain, a few miles north of where I live. The old “local” bus (that’s what they call the non-“rapid” buses now) on this route has had two stops at The Domain since it opened about a decade ago, but those stops were really dead (I rarely waited at one with anyone else). The new “rapid” bus stop in The Domain is frequently packed with young professionals who clearly have money (R. remarked that one of the kids we saw get off at The Domain stop a couple weekends ago was wearing a several-thousand dollar watch; just looked like a nice watch to me, but she would know), but who weren’t riding the bus before the “rapid” route showed up.

    It’s pretty clear to me that the embourgeoisement of the bus system has resulted in an increase in middle and perhaps upper middle class ridership. Unfortunately, in Austin, this has been at the expense of further burdening the existing, less middle class ridership, but this doesn’t have to be the case (Cap Metro is well known for the contempt it has for its existing ridership). However, the influx of riders from new demographics has led Cap Metro to begin planning for new “rapid” routes in recently gentrified neighborhoods with existing, high-ridership routes.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Chris says:

      Wonks prefer gondolas.
      (what? we have rivers here, and bridges are expensive!)Report

      • Chris in reply to Kimmi says:

        No wonk anywhere prefers gondolas.

        Crazy rich people sometimes prefer gondolas, but that’s one of the benefits of being rich: you can say crazy ass shit and people feel like they have to listen.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        It’s cheaper than trains or buses. What’s not to like??

        Every year someone brings it to City Council. Every year City Council says “we’re not that crazy”Report

      • Chris in reply to Kimmi says:

        Yeah, someone raises the idea for Austin as well, every few years. Austin regularly finds itself as one of the top 5 worst traffic cities in the country, and the problems are getting worse by the day, so it’s what Austinites talk about the most, and crazy people with crazy ideas are bound to get ahold of the mic occasionally.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:
        7 times the capacity, half the cost, Twice the speed.
        Seriously, there’s no reason this couldn’t work, other than politicians are old fuddy duddies.

        (Pittsburgh’s is particularly grand because you’re running it from one high point to another, so you’re cutting out a lot of “pushing several ton vehicles up 300 feet”).Report

      • Chris in reply to Kimmi says:

        Seriously, there’s no reason this couldn’t work

        Aaaaaand clearly there are no urban planners or transit experts among your myriad imaginary friends.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        says the psychologist?
        Seriously, cite me one logistical challenge that you’ve solved, using your own unique solution (not cribbed from online, and not simple enough to be trivial).

        Do you even know what entropy coding is? or where it’s used?

        Note: I am not claiming to be an expert in compression. I do, however, claim that I’ve worked on active research into the field of compression. From what I’ve mentioned above, it would be trivial to understand what general sub-field I’ve been working on.Report

      • North in reply to Kimmi says:

        Not crazy Rich people, Chris, eccentric rich people. You have to be poor to be crazy. Rich mentally unstable people are eccentric.Report

      • Chris in reply to Kimmi says:

        North, heh… good point.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Kimmi says:

        Kimmi, you sound like the people who tell us that ALL society’s problems would be solved if only we let go of our foolish resistance to the concept of replacing all vehicles with steam-powered zeppelins.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        That’s iron zeppelins, isn’t it?
        *hums O Canada!*Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kimmi says:

        I don’t know about Pittsburgh, but cable car systems can be incredibly effective for places built on mountainsides. Bolivia’s recently created a cable car system between the capital of La Paz and the (lower-income) city/suburb of El Alto farther up in the mountains. It takes half an hour, compared to the hour-long commute needed by bus; avoids the congestion and pollution caused by traffic; and the price is being kept low so that people who come from El Alto to La Paz to work can afford it. It’s used by many people from the full range of economic classes and sectors of society, and is being expanded.

        Cable cars: not just for the rich anymore.

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        Pittsburgh’s got plenty of functional cable cars… ‘Course, we’ve also got the hills for it.Report

      • Van_Owen in reply to Kimmi says:

        Until I clicked that CityLab link, I assumed this conversation was about Venetian-style gondolas…Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Chris says:

      Our Swift buses had the same thing. Mostly commuters, lot less trouble makers.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        It’s definitely data in favor of making buses more bourgie to attract more bourgie riders. I was worried, when Cap Metro began talking about their “rapid” system, that no one would ride it, because it’s more expensive than the “local” routes. I was so, so wrong, because I wasn’t expecting people who’d never consider the bus to become daily riders almost overnight.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Buses are thought of as the mass transit of the poor precisely because they are operated as such bleak & spartan systems (i.e. what the poor can afford).

        If I’m making close to 6 figures, I don’t want to ride on a bus that has hard plastic seats, unstable temperatures, bad smells, poor suspension systems, and no amenities.

        I want to Google/Microsoft bus.

        But I’ll pay a premium for a public bus that has good seats, a decent climate system, a smooth ride, and wi-fi.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        plenty of people making that much ride my bus every day. It’s not exactly Paradise either.

        Taking the bus is a lifestyle choice.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        My point, which you seem to be missing, is while a public bus will never be paradise, it’s doesn’t have to be the vestibule of hell, either.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I’m not even sure that’s not an exaggeration. Here is a photo of the interior of a bus on Austin’s main rapid line, looking from front to back, through the bendy part (which my son’s 6-year old brother loves to stand on):×425-9639904499f040aa7056fbec340ba7d7142ee6ab/MetroRapidbus_03465.JPG?cb=5a0ca79fc31f321b3de0505a836b6557

        As you can see, it’s not all that luxurious: basically normal bus seats, but new, so they don’t look like drunk people have been peeing on them for 10 years, and they’re not falling apart. In fact, those inward facing seats can be rather uncomfortable. This has not stopped the yuppies from riding in large numbers.

        It looks to me like what the yuppies wanted was not really comfortable seats, just clean buses with fewer poor people.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I’ll add this: I understand this to some extent. Before they added the rapid line to my route, I was considering doing a “Chris’ Bus Diary” series, because crazy shit happened so often on the “local” bus that I could probably do a weekly post and entertain at least the 5 people who read things I write. I’m talkin’ fights, seriously, seriously drunk or high people, people with schizophrenia, people who are just generally jerks, and some of the oddest conversations I’ve ever had, along with really awkward moments (“Man, it smells like something died in here!” Then the guy in front of me turns around and says, “Oh, that’s me. I just finished a shift packing fish.” “Er… oh, yeah.”). Then I started riding the “rapid” bus, mostly because they radically altered the “local” bus’ schedule, making the “rapid” line more convenient. My commute became so boring that a “Chris’ Bus Diary” would mostly consist of me complaining about how the wi-fi was down.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        What time were you riding the buses?

        I don’t tend to ride late nights anymore, but… when I used to get on near the hospital, there were often crazy folks there.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I think it has less to do with the presence of poor people, and more to do with a well kept bus. Hell, even the insulated padding in the bendy section is a nice touch. Last time I rode a King County bendy bus, the accordion fabric was exposed, and torn in a lot of places, so you could feel winter blowing in.

        While I think there is often too much emphasis placed on Broken Windows Policing, the idea has merit. If your buses are clean, comfortable, & well kept, your riders are happier and you get more of them. If they are crap on wheels, then the only people who will ride them are those who have no choice, and the few who have made a very deliberate choice to do so (Kimmie’s “Lifestyle Choice” riders).Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        yeah, if you have a decent bus system (ours isn’t that bad, actually, on a broken windows sort of way — rarely seats that are wet with unknown substances… no problems with the accordions, ever).

        Worth noting that some of the “Lifestyle Choice” is “I work for the Port Authority (as an exec), I’d damn well better take public transportation”Report

      • Chris in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Kim, I ride at all hours. My morning commute is early (before 7), but in the afternoon and evening I ride everything from the afternoon rush hour buses to the last night owl (leaves downtown a little after 3 am).Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        @chris @mad-rocket-scientist

        Here is the thing I don’t get about the “poor people take the bus” meme.

        The NYC subway has plenty of annoying and/or crazy stuff happen on it.

        You have the “It’s showtime” break dancers who are largely just annoying and occasionally amusing.

        There are homeless people. I’d venture that there are more homeless people on the subway than the buses because the subway runs for 24 hours and can provide good shelter from the elements, air conditioning in summer (sometimes) and heat in winter (sometimes).

        You have couples engaged in epic make out sessions (one of my least favorite subway rides involved sitting next to a young couple involved in an epic make-out session).

        You have people asking for money or something to eat. They will get on one car. Make their down on their luck speech. Get what they can and move onto the next car.

        No subway car is a graffitied out as they were during the 1980s but they are not all new either. My route when I lived in NYC seemed to only have older subway trains. The subway trains have plastic chairs, etc.

        Yet people don’t know the subway like they knock the bus.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        No idea. I mean, in New York everyone takes the subway, so that probably has something to do with it: it’s as associated with business people as it is with homeless people or slightly crazy people singing “N____ in Paris” really loud. Plus the subway is unique (there are only a few of them in this country) and, in New York at least, an institution. My understanding is that in L.A., the subway is looked down upon much the way buses tend to be.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I’ve never been to NYC, so all I know is what I see on the various TV shows that are set there, but…

        My impression is that the subway is as much a part of the necessary living infrastructure of the city as water & sewer are. It is a mostly fixed, constant required part of the city, without which the city would quite possibly fail to function. It has it’s own culture, in a manner of speaking. It even has it’s own police force. The subway is a part of the spirit of NYC. So I think it gets a certain level of tolerance that buses do not.

        But, like I said, I’ve never been there, it’s possible the TV has lied to me.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Bus cleanliness and appointment definitely is a factor in bus ridership, @mad-rocket-scientist & @chris .

        But the interesting thing is that it’s not clear to me that it’s strong enough to overwhelm the preference of professional-type commuters for trains when available.

        There are always a few nice trains in NYC’s subway system, but generally taking the train in New York is a pretty austere experience. Whereas the bus fleet in my experience was usually in pretty good shape, with mostly newish buses (precisely because you’re right that people just won’t get on truly nasty buses). Yet nowhere is the preference for trains as pro uncle as in NYC, is my impression.

        I definitely think you guys are right that folks will get on buses if it will be a pleasant experience. But for some reason, it seems, they’ll get on a train just because it’s a train. I think that’s partly because they tend to think they’re quicker and run more frequently. But I’m still curious about whether there’s more to it than that.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        In NYC, subways and commuter trains are probably quicker because they have their own dedicated tracks and NYC buses need to compete with the rest of the road for traffic.

        Subways officially have a schedule but I’ve never been able to find it useful.

        When I lived in NYC, I never took the bus. My first apartment was pretty far from the subway but it was still a faster trip than bus to grad school. My second apartment was on a very convenient subway line.

        As I said above, the bus in NYC is for going cross town or if taking the subway would be a very elaborate route. I knew a woman who lived in Coney Island but taught in Canarsie. If she took the subway to work, she would need to take a 30-40 minute subway ride into Union Square, transfer to another subway line (the L) and take the L all the way to the end. This would be another 30-40 minutes. Her travel time was much lower by taking the bus. And there are a few places in NYC that don’t have good subway service.

        The only times I would take the bus is if something rendered the subway unusable and even then I would probably walk because everyone else was crowding into the bus.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I think I’ve told you this, but I rode the bus to and from the airport when staying in downtown Austin (by Sixth Street and 35… near the Wendys! Is that still there?). It never occurred to me not to do that. I mean, the bus was there and cost a couple bucks and stopped mere blocks from my hotel. This was about 5 or 6 years ago on a couple of different occasions. Did I do that wrong?

        Actually, I took two different busses. One took me down by the college. The other was when we were staying in the recently gentrified neighborhood on the other side of 35. Right near Franklin. I think that was a different route.

        God, I should go back to Austin.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        You definitely should come back.

        There are two buses that go to the airport. One is the airport flyer (the 100), which covers campus and downtown. It’s mostly travelers and airport staff. The other is a cross town route (doesn’t go downtown) that stops at the county jail east of the airport as well. That is an interesting ride sometimes.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:


      Burden them how?Report

      • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Sorry @michael-drew , just saw this: when they started the BRT routes, they significantly reduced “local” service on the same routes. Keep in mind, the rapid routes have many fewer stops, so it can be hard to even get to it, and it’s more expensive (about 1/3 more).

        When they opened the light rail line, they were so over budget, and maintenance was so much more expensive than they’d budgeted, that they had to reduce bus service, including eliminating routes (they promised they’d come back, but that was 5 years ago).Report

  9. Burt Likko says:

    I’m a recent switchover to commuter rail for transit from my exurb to DTLA. Actually quite pleased with the value-for-service that commuter rail provides, although this is a function of my having assessed alternatives to commuter rail (most specifically driving) as worse. I also am conscious of the fact that taxpayers are subsidizing my commuter rail tickets. Commuter rail is a slightly different game than urban light rail, though.

    Urban light rail is pretty good for getting people to places where planners know a lot of people are going to want to be. Here in L.A., the light rail lines have stops located near places where there’s going to be a lot of foot traffic — it’s relatively easy and fast to get from Union Station to the courts, the financial district, Staples Center, USC, Cal State L.A., Exposition Park and the museums there (big family attractions), commercial centers in Mid-Wilshire, County-USC Medical Center, and within a few blocks of large employers. And while it’s taken a while, the fixed locations of the stops have turned into magnets for further development, with restaurants and nightlife growing in part because the metro feeds those establishments their customers. In older cities with more established light rail and subway systems, this is much more advanced.

    When I go to places like New York, Washington, and Chicago, the ubiquity of the local rail transport systems is woven into the cultural fabric of those cities, with proximity to stations being one of the most desirable features of real estate and a driver of development. That’s the endgame of what L.A. (a latecomer to the game) is trying to achieve right now. Which means increased commercial activity, increasing property values, and increasing tax revenues. Thus, politicians see it as a good investment.

    Busses don’t do that. Proximity to a bus stop is not really a factor in driving up the desirability of a location. In part because busses are typically used by lower-income people, they don’t bring the same kind or amount of foot traffic where they run. Bus lines also don’t involve construction work and thus are of only trivial use as economic stimuli. While bus lines can quickly adapt to address rapid changes in geographical residence and employment patterns, the rail lines become foci of those patterns to change and give city planners tools to project long-term growth and development.

    This, of course, all assumes a political atmosphere free of corruption.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Another reason why a bus hasn’t generally stimulated development at a given intersection is the variability in when the bus gets to a given point. If it’s 5 minutes till the train, you have 5 minutes to grab and drink a coffee. Bus arrives anywhere from 5 minutes early to 10 late, and you’re waiting the whole time.Report

    • Van_Owen in reply to Burt Likko says:


      Another reason, I think, that bus stops are not seen as a factor of additional desirability, at least in Chicago, is that there are so many of them and they go so many places. There are approximately 128 bus routes in Chicago. They go all over the place. I’d wager that in most places in chicago, you’re rarely more than a few blocks from A bus stop. But because the busses go everywhere, it necessarily follows that not all busses go somewhere that is particularly appealing other than to the people who live there. So, a location near a bus that runs all night and goes downtown along a major road (like the 66 on Chicago Avenue) may be desirable. But most bus stops aren’t like that. El stops, on the other hand, are by and large gateways to routes into the downtown, as well as the rest of the system accessible by the loop.

      The convenience of deploying busses leads to their ubiquity, which makes their average desirability much lower.Report

  10. zic says:

    Thinking of rail/buses through in terms of our largest cities, where there is already infrastructure for both, does this topic a disservice. It’s the medium-sized and smaller cities that really benefit from this discussion.

    Rail is difficult within a city because it’s expensive. I’d like to see more electric busses/street trolleys; perhaps tethered to overhead powerlines on streets, and a huge investment in roof-top solar energy to offset the power costs. You could even set up a system of exchange for people to defray fares with their own solar credits. I’d go for vehicles that are smaller and lighter then big city busses, and that run frequently, say every 15 min. In most small/medium cities, busses run so infrequently that they’re not useful for being places at specific times; and they often leave people out in yucky weather for a long time; cold in the north, heat in the south.Report

  11. Michael Cain says:

    I’ll note that the light-rail lines the wonks (and pundits more specifically) dislike tend to be in big coastal metro areas and have several common features they are criticized for: land (other than public roadways) for the right-of-way is hideously expensive; the routes tend to be filled with frequent at-grade crossings of major roads; they stop frequently; in many cases the operator has to sell tickets as people board. In short, yeah, they’re expensive buses.

    My perception of where light-rail is doing well (or at least better) are situations where the suburbs are building light-rail systems that are a very large improvement on longer-distance express bus service. Suburban stations tend to come with large parking garages because the working assumption is that people will drive to the station rather than riding local buses. Salt Lake City. Denver. To some extent, Dallas. These systems all avoid most of the problems described in the first paragraph. They operate on their own right-of-way, major road crossings are not at grade, you buy tickets from the machine before you get to the boarding platform.

    I’ve been reading about the rather distinctive growth patterns of western cities lately. One of the characteristics that makes many of them different than eastern metro areas is that the suburban municipalities are much fewer and much larger, so decision making can be easier. Denver comes in at 650,000; almost all of the inner-ring suburbs are >100,000 (Aurora is almost 350,000). Almost none of the light-rail line placements involved RTD negotiating with more than Denver and one suburb. When I lived in NJ, you could drive eleven miles and pass through a half-dozen or more towns. Negotiating light-rail placement is enormously more complicated in that situation.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Sorta yes, sorta no. Pittsburgh already has a lot of right of ways (then again, we also have BRT). We’re currently using them for bikes, but there’s no reason we couldn’t put a train on some of the old track-lines.

      Advantage of “it used to run trains”, no?Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kimmi says:

        Yep. Also some cases where the interstate was laid out with sufficient room to accommodate light rail in parallel. Not that the space was left for that purpose — mostly it was noise abatement. Lots of Denver’s light-rail lines share right-of-way with infrequently used freight lines, the interstates, and in one case what used to be part of Denver’s trolley system.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:


      I liked Portland’s light rails when I was in the city which was only for a little vacation. This goes with what Jim said above though. Light rail seems like a charming part of a vacation as opposed to a bus for some reason.

      Santa Clara has a suburban light rail system:

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        When my wife and I stay in Portland, we will sometimes find a hotel away from downtown, but near one of the TriMet lines. Cheaper hotel costs that way, but we still have easy access to downtown.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’ve found buses to be terribly charming things. Hell, I met a guy with a bald eagle feather on a bus (he was heading back to Seattle from a hike).Report

      • I liked Atlanta’s system when I was going to conferences there because the meetings tended to be at hotels within a block of the train station (usually up around Buckhead). Not having to mess with a rental car was really nice.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “Santa Clara has a suburban light rail system:”

        Which goes to neither the airport nor the downtown sports stadium, rendering it basically useless for most commuters other than San Jose State students or people going to court.

        (they did end up building the new football stadium sorta-near a light rail stop, but that was an example of development following transit rather than the other way around.)Report

    • morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

      That’s Houston’s long-term plan.

      Light-rail from park-and-ride stations scattered around the outlying regions, coupled with…light rail inside the loop to get people around to their various destinations (the dense ‘working’ areas. Medical center, courts, theater districts, sports stadiums).

      The idea being, basically, to get people to STOP driving into and out of Houston for stuff, especially if that stuff is ‘work’ because there’s no more room to make the freeways bigger.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to morat20 says:

        I think it’s the long-term plan for almost all of the western metro areas, and for exactly that reason — the population’s still growing, but especially in the city center and inner-ring suburbs, making the freeways bigger is going to be hideously expensive. I’m waiting for them to figure out circulator buses running at regular intervals through those relatively dense areas to get from the station to within reasonable walking distance.Report

      • morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        I admit, I only take the bus for jury duty (well, and the few times I’ve been forced to go to the rodeo). But then, I don’t work inside the loop. I don’t even get ON a freeway for my commute.

        I drive to most events downtown, but 90% of what I go to for that is the theater district. Where there’s parking AT the theater, and we walk to and from restaurants.

        If I worked downtown, I’d take the bus and then the rail when it got put in.Report

  12. North says:

    Minneapolis has been doing pretty well with her light rail. They’re extending it out to Saint Paul now. I consider it the gold standard for riding to the airport.

    My husband, lamentably, has a double whammy car-philia. First he’s American and Americans are bonkers about cars; second he came from a poor family growing up so he’s got an enormous hate for public transit due to its association with poverty in his youth.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to North says:

      That Americans went bonkers over cars is one of the weirder historical incidents that has yet to be adequately explained. Its easy to understand why people like driving but most of us Americans seemed to instantly identify the car as a uniquely American mode of transport. Cars spoke to our national image for some reason.Report

      • North in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I’m just from next door in Canada and I still don’t understand it. I held out for years pointing out that we lived in a densish urban area, that a car and insurance would be an unnecessary wasteful expense, that we could walk to the grocery store, that our work was a mere eight blocks away and on a bus route, that just because we had a heated underground parking space didn’t mean we couldn’t rent it out.

        In the end he just flat out said ‘I just want a car so we need to get one.” So for the sake of my marriage we got a bloody car. Americans and their cars, what the fish??Report

      • Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

        *shrugs* I dunno. Guys seem to have this “I am sexy” or “I can have sex where I want” wrapped up in their car.

        I walk my groceries from Costco home rather than have a full-time car.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        If I still lived in New York, I would agree with you. However, a car is much better for getting out of San Francisco.Report

      • North in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Personally, Saul, I’d prefer to use a plane to get out of San Francisco, or better yet a boat.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @north, I’ve been to Minneapolis for work and I’d say that you need a car there. The light rail network is small even by American standards and doesn’t cover a large area. If you want to go somewhere off the light rail network or outside it, which is probably a lot of places, you need a car.Report

      • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @leeesq – Minneapolis has a pretty extensive and fairly efficient bus system.Report

      • North in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Yes, Glyph rightly notes that Minneapolis’ bus system is top notch, the best I’ve ever seen. That said car ownership makes sense for many people around here- just didn’t make sense for us unless you factored in American carphillia.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Glyph knows about it from Replacement and Husker Du songs!Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I live in St. Paul, I consider myself strongly pro-careless-living when possible, and I wouldn’t particularly want to live here without a car. Though it certainly can be done.

        It’s beautiful in three seasons, and is a massive biking town. Lots of people bike through our ridiculous winters. I don’t understand those people. But there they are.Report

      • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        My wife’s brother lives car-less in MPLS. And when we visited years back in the dead of winter we made do without one, using buses and cabs and feets don’t fail me now, it’s cold as hell out here.Report

      • North in reply to LeeEsq says:

        MIchael Drew, you live in Saint Paul; I’m so sorry, what did you do?* I didn’t realize you were so close.
        Your observations are spot on. Minneapolis weather is like 75% perfection and 25% hell. Beats the pants off Nova Scotia which is 25% perfection, 50% suffering and 25% hell.

        *Just kidding.Report

  13. Mike Dwyer says:

    Just out of curiosity after reading this post I checked the website for our local bus system (TARC). I live in the exurbs and have a 25 mile commute. According to TARC it would take me 2hrs 52 minutes to get to work. Ouch!Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      What’s the drive like?
      FWIW, a 21 mile commute (from a different county, no less), comes out as an hour or so around here.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kimmi says:


        It usually takes me 30-45 minutes to drive to work. If I lived closer I would definitely consider taking the bus. We have a commuter lot very close to our house. The primary problem is that I don’t work in the middle of town. I work in a different suburb from the one I live in so bouncing all the way around the county takes forever.

        A topic that I think seems off-topic at first glance in the context of mass transit is e-commuting. In my opinion that has some serious potential to reduce the number of commuters out there. For example, I will be working from home tomorrow. That’s 50 miles round-trip I won’t be driving. I’m just one vehicle but with as many information workers as there are out there, this could add up quickly.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I had a similar issue when I lived in Everett & worked in Bellevue. 25 mile trip and no express bus available to go from Everett to Bellevue. I’d have to take 3 different buses, only one of them an express bus, to get to work, for a one way total of 2 hours & 30 minutes.

      The drive was about an hour & a half when traffic was bad.

      I just moved to Bellevue.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I have kind of the opposite problem – for work, if that was all I did, I could do park and ride, or soon enough light rail, and be competitive with commuting via auto (higher average time of commute but less frustration due to not being the driver).
        But – first world problem this – I regularly need to go to parks/schools to play soccer well after working hours. So I end up in situations where even if the field I’m at is served by busses (very hit and miss proposition), I’d have to make four or more connections to get home, starting at close to 11pm, all exhausted and carrying my sports bag on my lap. Even point to point in my car, it can be close to an hour – in the Seattle-Tacoma bus system it’s more likely three.
        The new expansion of light rail will be a legitimate alternative for me to get to work, but after work I’m pretty sure it’s literally impossible for a public alternative to compete with the convenience of the autokinoton (or, alternatively, ipsemobile – how exactly did we end up with a greek root and a latin root fused together?).Report

  14. Mike Schilling says:

    The night of OT-Fest BA, I took a bus home, because we stayed out past when the ferries stop running. It was extremely local (stopped at damned near every intersection in both SF and Sausalito), and got me only within a half-mile of where I was parked. But it was clean, comfortable, and safe, and as has been pointed out, those are the things that make buses a genuine option.Report

  15. KatherineMW says:

    As a general rule, buses are preferable to rail because they are far more inexpensive and far more flexible. In a midsize city, buses can do everything that rail can do at a much lower price; it is far easier and cheaper to build bus lanes and express bus routes than to construct a rail system.

    Personally, I like rail, and many people are willing to use rail lines who would not be inclined to use bus lines. One example is the Canada Line in Vancouver, built for the 2010 Olympics; it runs from the airport to downtown and is extremely popular and heavily used. Prior to the construction of the Canada Line, there were bus routes to the airport, but they were significantly less used by travellers.

    However, many of the things I like about rail lines can also be provided with express bus lines. Stations can be enclosed to keep people out of the rain/snow/wind; buses can be frequent (every few minutes); there can be express buses, which have assigned lanes and fewer stops, and are as fast as many subway or rail systems; and the time until the next bus arrives can be displayed at the station. Once these things are done, getting people to use the bus is primarily a perception issue; its service is equivalent to rail service.

    The exception to this rule is when a city is densely populated and most travel is along several main routes. Manhattan is perfect for a subway system, and there simply isn’t enough physical space for bus routes that would accommodate all the people who use the subway – not unless you wanted to ban cars entirely and have nothing but buses on the roads. But having buses for shorter or lesser-used routes is still effective as an addition to the subway.

    With regard to your point about bus stations being more moveable, that can be an advantage as well as a disadvantage: it takes years to plan and build a rail line, and by the time it’s done, population movements and density may have changed in ways that mean the rail line is in the wrong place to provide service to the maximum number of people. With express bus lines, you’ve got a fairly high level of stability (since the lanes and the improved stations have already been built), but you can also change the system to fit people’s needs.

    That said, I do enjoy riding rail systems more than buses; they feel faster even when they’re going at about the same speed as an express bus, and they provide a smoother ride. There’s also typically a bit more open space and fewer seats, which is a disadvantage for commuters but an advantage if you want to go to the airport and have luggage.Report

  16. Kimmi says:

    Why people Hate Buses:
    1) You haven’t seen a TRAIN making Sparks on the curb.
    2) TRAINs don’t drive on the curb for multiple blocks.
    3) Urban trains don’t speed way past reason, or stop and start hard enough to give you bruises.

    … sometimes pittsburgh buses really suck. these aren’t the buses I generally take…Report