I Am Not a Bus Advocate

What, you say?  But you wrote an article in the Atlantic called The Bus is Still Best!  You redesign bus networks for a living!  You’ve been a skeptic about all kinds of new alternatives to the bus, from monorails to streetcars-stuck-in-traffic t0 “microtransit.”  Have you changed your mind?  

I am a freedom advocate[1], which means that I like it when people can go places, and therefore do things, and therefore have better lives more rich with choice and opportunity.  And when I analyze how to deliver freedom cost-effectively, the fixed route bus turns out to be the right answer in a huge percentage of cases.  It’s not right in all cases, and where it isn’t I don’t recommend it.  (Where a community has other goals, that too can yield a different answer, which is fine.  It’s their community.)

But it’s increasingly common to read things like this

Entrenched beliefs that the bus or rail is best, period — and that ridership and scalability are all that matter — stop us from seeing all the places where we can leverage technology and new ideas.

[UPDATE:  This article has since been revised in response to my objections.]

The word “bus” was a link to my Atlantic article, whose headline, “The Bus Is Still Best,” I dislike but could not control.[2]  The implication of this link is that I am “entrenched” in an emotional attachment to buses the way that many people can be emotionally attached to trains or airplanes or Porsches or whatever.[3]

Such attachments may also just be financial interests.  For example, huge amounts of venture capital are being spent making it sound like microtransit is a world-changing idea, and to attack those of us who honestly can’t make mathematical sense of that claim as being rigid, stuck in our ways, “entrenched.”[4]

In fact, I feel no emotions about transport technologies.  My shelves are not full of cardboard model buses.[5]  And where the right answer to the problem of efficiently providing freedom isn’t a bus, I don’t recommend a bus.  I have recommended all kinds of technologies in different situations. I want to achieve goals, and I look for tools that do that in each situation.

Above all, I hope I’m known for suggesting that our thinking should start with goals rather than emotional excitement about technologies, and that this requires some serious effort, because every technology salesperson wants us to do the opposite: first, get excited about a technology, then try to come with a goal that could justify it.  As soon as “innovation” becomes a goal in itself rather than a tool, we are headed down that slippery slope.

So I’m not surprised that I get attacked now and then, and now here’s a post as a ready-made response.  Next time you see someone say that I am (or you are) a “bus advocate,” or “entrenched,” just send them a link to this.  Thank you!



[1] Or, if you prefer, an access advocate.

[2] Never, ever link to something based only on the headline!  Headlines express the attitudes of the publication, not the writer.  (I am slapping my own wrist as I write this, because I’ve been guilty too.)

[3] … which is not to criticize emotional attachments.  I have them too about many things. As always, I am describing myself, not judging you!

[4]  This assumption about financial interest also gets projected onto me sometimes, so for the record: I have no financial link with any bus manufacturer, bus operating company, etc.

[5] … though if yours are, that’s wonderful!  As always, I am describing myself, not judging you!

13 Responses to I Am Not a Bus Advocate

  1. Laurence Aurbach December 2, 2019 at 9:01 am #

    We’re in a period in history in which hype about innovation is much more prevalent than actual innovation. Innovation sells! Even if it’s only a glamorous label slapped on a tired old product.

    Some administrators may jump on innovation bandwagons to improve their public image and political position.

    The current media environment also magnifies the hype machine. Journalism is under so much pressure to constantly produce new clickbaiting content. Promoters know how to exploit this. It’s so much easier to rewrite a press release about the latest and greatest innovation. It’s so much easier to take the promoters’ claims and criticisms at face value, and present issues as simple good-bad fights, than to explore complicated debates and subtle ethical choices.

  2. John Charles Wilson December 2, 2019 at 10:44 pm #

    Thanks for mentioning this.

    While technically off-topic, I’d like to mention that putting ideology before goals is a common mistake we all make.

    I spent nearly 40 years of my life defending a particular rigid political ideology. It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve taken a more evidence-based approach to politics.

    I even had rigid (and actually absurd) beliefs about improving transit. Reading sites like this one seriously woke me up. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  3. Rob Fellows December 3, 2019 at 7:10 am #

    Jarrett, very nicely said. Right on.

  4. Sean Gillis December 3, 2019 at 7:19 am #

    Thanks as always for the posts.

    My rationale mind agrees with your bus-rail neutrality: choose the right tool to meet your goals, based on clear discussion of trade-offs. As a professional it`s my job to provide good advice not push a technology. Until you need very high speeds or very high capacity, there`s a good chance a quality bus system can do the job very well (likely best).

    But, and this is a big but: trains feel cooler. I know that buses can do many wonderful things, just like a train: provide high capacity; provide outstanding reliability with dedicated right-of-way; move quickly; ride smoothly; run quietly as hybrids or full electric; and even look cool. They can operate and look like trains. But even still I LIKE trains more. There is something about the permanence of the rails that is reassuring. There is something about the clear connection between rail and vehicle that speaks to permanence, solidity and legibility. These things only feel solid (rail lines of all types have been abandoned) but that feeling matters, somehow. It matters to a lot of people. A rail line exists, in and of itself. Most bus routes do not exist in the same way.

    I guess what I`m trying to say is this: If a professional like myself still feels an emotional draw towards rail transit it`s not shocking that so many others do as well. As professionals we need to use the arguments and lenses that writers like Jarrett provide, but I do think we need to admit that rail bias (an emotional bias towards building rail) is real and adjust our messaging accordingly. This does not mean we acquiesce to the myriad claims about the magical quality of rail to do x,y,z. Rather, we need to account for the emotional power of this argument and respond with value-based arguments, not evidence. Arguments for rail are rarely evidence-based, they are emotional. Evidence rarely sways emotion.

    • Twr December 3, 2019 at 12:59 pm #

      “Such attachments may also just be financial interests. For example, huge amounts of venture capital are being spent making it sound like microtransit is a world-changing idea”

      And you spread propaganda for buses on this website, so that your firm can make more money from your transit planning consulting. I don’t see the difference…

  5. Murray December 3, 2019 at 2:03 pm #

    G’day Jarrett

    Thanks for helping open my eyes to the importance of knowing what you what in a transit system and the different vehicles that can achieve the desired outcomes.

    I used to be a big advocate of heavy rail; mostly because that’s what I mainly used. Fortunately I then got experience with Brisbane’s busway, which demonstrated to me the importance of right of way, rather than the vehicle itself.

    Now I try to educate others.

    For the record, I have some Japanese shinkansen models on my desk. (A truly wonderful way to travel, but not really transit.)

  6. david vartanoff December 3, 2019 at 8:35 pm #

    There are cases where buses are the most useful. That said, rail when properly implemented has distinct advantages which no bus can match IMHO. Compare the Orange and Expo Lines in LA. The Orange is reported nearly nose to tail in rush which while great as throughput, is expensive as to operators. The Expo at 3 car trains is also very busy, but at a single operator for the equivalent of 3 Orange buses, and when LA figures out extending station platforms, 4 car trains can be deployed. FWIW, if the 4 car option is deemed infeasible,modifying the fleet with no cab mid train cars can increase passenger space at no increase in total length. None of this is news, but part of why I believe rail can be the better mode in many cases.

    • Dave December 4, 2019 at 11:47 am #

      The Orange Line was originally supposed to be rail. Misguided ballot measures and lawsuits forced it to become a busway instead. I don’t think anybody would argue that the Orange Line should have always been rail from today’s perspective, but planners in the 1990s had to follow the law and court rulings in place at the time. The alternative planners faced to building the busway was not building rail – it was building nothing.


  7. Rob Fellows December 3, 2019 at 10:37 pm #

    Even acknowledging that trains are cool, it’s important to put them in places where they have a strategic advantage over buses. We will never get to the point where trains can go everywhere (short of Manhattan densities), so in most cities buses will still carry the majority – and the key question is where to put each. In my opinion, trains have the greatest strategic value when stations are located where large volumes of pedestrians want to be, and in places it’s hard to get buses into and out of reliably.

    • El_slapper December 5, 2019 at 8:11 am #

      trains…or tramways.

      Here in Montpellier(southern France), trams serve the dense center town, as well as some strategic near suburbs(Pérols where I work, Lattes, Juvignac, St-Jean de Védas…and that’s nearly all). Buses serve everwhere else – where demand is not so big. I regret the lack of connectivity between both networks, but both means of transportation clearly serve a different goal. Tramways serve massive volumes(lines 1, 2 and 3) as well as places where no car – or bus – can go(line 4). Buses serve everything else.

      Try to pack 150 finnish supporters thrilled by their team’s victory against Russia(Eurobasket 2015) in a bus, and you’ll have problems. Try to serve the less dense suburbs with trams and you’ll have other kind of problems.

  8. Anonymous December 6, 2019 at 1:57 pm #

    To truly convince people you’re not a bus advocate you’d probably need to take on the ITDP and it’s habit of recommended buses when rail would better suit a city.

  9. wanderer January 6, 2020 at 5:05 pm #

    There are situations where rail is absolutely justified. The Expo Line is one. It connects Downtown Los Angeles, USC, Culver City, Westwood (UCLA) and Santa Monica. With all these destinations, the Expo Line has an unusual bidirectional commute. With the completion of the Regional Connector and the Crenshaw Line, it will connect with five metro rail lines, as well as numerous bus lines. LA Metro has indeed struggled to provide enough capacity for the Expo Line.

    Most corridors aren’t like the Expo Line, even in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has embarked on a huge rail building program, but there will still be dozens of corridors that are necessarily served by bus. Not to mention hilly places around the world that can use cable cars.

  10. Simon February 3, 2020 at 1:49 pm #

    What about the scope for heavy rail in rural areas? There are some rural areas in the UK still where a regional passenger train is an important amenity because the roads are awful more than anything else. (Plus the regime whereby trains are nationally subsidised – subsidies for buses have to be from the council.)