When Buses Are Free but Trains Aren’t

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab with a piece on the dangers of applying free fares to buses but not to trains in the same city.  Key quote:

When we encourage people to get off trains and onto parallel buses, both kinds of transit lose. Buses are smaller, so they run out of capacity at a lower level of ridership. This requires the transit agency to put out more service — buses that could have been used in areas away from train lines where they provide the only mobility.

I go on to challenge the “buses are for poor people” assumption, which both equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on.

To many, buses and trains symbolize positions in the class struggle. Equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on this view. The equity advocate will say that we need to focus on buses because poor people use them, while I have heard elites argue (often in private) that we should neglect buses for the same reason. Most obviously, when developers and other elite urbanists argue that transit-oriented development requires rail, they are understandably privileging the view of people who are in the position to buy market-rate urban real estate. Those fortunate folks are especially likely to say, openly or not, that they would never ride a bus.

But in an urban transit network that’s trying to give everyone the greatest possible access to destinations, rail and bus services work together, and many trips involve both. You use a train for longer trips along corridors with high demand. To travel in lower-demand areas, or to make many shorter trips, you take a bus. Sometimes you ride the subway for part of the trip and a bus for the rest. An efficient and therefore liberating urban transit network encourages people to think about the total network, and to use buses or trains according to which is better for each part of their trip.

Anyway, the whole piece is worth a look.

8 Responses to When Buses Are Free but Trains Aren’t

  1. RossB December 23, 2022 at 3:50 pm #

    I have several thoughts and I think it is easiest for me to use examples from Seattle, since I am most familiar with that system. I’m sure many of these ideas apply to other cities.

    First, there is a political aspect to this. The fear is that bus service will be shortchanged for the reasons you mentioned. In Seattle there is a bit of a disconnect between the city and the county. A couple years before the pandemic, Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed a measure to increase bus service. Not BRT, not LRT — just running the same buses, more often. I’m sure that Seattle is not worried about the political support for buses; but those in the rest of the county may be. I would imagine there is a similar dynamic in D. C versus the surrounding suburbs.

    Second are the practical reasons you mentioned. I could easily see there being three types of service:

    1) Local buses.
    2) Long distance express buses.
    3) The trains.

    The first would be free, while the second and third cost money. As it turns out, both the trains and express buses could be run by the same agency (Sound Transit) with service that extends a very long distance (over three large counties). Even if agencies aren’t built this way, similar branding for express bus service would be easy.

    I don’t see big capacity problems as people shift away from the trains, for several reason. First, the biggest capacity issues tend to occur with mid-distance, peak express buses, which have largely gone away. They have been replaced by buses that feed the train. For example, along State Route 522 (Bothell/Lake City Way) there used to be buses running every 2 or 3 minutes during peak. They would follow that corridor until they hit the freeway, and then run express to the downtown transit tunnel. Now the buses along that corridor just end at the station. In the future, ridership on the corridor will be even more split, as some of those riders take buses to a different station.

    I suppose people could get off the bus and get on another bus (instead of the train) to get downtown, but that seems rather inconvenient. Years ago you used to be able to travel from Tacoma to Everett (roughly 60 miles) using a combination of local buses. It would take several hours, but be very cheap. But hardly anyone did that. They just took Greyhound.

    I just don’t see a significant issue when it comes to capacity — not as long as the buses are designed to feed the trains and express buses charge money. There might be a shift in ridership patterns, but ones that the existing (now free) buses can handle. That might cost the train agency money, but not a huge amount.

    There is also a very practical advantage to all of this, in that the buses would be faster. You essentially have off-board payment everywhere (expect maybe the express buses, which by their very definition do not make many stops). My only worry is the political one — will there be enough money for bus service if they are free?

    • asdf2 December 23, 2022 at 7:38 pm #

      In the Seattle context, I think this post is alluding to express bus routes that run essentially the same route as the Sounder trains. These buses run during the same limited hours that Sounder trains run and largely pick up at the same stops; they also get stuck in traffic, which can make them dramatically slower than the train.

      Yet, because their fare category is “bus” rather than “train”, some people ride them over the train because it is cheaper, and if the transit agency were to seriously propose eliminating these redundant buses (the trains have plenty of excess capacity to absorb the bus passengers, especially post COVID), people would inevitably complain that a forced switch from bus to train is a de-facto fare hike, which would cause a financial hardship on low-income people who depend on the bus, etc. So, the bus must continue running even though the cost of running the bus far exceeds what it would cost to simply give everybody who rides the bus free train passes.

      If the buses went from “cheaper than the train” to outright free, while the train fares stayed unchanged, the financial incentive for people to choose the bus over the train increases, causing the train to be emptier, and any future service restructure to eliminate the redundant bus, that much harder to pull off.

      Ideally, the fare one should pay should depend only on the point of origin and destination and, perhaps, the time of travel (e.g. peak vs. off peak), but it shouldn’t depend on the route or vehicle type. In practice, the goals of keeping fares “fair” and keeping fare structures simple and easy to enforce are often contradictory. For example, a bus cannot easily charge higher fares for riding the same vehicle further, but a train often can, since the stations are often few enough and large enough for faregates to make financial sense. It is also quite common for the buses and trains to be run by separate agencies, with separate budgets, separate funding sources, and run by different people, with different opinions on what a “fair fare” should be. Sometimes, one agency can fall under legal constraints that would prevent them from offering free fares even they wanted to, while another doesn’t.

      This issue is described in detail in a prior human transit post “Do we really want Fares to be ‘fair’?”, which I highly encourage people to read: https://humantransit.org/2009/05/in-search-of-fair-fares.html

      • RossB December 28, 2022 at 9:24 am #

        I’m not sure which buses you are talking about, and where they fit within the three categories I outlined:

        1) Local buses.
        2) Long distance express buses.
        3) Trains (commuter or otherwise).

        The first would be free, while the other two would cost money. Charging for express buses but not local buses is quite reasonable and consistent with other types of travel. Faster service — whether it is high speed rail, a direct flight, or intercity express buses — costs more than slow service. Yet the faster service is still really popular simply because people want to get there sooner. They will pay for the time savings.

        >> if the transit agency were to seriously propose eliminating these redundant buses, people would inevitably complain that a forced switch from bus to train is a de-facto fare hike

        Maybe, but agencies do this all the time. It is common for agencies to completely eliminate express bus service, let alone charge more for it. Sometimes they are asking people to shift to a different mode — so be it. The thing is, they can’t eliminate local service. A lot of times the buses are not designed for long distance travel, but you can take it for that purpose. The buses just overlap in terms of service.

        There are really two different things to worry about:

        1) Long distance travel shifting from commuter rail to buses. I don’t see this happening, simply because the express buses would cost the same amount as the train, and the local buses just take too long.

        2) Short distance travel shifting from the local rail system to buses. This could definitely happen. This should be factored in when considering the cost to the agencies. Not only do you lose fare revenue from the buses, but train revenue from the subway/metro will go down as people shift. But in most cities I don’t see a problem with regards to crowding. Buses that serve shorter trips tend to have lots of passengers, but not as much crowding. People get on and off the bus at every stop. If people from a long corridor are headed to the same place, it becomes like the first category. At some point, it is just a lot faster to take the train or an express bus. Thus I don’t see the agency having to run a lot of extra (free) buses to keep up with the added demand caused by people shifting.

        Revenue goes down, but costs don’t increase (at least not significantly). If anything, costs are likely to be reduced, simply because you don’t have to collect fares (which means shorter dwell times).

        • Dave January 3, 2023 at 2:47 am #

          “Long distance travel shifting from commuter rail to buses. I don’t see this happening, simply because the express buses would cost the same amount as the train, and the local buses just take too long.”

          DC has several local bus routes that duplicate metro or commuter rail service that they’ve been unable to get rid of, precisely because they’re a lot cheaper to ride. Even though they take upwards of 2+ hours from end to end, price-sensitive riders still ride them. When I lived in Chicago, there was a similar situation between the suburban bus authority and the regional commuter rail authority.

          I think you’re grossly underestimating the number of people that exist in American urbanized areas who barely can afford to pay bus fare and certainly cannot afford to pay train fare if the train fares are higher than bus fares (as is the case in too many American cities). Continuing to serve them with smaller vehicles requires more manpower – a bus driver can only transport maybe 100 people at a time while a train operator can transport thousands – which in turn costs the transit provider more than it gains from revenue collected. Transit providers should structure their fares in a way that encourages people to always choose the vehicle that is cheapest to operate, which in almost all cases will end up favoring transfers to/from rail service.

  2. Johnny December 28, 2022 at 5:06 pm #

    They are doing this in England too:
    Bus tickets will be capped at £2, rail tickets won’t. This doesn’t include London, but they already have even cheaper bus tickets while tube and rail tickets often costs much more.

    • daodao January 29, 2023 at 2:52 am #

      In addition, for those of pensionable age in England, local buses are free (once one has obtained the appropriate pass), but rail (tram and train) services still require payment of the full adult fare. This clearly distorts the market. This has led in some instances to transport companies operating parallel bus services, for example Blackpool Transport bus route 1 runs parallel to its own tram service along the Promenade to Fleetwood.

  3. Steven Cook January 1, 2023 at 5:52 pm #

    It is a characteristically American attitude that buses are for poor people so it’s OK for them to be chronically late, infrequent, unreliable, and dirty. No one of consequence rides the bus so it’s not important that bus systems work well, the thinking goes. It’s another facet of the dysfunctional approach America takes toward transit, and transportation in general.

    • Jarrett January 12, 2023 at 6:25 am #

      Having worked in nine countries I’d say the US is the most prone to transit technologies as markers of class. It’s a function of having low ridership overall and of bus services and their infrastructure often looking unappealing, not just to the customer but to the passing motorist. (Not blaming the transit agencies for this; they’re poor too.)