Trains and buses


in Economics, Politics, The environment, Travel

Electric meter

Commenting on the possibility of Seattle installing a streetcar system, Dan Savage has argued: “People like trains. People hate buses.” Though public transportation policy is hardly his area of expertise, he does understand how people think and he is able to express himself forcefully and directly. On some level, it is definitely true. I like trains and subways. In London, I took the subway all the time; not once did I ever take a bus. Taking the train from Oxford to London feels like a luxury; taking the bus feels like a jerky, tedious chore.

In Heat, George Monbiot argues that the solution is to make buses nicer: cleaner, newer, and with attractive add-ons like wireless internet. He also argues that inter-city buses should avoid city centres, with all the nightmares of traffic and fiddly intersections they inevitably involve. While that would improve point-to-point travel in the UK, it doesn’t really reveal the reasons for which buses are treated with everything from moderate dislike to outright disdain. Is it a class issue? Lisa Simpson called the bus “”the chariot of the poor and very poor alike.” Is it a practical matter of comfort and efficiency, as Monbiot describes? If so, can it be overcome through practical measures like those he suggests. Are buses doomed to forever be an inferior good?

It is generally recognized that increasing bus services is the cheapest way of expanding public transport – both in terms of capital considerations and overall lifetime costs. That said, if transit use is significantly hampered by the dislike people feel for buses, perhaps alternatives should be more strongly considered. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes to people who have the financial means to use a car instead. If they get driven off the public transit system as soon as they hit that level of affluence, the system remains dominated by users without a great deal of political influence. In an argument akin to those about two-tier healthcare, it is possible that the self-exclusion of the wealthy from the public system perpetuates mediocrity.

One way or another, we need to hope that the private vehicle is reaching its apex in human history. Even with the eventual development of electric vehicles and other low or zero-emission options, the sheer amounts of space and resources devoted to producing and maintaining private transportation infrastructure are probably not sustainable. Given that it will be politically impossible to drag people from their cars kicking and screaming, we need to think seriously about how to encourage voluntary shifts to public or non-motorized transport. Better bike infrastructure and public transit seems crucial tot that campaign.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. December 14, 2007 at 9:45 am

Buses aren’t so bad, but they will always be associated with poverty.

For that you can thank both the fundamental convenience of using a car and decades of manufactured desire for them.

. December 14, 2007 at 9:42 am

Transportation Ethics

By Padraic on video

For fans of the New York Times column “The Ethicist“, Streetfilms has produced a video of an interview with its author, Randy Cohen, in which he makes a firm case for the immorality of urban cars and the ethical imperative to use alternative transportation.

I like how Cohen roots this criticism in a simple, traditional maxim: it does harm to others. In my philosophy studies, I’ve come across many radical approaches to environmental ethics (from deep ecology to eco-anarchism and beyond), and I’m somewhat sympathetic to them. However, I think the strongest case for environmental ethics lies in a simple understanding of ecological harm to others being just as much a violation of liberalism as other traditional harms.

While this approach is less novel and intellectually dazzling then formulating a whole new approach to the world, I think it’s much more likely to attract a consensus. I guess there’s a reason they call him The Ethicist.

. December 14, 2007 at 9:48 am

“Walking isn’t a lost art: one must, by some means, get to the garage.”

Evan Esar

tristan December 14, 2007 at 12:23 pm

The problem with buses compared to trains is simple: buses are too light. As any lover of jaguars or rolls royces knows, the heavier a car the more comfortable it can be made to be. Perhaps more importantly, the heavier a vehicle, the smoother it has to be driven to be efficient and have a long service life. Thus, since buses are so maneoverable and economical they are driven like civics drive boy racers, starting and stopping at full throttle/brake constantly through cities. Changing lanes – ug. A streetcar weighs much more than a bus and it shows, it accelerates smoothly and decelerates smoothly, and while sometimes it might have to break quickly it is never sudden. If a streetcar were driven with the jerkyness of a bus, it would wear out very quickly.

I don’t know the conventional way of expressing the physics but essentially I believe the difference is not in acceleration, but in the derivative of acceleration (m/s^3), the change of acceleration over time.

One could make buses nicer by making them heavier, but then one would give up the efficiencies of it being a bus. Streetcars get their efficiency from decreased rolling resistance, and they cannot be made light like buses.

Yuannie December 14, 2007 at 12:31 pm

I believe you are talking about momentum here, Tristan.
And for your information, the derivative of acceleration is known as the jerk. Please see the wiki article:

Anon December 14, 2007 at 1:05 pm

I thought ‘impulse’ was the first derivative of acceleration, just as acceleration is the derivative of velocity.

Sarah December 14, 2007 at 1:33 pm

I wholly disagree that trains feel “like a luxury” – to me, luxury transportation involves spending minimal time waiting for the service to arrive, getting a reasonably sized seat, and then enjoying a fast, hassle-free journey (ideally in a quiet environment), preferably for as little cost as possible. Some trains meet that standard, but the Underground certainly doesn’t – it is far too crowded, too noisy and extremely dirty. In my experience the Oxford-London line is too slow, too unreliable, too expensive and often involves long waits for an appropriate train. In contrast, the Express buses in Vancouver run every few minutes, get promptly to their destinations & one can usually get a seat (not least because of the frequency: if this bus is full, another will be here soon).
In short, I think a ‘luxury’ good in transportation is one that provides a good service and an ‘inferior’ good is one that provides a poor service – consumers are often smart enough to realise that stigma is far less relevant than the quality of the product. To get people out of their cars, we just need to provide better public transit ie. transit that is faster, cheaper and more reliable than car travel (eg. the Tube in London, & Subway in NY) regardless of what form that transit takes.

Anon December 14, 2007 at 5:02 pm

“Though public transportation policy is hardly his area of expertise”

Indeed it isn’t.

Emily December 15, 2007 at 12:48 am

I started to comment, but then it turned into a blog entry/rant:

Summary: we need more buses, not better buses.

Milan December 15, 2007 at 10:18 am


I was using ‘inferior good’ as an economic term of art: something that people buy less of as they get wealthier. Examples include discount surgery, Spam, and bus journeys.

I agree that there is a range of quality for both trains and buses and that the latter can sometimes be better than the former. That said, the great majority of my experiences favour the train. Perhaps the most important reasons are space, the ability to move around a bit, and the feeling of being on a dedicated track.

Waiting at a railway juncture is probably even more frustrating than being stuck on a bus in traffic.

Milan December 15, 2007 at 10:19 am


I will comment on your post later today.

Yuannie December 15, 2007 at 11:37 am

Oh, no, no, impulse is something completely different. It’s the change in momentum or the integral of force with respect to time. LOL. Take care, all of you eager people. Hehe.

Yuannie December 15, 2007 at 12:02 pm

Momentum is defined as mass times velocity: p = mv
Impulse is the change in momentum: I = dp = m dv (assuming mass is constant)
Acceleration is: a = dv / dt –> dv = a dt
Therefore: I = m a dt = F dt, since according to Newton’s second law: F = m a.
There you go! =)
I hope this clarifies these kinematics and dynamics concepts for everyone here.

. July 17, 2008 at 3:06 pm

Multiple Birds – One Silver BB: A synergistic set of solutions to multiple issues focused on Electrified Railroads

Posted by Prof. Goose on July 15, 2008 – 11:05am

. November 16, 2008 at 5:39 pm
. April 24, 2009 at 11:51 am

Bombardier wins massive Toronto streetcar contract
The deal for 204 cars is the biggest ever light-rail vehicle purchase in North American history


Globe and Mail Update

April 24, 2009 at 11:06 AM EDT

TORONTO — Montreal’s Bombardier has won a massive contract worth $1.22-billion to build the next generation of Toronto’s streetcars, beating out German rival Siemens after a tangled process that saw Bombardier’s first design tossed out because TTC officials said it would derail.

The slick new low-floor fleet, air conditioned and accessible to the disabled, will gradually replaced the existing cars, which date from the late 1970s and early 1980s and are nearing the end of their natural lives. The first cars should roll into service by 2012.

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