Open Thread: Buses, Light Rail, Heavy Rail?
Mad Rocket Scientist brought two columns to my attention yesterday. Josh Barro thinks cities can save money on rail by marketing buses especially in getting middle-class people to ride buses. Kevin Drum wonders whether we need buses to become more bourgeois.
I’ve spent most of my life in or near two of the few cities in the United States where it is possible to exist without a car: New York City and San Francisco. San Francisco’s public transportation relies primarily on buses with a few light rail lines that travel above and underground. New York City has the subway and buses. My personal experience is that most San Franciscans take the bus but hate it because it is the primary transportation option and parking in most areas is a pain especially downtown on a weekday where most people work. In New York City, people take the buses when they are going crosstown, it would be inconvenient to take a subway (traveling from Coney Island to Carnarsie would require a long subway ride into Manhattan and then a long subway ride back into Brooklyn on a different line), or they can’t access the subway (most stations do not have elevators for wheelchair access.)
There is seemingly a chicken and egg problem in deciding whether buses are for the poor or not and whether buses offer poor service because they are primarily used by the poor. There are plenty of websites dedicated to the interesting things you see on buses. Bay Area public transit ridership might be in decline. But every New Yorker also probably has plenty of interesting stories about crazy stuff on the subway.
I would also guess that many prefer rail to buses because of the same reasons that wonks and city planners hate it, rail has a fixed location. Once you live near a subway station or train station, that stop is always going to be there. A city can cancel a stop or a train line but this is a hard decision to make because the stations are already in place and you might as well use them. Changing a bus route or getting rid of a bus stop or reducing bus traffic times is much easier. Plus light rail and subways often at least seem quicker. Wonks like to advocate for dedicated bus lines on the streets but that is hard if it means taking out one lane each way and dedicating it to bus traffic.
Why do you think there is a constant divide between wonks and politicians (and maybe the public) on what type of public transportation is best? Do you think the public views buses as being for poor people? How would you change this? Why or why not? Do you prefer: buses, light rail, subways/heavy rails and why?