Why do travellers prefer trains and light rail to buses?
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 list of common criticisms of buses is long. (…) 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:
- 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”.
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).
Buses are seen as inferior to rail. (…) 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.
- Routes can be “straightened” and structured as a ‘grid’ to improve speed and connectivity (see What can Auckland tell us about doing public transport better? and Is the Qld government missing the bus?).
- 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’.
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.
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