An Anti-Bus Culture is Limiting Transit Options

The author, Steven J. Lee, is a guest blogger to the McGill JSDLP Blog.  He holds an M.A. in History, and writes regularly at The Orange Tory.

“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” – Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, 1979-1990.

Although seemingly apocryphal, the above quote all but symbolizes our culture’s relationship with busing, and public transit more broadly. In my first year of university, a human geography professor was discussing transportation and pulled up the following image:

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

The lecture hall chuckled at the Chevrolet ad, as it fit with their preconceived notions about public transit, from their suburban and exurban experience. Public transit, or at least the bus, is transportation for the young, the elderly, the poor and various outcasts in society. This is an easy attitude to have for those that do not rely on public transit. Sadly, this mindset may also be shared by many self-declared transit advocates.

Dominant in any city’s newspapers or transit blogs are discussions of light rail, subways or commuter rail. Poor maligned buses seem to only get ink when fares are raised, cutbacks are underway, or some scandal or incident occurs. Much of this is tied to our perception of rail and bus. Rail transit is acceptable to anyone. Rail is fast, frequent, comfortable and sleek. The subway or train is a novel experience, especially for occasional users. Large, powerful machines glide into a station and then smoothly whisk the traveller to his/her destination. Buses are highly mundane. To most people’s frame of reference they are larger, slower automobiles filled with strangers.

While rail transit is superior in dense urban environments, it is not a solution to all the problems confronting cities with intense congestion problems and tight budgets. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimated the cost per kilometer for light rail transit (LRT) at $34 million, and bus rapid transit (BRT) at $14 million. Recent subway construction in Europe and New York has averaged about $250 million per kilometer. With Canada’s provinces reluctant or unable to support projects and the federal government being particularly tight-fisted, efforts to build multi-billion dollar projects seem unlikely.

Bus rapid transit advocates argue that BRT can be implemented cheaply; all BRT requires is paint, to designate a bus-only lane, and some new traffic light technology. While it is not always quite that simple, municipalities have embraced bus innovations to provide more effective transit services. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)’s 905 region, for example, several local governments are implementing BRT. York Region, north of Toronto, created Viva in 2005 to provide region-wide bus rapid transit, augmenting local service. Mississauga, Ontario’s third largest city, introduced a dedicated lane BRT system called Mississauga Transitway, and has already implemented express buses into regular routes. Brampton, just north of Mississauga, has also created express bus/BRT-light services with its Züm  initiative. The introduction of BRT-style transit has significantly boosted ridership.


Brampton Transit’s Züm buses are painted distinctly from the regular fleet.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, states that riders and commuters are not concerned with the speed of their mode of transit, but the frequency of departures. A bus that comes every 5-10 minutes is far more desirable to commuters than a train that runs once an hour. Frequent service offers commuters more choice and flexibility when making their travel plans.

Perhaps most importantly in the pro-bus debate, BRT can attract new riders who do not normally take transit. Analysis from transit agencies experimenting with the service report spikes in ridership. Contrasting this to light rail, Eric Jaffe of The Atlantic Cities recently wrote that LRTs do not significantly reduce car reliance. According to Jaffe, commuters switch from bus to rail, but drivers do not make the switch to public transit, despite new light rail systems.

The debate between rail and bus is contentious; both offer distinct advantages and shortcomings. However, while governments can scarcely afford additional spending, congestion is choking our economic engines and the public is crying out for better service. Perhaps it is time to fall in love with the bus.

— Steven Lee for the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy

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