You may recall Arlo Guthrie’s wonderful song, “City of New Orleans” about the train from Chicago to NOLA. In the movie “Risky Business,” the mystery of what a couple of young lovers were doing occurred on the ‘el’ (or elevated subway) in Chicago. If you have trouble sleeping and have a device that provides soothing sounds to help take you into dreamland, you’ll find dozens of train and subway sounds, but virtually nothing from either a Greyhound or your metropolitan bus service.
But those of us who are rail lovers have to come to grips with the inherent limitation of trains and subways: They can travel only where tracks exist. Laying new track is a major public works program.
Buses can essentially go wherever paved roads exist, thus they have unparalleled capacity and flexibility for mass transit.
As Aaron Renn has reported in “Urbanophile,”
Buses are what most people think of when they think of not getting anywhere: senior citizens waiting in lines, guys counting out change, double-parked cars. They are less sexy than subways and tend to be ignored until the MTA announces another round of service cuts. The last time buses were new was in the forties, when they were installed around the city as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to streetcars….But over the last decade, in a few transit-enlightened cities around the world, the bus has received a dramatic makeover. It has been reengineered to load passengers more quickly. It has become much more energy-efficient. And, most important, the bus system—the network of bus lines and its relationship to the city street—has been rethought.
Streetcars are making a comeback, but like buses, their speed and efficiency is limited by street lights and stop signs. Unlike streetcars, buses have the flexibility to change routes when gridlock paralyzes their movement.
There is no inherent reason why buses can’t be more attractive and enjoyable.
Borrowing interior designs from airport vans, etc., municipal buses can provide passengers with comfortable experiences where they can be comfortable and relax. Since buses are a slow means of point-to-point transit, passengers deserve a trade-off, and the most likely “reward” is comfortable seating with ample leg room.
Aaron Renn further states:
If New York City, the ultimate American city for rail transit, can see the wisdom of reinvigorating its bus system, then every other city in America should as well. No, New York is not cancelling its subway expansions. But it realizes that in a world of financial constraint, New Yorkers can’t wait decades for the relatively small number of projects that it has in the pipe to come online, much less develop new ones.
Buses came on the scene when metropolitan meant urban, and the automobile revolution was just beginning. Streetcars faded when metropolitan came to include suburban. Fixed-rail couldn’t keep up with the growth. The fact that core cities now have more open space than their surrounding suburbs simply proves the point that “things change.” This is where the flexibility of buses can trump the romance of fixed-rail: A bus can change its route in a day while a streetcar, subway, or commuter train takes years.
Maybe the solution to enjoyable urban mass transit is to ride the bus while listening to the sounds of a train or subway on your headphones.