Public transport

Feb 26, 2015

Why do travellers prefer trains and light rail to buses?

New research confirms what we pretty much already know; travellers generally prefer rail-based modes of public transport to buses. The challenge is to convince them buses are a good choice

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Interior of Bus Rapid Transit vehicle, Maryland

A new paper by David Hensher and Corinne Mulley of Sydney University finds that people don’t like buses anywhere near as much as they like trains and light rail.

The popular distaste for buses goes a long way toward explaining why large numbers of people would like to see billions spent on replacing Melbourne Airport’s high-frequency bus service, SkyBus, with a train.

The list of common criticisms of buses is long. I discussed why they’re so on the nose around four years ago and it’s worth revisiting the main themes.

But let’s first acknowledge that buses also offer travellers some advantages compared to fixed guideway systems. Many of the benefits accrue to operators, particularly in terms of lower costs, but those that go directly to travellers include: (1)

  • Security: greater personal safety because the entire bus is under the driver’s surveillance.
  • Flexibility: buses can pick-up and deliver passengers closer to origins and destinations via the established street network.
  • Adaptability: buses can go around unexpected obstacles and so avoid closing an entire route.

There are many more criticisms though. Relative to trains and light rail (and to a lesser extent trams), buses are widely seen as:

  • Slow: they seldom have priority and so mostly operate in traffic, follow circuitous routes, stop frequently, and idle while passengers dig out spare change to pay the driver.
  • Uncomfortable: shelters at stops are non-existent or perfunctory, the ride is jerky and difficult especially if standing, seats are too narrow, rows are too close making it hard to exit from a window seat, aisles are tight, the engine is noisy, and too many drivers don’t seem to actually like their passengers. Buses get crowded pretty quickly at peak times too.
  • Inconvenient: frequencies are too low and operating hours too restricted. Connections with trunk services are hit and miss; meandering routes are determined by squeaky wheels and political opportunism rather than by sound planning principles.
  • Unpredictable: routes and stopping patterns often vary over the course of a day or on weekends.
  • Illegible: prospective passengers can’t see where the route goes. Information about routes and timetables is hard to get and, because of its complexity, difficult to understand.
  • Socially stigmatised: best captured in the apocryphal Margaret Thatcher quote: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”.

These criticisms aren’t entirely fair; some of them reflect the way buses are used rather than any intrinsic shortcomings in the technology.

Buses are inherently flexible and “scale down”, so they’re mostly assigned to low patronage routes, many of them marginal. Operators consequently follow indirect routes and stop frequently to maximise revenue; they also reduce frequency and hours of operation to minimise costs. Buses are also often deployed as feeder services to rail, involving a usually unwelcome change of mode.

Many of the criticisms have considerably less force, though, when the comparison is made on a like-for-like basis i.e. when buses operate in their own right of way like rail-based systems, as is the case with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

BRT systems in Brisbane and many other places typically attract high patronage and operate in a mix of dedicated on-road bus lanes and exclusive rights of way. Routes can form a ‘grid’ with train-like stop spacing, often at major interchanges.

The point is buses aren’t inherently inferior to rail-based systems; they’re different. The modes have their advantages and disadvantages in different applications. Eric Jaffe says Hensher and Mulley’s research shows travellers who use good bus services tend to have a more positive perception of them:

So it’s possible that some people just love trains more than buses. But it’s equally likely, in many cases, that people have just used “trains” to mean “good transit” and “buses” to mean “bad transit.”

Still, whether right or wrong, buses are seen as inferior to rail. The problem is this perception means the public tend to discount them in situations where they’re the sensible solution; and to privilege rail-based solutions where they make less sense. The issue of a rail line to Melbourne Airport is a pertinent example.

It’s therefore important for city managers to look at the scope for improving the quality of service provided by buses. Whether deployed in a feeder role or as BRT, there’s room to improve the bus experience by borrowing directly from the attributes that make rail appealing to travellers: (2)

  • Buses can be made with some of the internal space, look and ‘feel’ of (light) rail and operated with electronic validation to lower boarding time.
  • The jerky ride can be reduced with electric engines, better driver training and management, and more separation from traffic.
  • Speed can be increased by giving buses greater priority at traffic lights and dedicated road space.
  • Frequencies and operating hours can be increased; this would follow from seeing buses as part of a comprehensive multi-modal public transport ‘grid’ rather than as a residual ‘mopping up exercise’.

Improvements to public transport in Australian cities can’t rely entirely – or even mostly – on retro-fitting rail; not when Sydney’s 12 km CBD and South East Light Rail project is costed at $2.1 billion and the 9 km Melbourne Metro rail tunnel at $9-11 billion.

Buses will necessarily have a much larger role in the future because in many cases (but not all) they cost substantially less than rail-based solutions while delivering most of the benefits. There are many implementations that show BRT can provide a convincing substitute for heavy and light rail; the challenge is to persuade travellers that they’re the right solution in many situations.


  1. Passengers also benefit indirectly as taxpayers in situations where buses are a less costly solution than rail; they don’t tend to see it that way though because the costs are diffused while the benefits are perceived at the level of the traveller.
  2. There’s an ongoing debate about the relative merits of BRT vs rail in particular implementations but that mostly turns on what’s good for the owner/operator and the wider public (i.e. social cost) rather than the individual passenger; the latter is my focus here.
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28 thoughts on “Why do travellers prefer trains and light rail to buses?

  1. michael r james

    #27 James Adams at 11:09 pm

    Of course one has to consider individual cases however that is not what is being proposed by the BRT lobby or the economic-rationalist lobby. Cuiritba and Bogota etc are in developing countries so I think it is very mischievous to use these as examples–though of course their evolution into LRT/Metro does present a strong learning case study!

    Much more instructive are Ottawa and Brisbane where many decades have been lost to wrong-thinking of an entire city’s PT system. If Brisbane’s BRT planners had the sense to make sure its physical layout was compatible to upgrading to LRT then that is terrific. But the problem is that the politicians are blind to it, and what we get (from both sides of politics) are massive tunnel systems (absurdly for both trains and buses!) that supposedly cost $16bn.

    [Areas with largely dispersed populations would be better served by BRT, as buses could service numerous major arterials before joining the segregated busway. The issue with buses interchanging with trains is that you then introduce a mode transfer penalty which increases travel time and increases comfort. People prefer a one-seat journey to their destination.]

    This is what I most object to, even as I know that you think it is merely “sensible”. But it is pretty much exactly the silliness that Brisbane’s BRT commits. It is so clearly factually wrong. (And those outer areas with buses do not constitute a BRT, they are just normal bus routes until they join the BRT at which point of course they cause congestion.)
    Of course we refer no changes on a journey but FFS, in Brisbane you’re talking
    about one of the most sprawled and dispersed populations you can imagine. It is NOT feasible. Worse you refuse to understand the concept behind buses as feeders to a high-frequency LRT/Metro system. The fear of interchanges and mode-change penalties only comes from hicks in hicksville who have never used a proper big city Metro (at this point I usually list some but just allow your imagination to pop up with any major world city you can think of).

    It is impossible both physically (that bus congestion seen in Briz & Ottawa BRTs, not to mention Sydney’s George street) and financially–all those buses, all those drivers. But it is possible to run high-frequency short-route feeder buses to interchange with high-frequency high pax capacity LRT on major trunk routes (in Briz we pretty much have it ready in the existing BRT).

    What you are suggesting is just more of the current failed and failing model. It is a vision of a failed past rather than of a future that works.

  2. James Adams

    You have to consider the individual circumstances. I agree with the BRT detractors in a sense that a major city cannot operate its entire (or majority) of its transit system off the back of BRT, as Brisbane, Curitiba, Jakarta, and numerous others have tried to do.

    However, there are countless cases where BRT makes a lot more sense than LRT or MRT, even when the cost factor is taken out of the equation. Areas with largely dispersed populations would be better served by BRT, as buses could service numerous major arterials before joining the segregated busway. The issue with buses interchanging with trains is that you then introduce a mode transfer penalty which increases travel time and increases comfort. People prefer a one-seat journey to their destination.

    I think Doncaster/Manningham is a good example of this. With a proper, fully segregated busway, you could run an effective BRT servicing the entire region, with a one-seat journey into the city. Ridership on the current buses is of course nearly at capacity in peak (and sometimes off-peak), but that is due to insufficient frequencies and low-capacity vehicles. If the 907 was to run at 5 minute peak headways (10 minutes off-peak), with large, articulated buses, with complete segregation from Lonsdale Street to the Park & Ride, then I’d bet there wouldn’t be issues.

  3. michael r james

    Back on topic: the comments to that article by Eric Joffe are more informative (hmm sounds familiar ….). The following one (in response to another commenter) is similar to Brisbane’s trajectory.

    [No, BRT did not “prove to be so successful at offering a comprehensive transit solution to Ottawa”. It was a failure, which is now being replaced.
    You’ve been drinking too much of the BRT lobby’s koolaid.
    In the graph below, Transitway construction began c1984. The principal East-West Transitway was in place by the late 1980s. The Southeast Transitway – a relatively minor leg – was constructed in the early 1990s in stages, finally reaching its terminus at South Keys in 1996.
    During the entire period of initial Transitway build out, ridership in Ottawa fell both absolutely and relatively. It took another decade to recover, at which point we promptly started getting bus jams downtown. That’s the irony: if it actually had been successful, it would have promptly failed in the core.
    Ottawa was at ridership levels high enough to justify LRT from the outset. We’ve wasted three decades on a system designed by highway engineers. ]

    Perhaps Ottawa’s experience informed the designers of Brisbane’s BRT, ie. keeping their design fully compatible with LRT.

  4. michael r james

    “71,000 Euros”

    Square root of FA! *
    (It is enough to buy a (maybe two) garages right in the heart of old Paris!)

    But the development zones will most likely be in the eastern half of the 13th arrondissement much of which has been a ZAC since I lived in Paris. Other brownfield pockets available for redevo would be on the very outer areas in the 18th thru 20th?

    Not too clear on the maths. I guess your figure comes from dividing the €3 billion by the number of proposed units? Without doing some research I can only presume this is some kind of subsidy to the builders, which I suppose would be something … Sorry, can’t help more. I might look into it later.
    But the comment I would make is that the scheme will be serious, ie. not some Mickey Mouse scheme or indeed scam to support developer buddies. Whether Hidalgo can bring it off is another matter. Then again, perhaps it is a self-funding scheme whereby the first built get sold and that income funds the next round of building?

    OTOH, while there are still surprising pockets of intramuros Paris available for development they are finite (without building skyscrapers!). I would say that Métropole Grand Paris has more promise and this is going to be interesting to watch ie. in association with the expansion of the RER & tramways.

  5. Alan Davies

    michael r james #23:

    Saw that article and tweeted it early this morning. On the matter of public housing, the arithmetic is 71,000 Euros per dwelling. What will that buy, and where, in metro Paris?

  6. michael r james

    #22 Spencer Milburn at 7:58 pm

    I wasn’t quite sure what you meant so went back to AD’s first reference (Eric Jaffe) and no, it adds nothing (except demonstrating an “expert’s” ability to put theory over experience). However what I did discover on the same page was an article that could have been written by me! And yes, of course this is pure affirmation of pre-existing beliefs (the same argument about buses-v-trains. Anyway this extract (below) is mainly for AD 🙂

    [Why London Should Stop Trying to Be New York and Start Trying to Be Paris
    What makes (Boris) Johnson’s NY-LON obsession more frustrating is that London actually has a far more relevant role model closer to home. It’s a place that has strong historical connection with London, a city whose architecture and cultural life London long strove to emulate. Obviously, I’m talking about Paris.
    France’s capital may long have been damned as a deadened, divided museum city, but when it comes to new measures to tackle urban problems, right now it’s pretty much on fire. It’s working hard and fast to overcome its divisions, broaden housing access, streamline its transit, and clean its air. It’s too early to see the effect, but Paris’ political will and forward thinking are currently putting London to shame.
    Just outlining all of Paris’ plans is a marathon. Since mayor Anne Hidalgo gained office last April, the city has set aside €3 billion to build new public housing over the next six years, at a rate of 7,000 units a year. She’s tabled a new law to fine office owners who choose to leave their properties empty rather than convert them to residences—a plan designed mainly to convert formerly residential older real estate back to its original use. Hidalgo is also trying to prevent total gentrification of formerly working class areas by establishing a list of earmarked apartments that the city would have a “right of first-refusal” to buy should they go up for sale. The idea there is that the city can increase its social housing stock in a given neighborhood if it wants.
    Paris’ pollution, meanwhile, is being attacked by plans to phase out diesel fuel and make central Paris a residents-only zone for drivers by 2020, by which time cycle lanes will have been doubled. New nationwide laws to create city rent rise caps and clamp down on exploitative letting agent charges are also helping the city make progress. And finally, the unhealthy division between Paris and its suburbs is being bridged by the Grand Paris project, through which greater regional cooperation will be boosted by a massive expansion of the metro and suburban train network. To make the city more accessible to poorer suburbanites, the cost of transit fares from the far periphery to Paris’ core is also being slashed.
    This level of state intervention might make some people’s hair fall out. Certainly it would be extremely hard to get a mandate for in New York.]

    That last comment is a bit peculiar because, despite the myths, NYC is replete with government intervention. Indeed, even as they rejoice in their master-of-the-universe status, those investment banker types complain that NYC is practically a socialist state, even as they just had 3 terms of a nominally Republican mayor in Bloomberg. The only serious city-wide Metro system in the US is one example.

  7. Spencer Milburn

    #20 michael r james at 4:13pm

    It may be worth reading the actual study if you can get ahold of it. The study focused on people’s perceptions of technology choices over the realities of what the technology provides, over what the right-of-way, quality of service, frequency and other important elements provide, and why those perceptions are that way. Essentially, the crux of our opposing points of view!

    Thanks for the debate – I’ve found it incredibly interesting and informative!

  8. mike westerman

    Interesting debate! Pertinent to me particularly because I live in Brisbane but work mainly in KL and Jakarta. KL which is a horribly car based place (walking difficult) but has reached unacceptable congestion is integrating and upgrading with elevated LRT – cheap, driverless, predictable and comfortable most of the time (except peak to the city), and soon covering many areas. Taxis fill in the rest. Jakarta is also building an LRT but at a time decades past when it should have done. However the trains are improving and the massive overbuilding of high rise will mean it won’t be long before rail/LRT will be the only viable way to get around and the highrise and attractive housing will coalesce to train and LRT routes.

    I hope that having shrugged off the disastrous Newman experiment at city and state levels Queenslanders will muster the good sense and dignity to commit to at least a shadow of the path our poorer northern neighbours have taken.

    BTW pop-up buses would solve several of the complained on shortcomings of buses, and would also fit better as feeders to rail.

  9. michael r james

    #19 Spencer Milburn at 9:48 am

    No, to just about every point.

    [I think we’re now going beyond the scope of the original study …This study was about comparing otherwise identical LRT and BRT systems]

    No it wasn’t and that would be a really silly restriction, and a sterile pointless argument I wouldn’t bother with. It is about the real world of a big city’s PT needs and how best to satisfy it–and of course, not just today and tomorrow but also in 10, 20 and 50 years time.

    Your examples are developing countries–and actually, that is not what the discussion is about. But even there the actual evidence contradicts your claims. Curitiba is converting to Metro (I’m not quite sure on the method–is it LRT that still crosses intersections at grade?); the reasons are that BRT ridership peaked and then began falling as car congestion climbed, all related to Curitiba’s increasing affluence. Entirely fair enough. But, whatever, silly to discuss in context of one of the richest countries in the world (Oz).

    I would argue that Jakarta would have been advised to build proper Metro from the beginning. It is a mega-city so anything else will fail to relieve public transport or of course its road chaos. Indeed when you look at developing countries buses (of all sorts) contribute a lot of that road chaos. If a BRT is built with grade-separation then LRT would be the better option–because these cities generate massive pax for any mode, and the extra cost is not so great.

    But we are not a developing country. Your comment (below) shows the usual confusion by short-termist thinking and misguided economic-rationalism.

    [These systems come at great cost
    and should obviously only be implemented on those corridors that are guaranteed to provide an acceptable financial return ]

    If a city knows it will eventually need serious PT then it is false economy to 1. spend money today on a stopgap that won’t last long (Brisbane’s BRT lasted less than 10 years before running into the predictable problems) and 2. delay in building the inevitable simply and ineluctably results in much higher costs.

    Fortunately the designers of Brisbane’s BRT apparently understood all this and (apparently–hard to find on the public record) made sure it could be converted with minimal hassle into a LRT. The biggest problem is at Southbank where it intersects with roads–this is equally a problem for buses as for LRT and was just a typical econo-rationalist, weak politicians “money saving” ploy at the time. All along they have known that it really needed separation plus its own bridge next to Victoria Bridge. That short-termism will mean we will pay a lot more than we should have to, to correct this poor design. (Oh, and some of the highest bus fares in the world.)

    But note that building an entirely new surface LRT between Teneriffe and West End in the early 2000s was costed at under $100m. Most of this was pledged to BCC by John Howard (!) but after years of delay by BCC (the bogans of Logan objected … no, seriously) Howard redirected the money (half went to fund phase 2 of my then institute QIMR).

    No doubt today the conversion of the BRT to LRT would cost a lot more than it should (due to the obscene inflation in Anglophone countries of infrastructure costs unrelated to the actual infrastructure) but it should be entirely affordable. The fact that the Victoria Bridge + Southbank mess needs sorting out shouldn’t be considered the cost of LRT since the BRT has needed it all along.

    [less than ~5000 passenger spaces per hour and smaller systems need to be considered, greater than around 20000 passenger spaces an hour]

    Do you think the Brisbane BRT bottleneck is not that high? (As it happens it is not getting worse but only because riders are giving up on it.) Not to mention anything in a city like Jakarta or Mumbai or Sao Paolo (three megacities that have the need but not the will to seriously tackle their transport chaos). These examples are exactly where spending money on BRT would be the wrong thing to do with what money they have.

    And on the money issue we share the same choice: it is not that these sums won’t be spent on transport, it’s just that in too many cases they will choose to spend it on mega-roads and tunnels that can never solve the problem, and worse, make the problem worse by promoting sprawl and massive congestion costs. Brisbane, Sydney & Melbourne. (I think this is what we will read in City Limits, published today.)

    [light rail without grade separation is just as hopeless]

    Not always true. Very conditional on roads and traffic etc. What I believe you meant to say was that the core heavy-lifting part of a PT network cannot be at-grade (no matter what form it is). But there is a very useful role for at-grade LRT within an overall network. Just like there is for buses. But the core must and can only be rail completely separated from roads. A no brainer, and no amount of wringing ones hands about the cost can change this (except of course by increasing the cost by constant procrastination of the inevitable, something all three east coast cities have done for the past four or five decades).
    BTW, another example of the ultimate horrendous cost of choosing buses over either LRT or proper Metro is Los Angeles. Their junking of their rail network entirely for buses (at grade of course) is why today’s (re)building of their Metro system costs are eye-watering. BUT they are still doing it–because TINA.

  10. Spencer Milburn

    #18 michael r james at 10:08pm

    I think we’re now going beyond the scope of the original study – I completely agree that beyond a certain point, high passenger numbers can only be accommodated by high capacity guided transit systems on fully controlled rights-of-way, such as metro systems (which, such as found in Paris, Singapore and many other cities, can include rubber-tired guided systems) or other heavy rail systems, using full grade separation, without legal access to the route corridor by any other vehicles. These systems come at great cost, and should obviously only be implemented on those corridors that are guaranteed to provide an acceptable financial return (including whatever subsidies are appropriate in the city/country in question).

    This study was about comparing otherwise identical LRT and BRT systems – with the same degree of grade separation, and all other characteristics equal. My argument is that at those lower passenger numbers, LRT and BRT can provide an essentially equal level of service, provided the technology issue is the only differentiating factor. Given that, for those situations, surely the more cost-effective BRT would be the better option.

    Above those passenger numbers, there is definitely a narrow spectrum where LRT is most suitable, due to the slightly larger vehicle size possible, and then after that, rail rapid transit and other heavy rail solutions are the only appropriate measures.

    Jakarta had quite a few successful BRT routes, each of which was successful enough that they changed travel habits considerably, and now those routes are being ripped up for rail rapid transit – there is no way Jakarta could have justified the capital outlay back when no-one used public transport. Whoever proposed the idea would have been laughed out of politics. I dare say Curitiba was the same – their BRT systems were politically viable precisely because of the low cost compared to LRT, and now higher patronage means that higher-capacity systems are now perfectly justified. I doubt many cities would ever consider changing a route from BRT to LRT – the capital outlay would only be viable if moving to a much higher-capacity system.

    Jakarta also had some terrible BRT routes – in each of those cases, lack of grade-separation was the biggest issue. But each of those terrible routes were no worse than sitting on a tram in Brunswick St or Smith St in Melbourne not going anywhere – light rail without grade separation is just as hopeless.

    Your alternative regarding feeder buses delivering passengers to a higher capacity service is excellent, and has been implemented well all around the world. The question is what the high capacity service should look like – I would suggest that passenger numbers should drive the type of service, and that if capacity fell into the LRT/BRT spectrum, then the choice of support/guidance technology is nowhere near as important as the rights-of-way, grade separation, priority/preemptive signalling, station design, off-board payment systems, headways, and the like.

    The most important point with LRT / BRT is that they are both suitable for a particular level of patronage – less than ~5000 passenger spaces per hour and smaller systems need to be considered, greater than around 20000 passenger spaces an hour and rapid transit systems or heavy rail are the only suitable options. Within those bounds, provided that all else is held equal, the only difference between LRT and BRT is the technology, which is a significant cost component.

    As the original study found, where money isn’t an issue, people obviously have an ingrained preference for LRT, and any cities without money problems are welcome to spend up big! Any time that money is a deciding factor, if passenger numbers point to an LRT/BRT system being most suitable, then surely the BRT system needs to be selected every time.

  11. michael r james

    #17 Spencer Milburn at 4.41 pm

    You make some reasonable points but still far from convincing me.

    Your point about Brisbane’s BRT not being complete is true but that is a problem innate to the species: the argument is that they retain the “flexibility” of buses being able to exit to normal roads thus serving/creating a bigger route/area. In the Southbank/West End bit they have stupidly mixed the BRT bit with on-road bits (assuredly as a cost saving measure) which is simply proof that they do this idiocy because with buses they can.
    I can understand the theoretical appeal but in practice it just means, not only getting caught up in road traffic, but the terrible habit of running super-long bus routes from outer areas all the way into the centre. The reason they do this is to avoid forced changes; in turn this is because with buses people have learnt it is very bad news. But it is not the case with a change to Metro. Just have a look at any of the top 20 world cities.

    It is this feature that creates the bus congestion. Being able to run monster buses is irrelevant to this problem and in fact would just make it worse. Your comment suggests that you didn’t quite grasp my concept (and I am sure of others looking at this problem): buses would be totally removed from the busway to be replaced by LRT/Metro which would ideally form a loop around & thru the CBD. Bus routes that currently use the busway would now work by having buses feeding pax to the busway station interchanges where they transfer to the LRT/Metro which is a frequent service. The capacity and pax per hour of such a system would be much greater than any bus system. It would be able to be higher frequency at all points, ie. the LRT side and the local feeder buses (shorter routes higher frequency).

    You haven’t identified which BRT in which city you find so terrific and I suspect again you miss my point. An individual BRT line could work well but the thing about Brisbane is that they are expecting it to be the main PT network for a big sprawling city. AFAIK there is no city in the developed world that does that. Curitiba (Brazil) which is the poster-city for BRT is in the process of converting several of their heaviest routes into standard rail-Metro/LRT. I think that pretty much nails the argument for me.

  12. Spencer Milburn

    #14 michael r james at 4:00pm

    I have to disagree with your comments – Brisbane’s ‘BRT’ is hopelessly congested because it isn’t BRT – it contains sections that at best are a busway, mixing demi-BRT buses with standard buses, much like much of Melbourne’s tram system mixes 40-year old trams with modern LRT vehicles. ITDP ranked Brisbane’s BRT at 20th in the world – great in some areas, well behind in others.

    Your argument is essentially that by laying light rail lines, we would magically incorporate all the additional administrative controls that are required to provide better service along the route. There is no reason that BRT can’t achieve that without the additional infrastructure such as overhead wiring, substations, complex intersection infrastructure, and the like.

    LRT only wins hand-down once individual vehicles must operate at minimum headways, each carrying in excess of 100 people. The largest BRT vehicles comfortably carry around 150 people, whilst the largest LRT vehicles obviously carry more than that. Until that point, if the vehicle, corridor, infrastructure etc looks and performs similarly, it doesn’t matter whether it rides on steel or rubber.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of LRT, and would much rather ride a good light rail service over a bus service. But I’ve had the opportunity to ride some of the –currently few– BRT services that are indistinguishable from LRT, and they’ve all been excellent.

  13. michael r james

    #15 Waffler at 4:14 pm

    But it is no point whingeing about what buses could do. As pointed out to AD on this blog (for no impact as he never learns) the so-called “flexibiity” of buses is their achilles heel. Likewise the so-called “inflexibility” of fixed-rail is their strength. This is why bus routes never improve property prices while a fixed-rail link always does–often so much that, finally a century after this phenomenon has been known, they are beginning to try to capture some of that increased value: a land tax would do it and some should return to the transport system. (And it is yet another factor in why–per my post #7–buses are more expensive than light rail. Australians with their obsession with property values should understand this.)

    Your example of Doncaster is text-book. Another is Campbell Newman’s instantaneous (literally within 24 hours of being elected mayor of Brisbane) removal of bus priority lanes on major roads upon. Some of us were worried when he became Premier that he might go bananas and tear up the agreement that prevented the Schonell bridge (bus, pedestrian + bike) being turned into a car bridge and running a major road thru one of Australia’s esteemed universities), or indeed do something drastic with the BRT (which had been built by Qld State government, not Brisbane city Council).

    People need to get over buses. Pretending they can be nearly as good as rail if only just causes procrastination in building the real solution and thus pushes up its cost. There is a (substantial) role for them in a big city’s overall transport system but they can never substitute for a serious rail-based network. So they cost more (kinda, not really over the long run) but it’s simply the cost of having a well functioning and civilized city. And, unlike buses, they repay their capital cost over and over in the subsequent century.

  14. Waffler

    James Adams nails it – there is nothing wrong with buses, they are just badly implemented. All of the “advantages” of light rail are equally viable for buses if the investment is made – dedicated routes, frequent services, nice vehicles, traffic priority, etc, etc.

    A classic example is the 907/908 pair from the Doncaster Park and Ride: nice new buses, running ever 5-7 minutes, priority on the freeway and arterials in peaks, real time info, long operating hours, even on weekends. No need to check timetables and faster, and certainly more reliable, than driving most of the time. All in all a very good service.

    Then along comes the bane of the bus as a mode – the operator with the connivance of the (last) government “improved” the service. By cutting the 908 off-peak back to a shuttle to the park and ride they very quickly halved the service from the park and ride to the CBD, made the 908 passengers interchange to the 907 and overcrowded the buses, making for a less comfortable and attractive trip for all.

    Public transport planning is not rocket science – fast, frequent, reliable, quality services going places people want to go. Offer that, and I doubt the shape of the vehicle or type of tyre will really matter.

  15. michael r james

    #13 Spencer Milburn at 2:02 pm

    No, you are seriously wrong on some important points that lead to the wrong conclusion.

    [given BRT delivers a very similar service for a fraction of the cost, BRT would almost definitely come out on top once costs are factored in.]

    No. The biggest cost is the “grade separation”. Only a bean counter with short term vision would then claim bus as cheaper. The most recent extension of Brisbane’s BRT (which is world class) costs as much as LRT because it is very expensive tunnel and overpasses, and very fancy bus stations. The fact is that as they system approaches certain thresholds of pax & routes, a bus system begins to falter. This is what has happened to Brisbane in the last 5 years or so. It is also hugely inefficient because of running buses over very long routes at high frequency–and these buses add a lot to bus congestion on the BRT without moving many people.
    As I have written many times, it is high time Brisbane’s BRT was converted fully to light-rail; it really shouldn’t be very expensive because the roadway is apparently already compatible and it already has the stations. (Of course that won’t stop the usual suspects ramping up the estimated costs. AD might even consult for them since he loves unrealistic high costs relative to comparable projects elsewhere in the developed world.)

    [Conversely, good quality BRT (and we have no gold-standard BRT in Australia) looks, smells, rides and feels exactly like riding on a railway system.]

    As mentioned, Brisbane’s BRT is world class (perhaps not gold-standard because that is a contradiction in terms when it comes to buses). Have a look at any recent (last ten years) book or study on bus systems and you’ll find Brisbane is in there.
    But NO, it absolutely does NOT feel exactly like riding on a rail system. But in fact at little extra cost it could: by converting it to light rail which can move a lot more pax it would remove Brisbane’s BRT bus congestion instantly. The buses should be relegated to feeder lines to those fancy BRT bus stations; their routes would be much shorter and thus their travel times and thus frequencies could be much higher and more reliable (thus partly meeting #11 + 12 correct complaints about buses).
    Sure, you would have to change, and it would be a mode change too, but with a few LRT routes on those grade-separated routes, you would be able to run reliable high-frequency light-rail to take the heavy-duty strain of trunk routes that buses should never be consigned to.

  16. Spencer Milburn

    It’s a pity this survey only allowed participants to nominate their preferred mode of travel – grade-separated light rail, grade-separated buses (BRT), on-road light rail (trams / streetcars) and on-road buses – rather than giving each a rating on a scale of say one to ten.

    Most people would agree that grade-separated light rail is the best mode, generally followed by BRT (in jurisdictions where everyone is familiar with it), followed by the other two. In a perfect world, where transport infrastructure is free, the best solution would be LRT everywhere! The survey would have been much more relevant if it allowed us to use relative scores to determine which mode was more cost-effective.

    In my opinion, such a survey would have found LRT to be the most desired, however given BRT delivers a very similar service for a fraction of the cost, BRT would almost definitely come out on top once costs are factored in.

    It’s important to remember that the quality of the right-of-way is key in determining the quality of service. There are many terrible on-street light rail systems that suffer the same problems that on-road buses suffer, if not worse. Melbourne is a prime example – for every one kilometer of world-class grade-separated LRT, there are five kilometers of terrible constrained, congested on-road tramways. Conversely, good quality BRT (and we have no gold-standard BRT in Australia) looks, smells, rides and feels exactly like riding on a railway system.

  17. Scott

    For mine the biggest issue with buses is the fact that you never know when the bus is going to rock up.

    If there was a bus route twitter feed that gave you updates of where the bus was on its route, that would help a lot.

  18. Sean Doyle

    As a former Melbourne resident, I agree that buses have a poor reputation among the public, in my experience a reputation that’s well deserved. Having lived in China for the last few years, I can see that the poor reputation of buses in Melbourne is largely due to the operators. The bus system where I live (Harbin) is much better than in Melbourne not because they use more modern vehicles (some would be pushing 25 years old), not because I can always get a seat and it’s definitely not because Harbin’s bus drivers are better or smoother drivers than their Melbourne counterparts or that buses have any form of priority over other road traffic.

    The big secret is…..THE BUSES ACTUALLY TURN UP AT BUS STOPS!!!!!!! After living here for four years, using buses nearly daily (I don’t have a car) and traveled to other cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Dandong, Changchun), I have yet to see a single timetable at a bus stop. That’s because they’re superfluous. Buses usually run at 5-10 minute frequencies all day, every day. There’s no need to bother setting your day according to the whims of some bean counter at the transportation department. One can actually go to the nearest bus stop and be confident that they will be on their way within a few minutes. It’s unimaginable for much of Melbourne with it’s pathetic frequencies, especially at weekends.

    While Alan may be right that buses are cheaper than rail (tram or train), I think in some ways it is a problem with buses. They are attractive to governments/PT providers who are focused on saving money rather than providing a useful service. Until that attitude changes and operators stop blaming customers and start critically looking at what they’re offering, then buses will still be considered a third rate option by the public.

  19. Jacob HSR

    * People get injured on buses:

    * If you get a politician like Campbell Newman, he might convert busways into normal roads.

  20. James Adams

    Most of the comments above, prove your point Alan. People base their perception of buses off of their past experience. As some have mentioned here, they are bumpy, unreliable and get stuck in traffic. They also can be dangerous for cyclists. Negative experiences fuel a negative perception.

    Well I have a different view. I catch buses daily, because there’s no trains where I’m from, particularly Routes 200 and 207. When the buses travel down Johnston Street in peak, they always get stuck behind bloody cyclists, slowing to a 15km/hr crawl while all the cars in the traffic lane fly past. It’s a bus lane, not a bike lane, and the buses are always packed, so carry far more people than the 2 or 3 cyclists holding the entire bus up. So based off that experience, I hate cyclists and think they are an illegitimate form of transport.

    Is that a fair assessment? Of course not, because it’s not cyclists’ fault they’re stuck in the bus lane; similarly, it’s not the buses’ fault they are late, get stuck in traffic or are bumpy. It’s the widespread lack of infrastructure and appropriate technology that make them a competitive mode. We need investment, but because of the narrow rail-mindedness of most Melbournians, it’s not politically sexy to fund buses.

    What I’d like to see is a proper Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for the Doncaster area. As the Eddington Study showed, buses have the potential to be faster, cleaner, more reliable and more frequent than a train, so why spend billions more?

  21. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    It is an unfortunate omission that such an intelligent article makes no reference to advocay group insights such as the PTUA.

  22. michael r james

    Alan, same old, same old.

    Only to a bean-counter are buses cheaper than rail. (And that futile wish-list of improvements to make buses more like rail: they cost money and in the final analysis the best way to make buses like rail is to convert them to rail). One must restrict analysis to a very narrow window and a short- or near-term view to delude oneself into believing buses are cheaper.

    No major city in the world (that you would want to live in) relies upon buses to do the heavy lifting of public transport—one might think there are reasons for this, despite the “cost”? (Of course the only cost which politicians–and most beancounters–consider is capital cost and maybe running cost. Opportunity costs and whatever other issues rail might solve or avoid, like congestion cost or indeed the huge costs of forever building new roads, are benefits that don’t accrue to them, so the extreme short-term view operates: NIMTOO.)

    If a city tries to rely upon buses for too long then the very real cost of the eventual, ineluctable, unavoidable conversion to an actual effective method of mass transit (rail, the only one) will escalate, become more politically difficult and look close to impossible (land resumptions in crowded cities, thus the resort to tunneling, bumping costs up by a quantum or two.) Voila, Australia’s major cities have arrived at this point years, if not decades ago. WTF, do you think the airport rail line costs–or its purported costs–so humungously expensive, if not because it keeps getting postponed, instead of being built at the same time as the airport (with consequent sensible policy to encourage people to use it instead of cars to get to the airport; maybe even plan a suburb or TOD or two along its route, you know … urban planning, I believe it’s called)? (Tullmarine Fwy is already 8 lanes and they are going to spend $800m to add another two lanes; there’s your real-world “low cost” bus option for you.)

    So, bottom line, an absolute real-world truth: buses are the most expensive form of public transport, for growing cities beyond about 2-3m population.
    I dare you to prove me wrong. (Your article on the proposed airport rail proves it.)

  23. suburbanite

    I hate buses as a passenger and even more as a cyclist. Some bus drivers in my experience are pretty woeful and often pass dangerously close to cyclists. Also being stuck behind one means being shrouded in a toxic cloud. Occasionally I catch a bus, because it’s a 5 minute walk versus a 25 minute walk to the train and every time I regret it and wished I had taken the train – because the ride is uncomfortable in all the ways you mentioned plus it gets stuck in traffic jams – and I’m forced to listen to inane morning radio which is broadcast on the bus.
    They aren’t safe and I have witnessed much worse behaviour on buses than trains and the driver did nothing.
    Buses are a last resort, cheap and expedient and should be discouraged at all costs.

  24. Luke Wiwatowski

    Saugoof really laid out well all the reasons why buses are not my preferred mode. Can I rant about bus route maps quickly, I thought I was pretty good with reading maps but bus route maps seem to be the cartography of another world sometimes (this is my experience in Melbourne at least).

    I must say though that when going interstate having google maps integration helps a lot with my bus anxiety, proper route mapping!

  25. Saugoof

    You covered a lot of reasons of why I don’t like buses. Some of these could be overcome, some not really.

    The major problem I have with buses is that because there is little initial investment required, compared to a train or tram line, there is little incentive to stick with a bus route. It happens very often that routes change on a whim. Combine that with routes that are already very confusing and rarely ever published in an easily accessible way and buses really only become an option if you’re going from the same A to B every day.

    Buses are also much more dependent on traffic volumes. One reason I like trains and to a slightly lesser extent trams, is that it doesn’t really matter whether you travel in peak or off-peak times. It’s relatively easy to predict how long your trip will take. Sure, we could set up dedicated bus lines to overcome this, but if we’re already making that sort of investment, why not build a train/tram line instead?

    Another reason you didn’t mention is the relative freedom you have in a train. You can get up, walk around, etc. You can do that in a bus too, but it’s really not a conducive environment for that.

    I also simply hate seeing buses on the road. They’re annoying to drive behind, and they’re no fun at all if they pass you on a bike. The same reason I don’t like having trucks on the roads.

    Oh, and one other thing that really annoys me is the limited space. Outside of peak hours it’s easy transporting large objects, (parcels, luggage, bikes, etc.) on trains. But you’d be lucky if you’re even let on a bus carrying anything bigger than a briefcase.

  26. john doe

    Relating to the articles link about Aucklands transport that people may be interest to read. It is reported today in newspapers that Auckland is constructing a new CBD underground railway line. It consists of twin tunnels, underground railway stations with construction beginning next year.

  27. James

    This is a good article Alan.

    I’ve often wondered why more isn’t done to make buses more attractive – particularly in Melbourne where they are the ugly child of our PT system.

    I hate seeing buses with the anti-needle lights on at night (were discarded needles such a big issue on buses in the past?!). I also think that making bus routes more legible is a major key to getting more use. I think bus only lanes help on this, but I also think that some innovative colouring of gutters or road surfaces (or even hanging some sort of bunting on light posts) would help people understand what bus routes are available around their area. I recently found out the bus stop outside my apartment building goes directly to Chadstone. I had no idea until I looked it up. If the tram did as well I know I’d already have known that.

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