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.