Trains Are Always Better than Buses, Right?

Josh Barro provide examples galore of why the answer to that question isn't always yes—where costly rail investment has been to the detriment of existing transit. His column targets proposed projects, such as New York's LaGuardia Airport AirTrain.

3 minute read

February 11, 2015, 9:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

A bus next to the re-located light rail station at Denver's Union Station

Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons

"Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem," writes Barro. "That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome."

Barro is hardly the first to question costly airport connectorsone of the best columns I've seen comes from Market Urbanism in 2010 by Stephen Smith, now editor of New York Yimby. Barro has a larger audience to spread the "rail isn't always better" message.

However, to effectively question rail as always being the best transit investment, it's necessary to point to worthy bus projects. "The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has had modest success getting people to ride buses (the "Silver Line") from downtown to the airport; from most points in Boston, that trip also involves a train to the bus to the plane," writes Barro.

Benjamin de la Peña and Nicholas Turner, both formerly with The Rockefeller Foundation's urban development division, penned a July 2013 Planetizen Exclusive that describes other worthy bus projects throughout the United States.

Barro questions streetcar investments in recently opened systems and those still in the planning phase.

  • Atlanta’s downtown streetcar loop was a relative bargain at $100 million; unfortunately, Rebecca Burns, a writer at Atlanta magazine, took it to work for a week and found it was slower than walking
  • Washington’s shiny new streetcars, expected to serve 1,500 riders a day along H Street Northeast, are slowing the bus service that already serves 12,000 daily riders on that road. [No opening date scheduled as of Jan. 16].

Barro's main point is that transit agencies need to better market their express and rapid bus lines if they want to increase ridership with choice or discretionary transit riders (those who have access to cars). He points to recent success that Los Angeles Metro has had with the Orange (bus) line that operates on an exclusive right-of-way.

Returning to N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed LaGuardia AirTrain, Barro suggests that MTA "sell the Q70 and M60 services to people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus to the airport. Dedicated boarding areas and improved buses could be bought for a fraction of the price of a new train system."

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