Transit debates often get stuck because the word we need doesn’t exist. As longtime readers of this blog will know, I’d really like there to be a word that means “transit vehicle, maybe on rails and maybe on tires” or “clearly a bus right now, but with the possibility of growing rails in the future.”
But there isn’t such a word. So when I’m working in a city where the short-term reality is an all-bus system, and I talk about that system and our short-term plans for it, well, it’s really hard not to use the word bus. When I want to help people visualize it, it’s hard not to draw a picture of a bus.
When I do, rail advocates assume that means I’m expressing an opposition to rail, or perhaps just pandering to such feelings in my clients. Here, for example, the latest blast from the head of the main light rail lobby group in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, in a comment on the Canberra news blog RiotACT:
Although Mr Walker proclaims transport mode agnosticism, he is being paid by a pro-bus department … . What do you think would happen to future work for his firm if he came out and said, replace buses with light rail on the rapid route where the demand warrants this modal change.
I have heard the [local government] policy people report on their long term plans based on the ‘Canberra Transport Plan’. They only refer to buses.
Actually, I’m being paid (and modestly) by a department that’s trying to plot a rational course into a sustainable transport future, for a city of 345,000 people who live mostly at low densities with an abundant road network. The transit system is not yet at a scale or intensity where it needs the capacity that light rail would offer, nor is there much near-term prospect of funding for it. Light rail could happen, and I certainly don’t oppose it, but as I said over and over in Canberra’s Strategic Plan process, if you wait for light rail, you will miss a lot of other opportunities to improve transit mobility, and to encourage more transit-friendly urban form.
So to improve public transit in Canberra, the government is moving forward with a plan to improve the buses. Not because they love buses, but because (a) they have buses and (b) they need to move forward.
And so, to talk about that, they need to say the word “bus” a lot, and even draw pictures of buses. Yes, if your conception of transit begins with an absolute division between a bus world and a rail world, then officials who do that are going to sound to you like bus advocates.
But if you call them that, you’re projecting your scheme onto them. Not everyone lives in a bus-vs-rail world. The experts and officials who say bus a lot may well be true bus enthusiasts, but they may also be people like me who just want to get on with the work of developing good transit, and who therefore reach for whatever tool will best do the job at hand.