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.

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  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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