Houston, we have a problem...

Melburnian’s seem to love trains and dislike buses. Melbourne Airport and Doncaster are both served by high-frequency bus services with a wide span of operating hours, yet large numbers of people want to spend billions replacing them with trains.

The list of criticisms of buses – relative to trains – is long. Right at the top is slowness. Buses operate in traffic, follow circuitous routes, stop frequently and idle while passengers dig out spare change to pay the driver. They’re uncomfortable too. Shelters are perfunctory, the ride is jerky and difficult if standing, seats are jammed too close together and too many drivers don’t seem to actually like passengers. And buses are unreliable. They’re invariably late and if you miss one the wait for the next one will seem interminable. If it’s night or a weekend there’s a good chance that was the last bus for the day.

Then there are systemic criticisms. Buses aren’t ‘legible’ — prospective passengers can’t see where the route goes. Sometimes routes vary over the course of a day. Buses are also impermanent. Developers are less inclined to risk investing along a route if it can be changed overnight or even removed. And there’re hard-nosed criticisms, too. Buses don’t carry many passengers. Operating costs are high because each vehicles requires a driver. Per capita GHG emissions and energy consumption are no better than cars. Engines are noisy and polluting.

As things stand, buses look pretty bad compared to trains, even given the unreliability and crowding that characterises peak hour train services in many Australian cities. Buses have a serious image problem, not just here but in many western cities.

But it’s an unfair comparison*. The key reason buses are perceived so poorly relative to rail is they are mostly assigned to marginal routes with low patronage. Operators follow indirect routes and stop frequently to maximise revenue; they reduce frequency and hours of operation to minimise costs. They can do that because their customers aren’t usually sophisticated CBD workers but travellers who are mostly “captive” to public transport. In other words buses mostly operate in a different market to trains. But it’s given them a bad reputation.

Most of the criticisms can be fully addressed, or at least softened, when the comparison is like-for-like i.e. when buses operate the sorts of long-haul commuter services that urban rail is customarily used for in Australia. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems typically have high patronage and operate in their own right of way (just like trains) or in dedicated on-road bus lanes. Stops are major interchanges spaced kilometres apart and tickets are bought before entry.

BRT vehicles can be made with the internal look and ‘feel’ of (light) rail and the jerky ride can be minimised with electric engines. Articulated buses carry large numbers of passengers and can provide better leg room. According to Corinne Mulley, Chair in Public Transport at Sydney University, Brisbane’s South East Busway carries 15,000 passengers per hour and in Bogota buses carry 45,000 per hour.  She says “US evidence points to infrastructure costs for dedicated buses being approximately one third of light rail costs”. As a point of reference, Eddington forecast that a Doncaster rail line would carry up to 12,250 one-way trips per day.

Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit - carries 800,000 passengers per day!

So when compared on a like-for-like basis, many of the supposed disadvantages of buses don’t necessarily hold. In fact buses have a singular advantage over trains (and light rail for that matter) – they can overtake each other and they can drive around obstacles. The problems of mixing stopping and express services that limit the capacity of rail are thus more manageable with buses. While there’s no getting away from the fact that buses are different, they’re not inherently inferior to trains on most counts. Higher operating costs are probably their chief negative on commuter routes.

However that comparison can only be taken so far. The fact is the key advantage of buses relative to rail for commuter operations is their low set-up cost. That advantage derives to a significant extent from their use of existing roads, where the enemy of the bus is congestion and parking. Unless BRT has dedicated on-road lanes it will continue to be rail’s poor cousin.

At present, even BRT services like Skybus and DART (Doncaster Area Rapid Transit) aren’t provided with bus-only lanes along their entire routes because that would deny cars. Skybus trip times consequently blow out from 20 minutes off peak to over 40 minutes in peak hour. As Melburnians know only too well, motorists don’t like giving up road space to buses. Hence buses need to operate at high frequencies and high occupancy to win and keep dedicated lanes – when done properly, BRT fills this specification admirably.

There is another reason the comparison with commuter rail operations doesn’t tell the full story – buses will continue to be used for low volume and marginal feeder services. They will always struggle to be seen as attractive in this role, especially compared to trains. But of course what shouldn’t be overlooked is that buses are used on these sorts of services because trains (and even light rail) simply aren’t well suited to it – the cost would be astronomical.

Thus buses have a poor reputation because most people’s experience of them is in a vastly different context to their experience of rail. On a like-for-like basis with proper implementation – like BRT – buses are a fair substitute for rail and much cheaper. On low volume feeder services the comparison with trains is essentially irrelevant because buses are the only practical option.

*Note that I’m comparing buses to trains (not light rail).