Friday, August 5, 2011

The Rail-Bus Divide

I have written before on this blog about a problem faced by transit activists in promoting bus transit. Travel by bus is highly stigmatized, at least in the United States, and even people who are environmentally conscious may not be persuaded to ride a bus. (I'm looking here, of course, at my fellow middle-class white liberals.) This stigma is a cultural one, but it is also perpetuated by policy decisions in many places where buses and rail connect with one another. In order to have an effective public transit system, we need to allow people to travel easily regardless of mode. Some places do this better than others, and some do it much worse.

Of the places where I've been, the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver probably do the most to minimize the bus-rail divide. San Francisco's Muni runs both light rail and bus services, and the two are treated equivalently as far as fare policy is concerned. In many cases, the decision to run a bus rather than a train on a given route seems to be determined by the city's famous hills, rather than ridership demand, and bus frequencies compete with- and often overtake- rail frequencies. Bus and rail are shown as similar-weighted lines on the same system map, as if either is an equally valid choice for travel. Downtown, Portland does much the same thing. Buses and light rail run along the same transit mall, are shown on the same map, and accept the same tickets. Outside of downtown, TriMet's system more resembles Vancouver's TransLink, where rail is used as a long-distance trunk line, connecting to buses at each station. The connections are always well-signed, with clear explanations of where each bus goes.

Roughly in the middle of this scale are Chicago and New York. Each runs an extensive rail system, and an even more extensive system of bus lines. If you're downtown in either city, you can't help but see at least a transit bus or two, and Chicago's El is prominent anywhere you look in the Loop. Fares on bus and rail are the same, and passes cover travel on both. However, if you are at a rail station, the only lines you will see on a system map are the rail lines. New York's famous Map shows only bus connections to the two airports. Even New York bus riders would be hard-pressed to find one of the elusive borough system maps, which show both rail and bus service. (When I was in New York this summer, I spotted one on a bus- but it was a Staten Island map. We were in Brooklyn. I have heard they are available at local libraries, if you ask.) Chicago has a bus/rail system map, which is impressive indeed, but it is posted only at bus stops- in effect saying that you needn't know about bus lines until you've already indicated your willingness to ride a bus. (Chicago's bus numbering scheme leaves something to be desired as well- 151 is a frequent line along Michigan Ave., while 17 runs a handful of trips on the edge of CTA's service area.) Both New York and Chicago, however, are well-integrated when compared with our nations' capital.

Washington, D.C.'s major transit operator is WMATA, also known as Metro. Like many big cities, Metro operates both an extensive bus network and a rail system. However, the agency seems to do its best to ensure that these two systems are not integrated. As a tourist in DC, every pamphlet seems to have Metro Rail stations or maps listed. Metro offers a day pass for tourist travel, allowing unlimited use until the end of the service day for a flat $9. There's also a weekly pass, a "short trip" weekly pass (which covers only a certain distance during rush hour) and a regional smart card. However, there is no pass that you can buy which will cover a combined trip by rail and bus. (Critics may say that this is because Metrorail uses a distance-based fare system, but the other major distance-based rail system, San Francisco's BART, offers monthly flash passes for connecting operators and discounted transfers to local bus and rail systems. Our own Metrolink offers distance-based passes which include bus service.) Furthermore, there are no bus maps in the stations, and bus maps at the stops include only schematics of the route they serve. Even the D.C. Circulator, which seems to be an attempt to specifically alleviate the stigma of city buses, is not well-mapped nor integrated with Metrorail fares.

Most of the time during our vacation, Dani and I rode rail lines. They tend to be better-advertised, more predictable, and more frequent (as a class) than bus lines, and so they are often the default choice of somebody who doesn't know the system well. In every other city, however, we used buses at least a few times- while the networks were not as integrated or as legible as they should be, they were integrated and legible enough to be useful to even brief visitors such as ourselves. In D.C., however, we didn't ride even a single solitary bus. There were times when I very much wanted to, even- because of the layout of Metrorail in downtown D.C., a trip that should have been 5 minutes on a bus was nearly 30 on three different trains. However, the fact that I had paid for the rail day pass and didn't have change for the bus kept me underground, wasting my time. Policies like this, which actively segregate "rail riders" from "bus riders," make a transit system unnecessarily complicated and fail to leverage existing transit infrastructure. D.C. Metrorail has a severe crowding problem during the morning rush- how much of it could be solved by letting riders choose the bus instead?

By the way, a commenter earlier mentioned to me an interesting development in the field of bus-rail integration right here in SoCal. Along with six new intra-county OC Line trains (which, I believe, represent the first non-IEOC Line trains not to stop at LA Union Station), OCTA is now promoting the "OC Link" pass. For only $7 on weekdays, riders get a day of access to any OCTA local bus and any Metrolink train within Orange County. This is a commendable venture, allowing riders a quick, inexpensive way of making intermodal journeys and using spare capacity on LA-bound Metrolink trains. I'm still disappointed in RTA's one-transfer-only Metrolink policy, and they're certainly a long way away from something like this. (I should mention that I proposed a similar agreement for RTA some time ago.)


  1. In LA, Metro has been getting better about showing its 15-minute map, which has bus and rail lines with 15 min or better service frequency. However, it seems like you see the Metro Rail map much more often, which only shows two bus lines and gives the false impression that vast swaths of the City have no transit service at all.

  2. Chewie-

    At least Metro puts the 15-minute map in the rail stations. At least on the Red Line, I see it pretty often. (I also have one of my own, though it's a pretty old version- it's still a 12-minute map.)

  3. Why did Metro switch from a 12-minute map to the 15-minute map?

  4. Budget cuts. Couldn't afford to maintain their frequent network at 12 minutes any more, so they backed the frequency down to 15.