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Anti-transit myth #5: Buses are better than rail
[AUDIO] Some in Cobb County have questioned the presence of the proposed Cumberland light rail line, instead arguing for other options that could include enhanced commuter bus service to employment centers. At Wednesday’s roundtable meeting, Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee announced the county’s intent to submit an amendment to reduce potential funding for the proposed light rail line.
Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind.
Myth 5: Where transit is needed, buses are better than rail. Buses cost less and provide the same or better service.
Buses and rail transit are at least as different as apples and oranges. With a few exceptions, they serve different purposes and different people – so different that it may be more of a hindrance than a help to lump them together as “public transit.” In
general, buses serve the purpose of providing mobility to people who have no car or cannot drive – the transit dependent. Rail transit serves the purpose of reducing traffic by drawing to transit riders from choice, people who have cars and can drive if they choose to do so.
So why do the anti-transit troubadours always tell us to stick with buses and not build rail? Well, if the objective is to keep people in their cars, that is a pretty good prescription.
Let’s look at a few of the transit critics’ more specific objections to rail:
- The content that buses are more “flexible” because bus routes can be moved virtually overnight while train track are in a fixed place. This is true. But it turns out to be one of the advantages of rail, not a disadvantage. One of the more important purposes of any infrastructure is to spur and channel development. Bus transit has no effect on development, precisely because of its here-today-and-gone-tomorrow “flexibility.” No developer can count on its being there once his building is completed. Rail transit, on the other hand, is a major spur to development, because once it is there, it is there for the long term. A developer may buy land, erect a building and get tenants, knowing that those tenants will still have rail transit service next week, next month, next year and next decade.
- The critics also claim that buses cost less than rail. This is true of capital costs, but not of operating costs. In St. Louis, light rail had an operating cost per passenger mile in FY 1995 of 22 cents compared to 68 cents for buses, a cost per passenger trip of $1.18 compared to $2.31 for buses, and a farebox recovery ratio (FY 1997) of 41.8 percent compared to 20.3 percent for buses. In Portland, Oregon, the operating cost per boarding passenger is $1.67 for buses, $1.40 for light rail. In Dallas, the operating cost per passenger mile of the DART light rail system is just 60 percent of that of buses. On a nationwide basis, the latest figures, from the Federal Transit Administration 1999 “National Transit Database,” show the operating cost of light rail as 45 cents per passenger mil, compared to 55 cents for buses.
- Another assertion by the critics is that buses on dedicated rights-of-way – busways or HOV lanes – are better than light rail. In actual experience, buses on busways do not compete effectively with rail transit, at least in the minds of potential riders.
In one city after another, light rail has shown that it can draw a great many riders from choice who would never board a bus. The same is true for commuter rail. The anti-transit troubadors dislike rail transit not because it doesn’t work, but because it does.