Why People Dislike Buses

Every time a city proposes building or expanding a rail transit system, a predictable group of opponents steps in and argues that bus service would be significantly cheaper and accomplish the same goals. Of course, most of these opponents never plan to ride either the eventual bus or train, and thus care very little about the experience that one gets on different modes of transportation. To them, transportation is transportation, so why not go with the cheapest option?

(from Flick user 24gotham)

This neglects the reality that there are people in New York City who have the entire Subway map memorized but have never stepped foot on a bus. There are people in Chicago who walk out of their way to get to an L station instead of hopping on a bus that's right in front of them. And there are people in Washington, DC who pay twice as much to ride Metrorail when the bus could get them to their destination for a far lower fare.

People behave this way because riding a bus is simply a worse experience than riding a train, with almost no exceptions. What makes riding buses so much worse? Here are five reasons to get us started...

People like to feel like they're going somewhere; they don't like to stop and wait. The beauty of a grade-separated rail transit line is that it only stops at destinations. You step onto the train and it doesn't stop for red lights, stop signs, jaywalkers or anything else. Buses stop for all those things. People hate that.

In most cities, congestion is the result of too many cars on a street all at once. Since buses use the same streets as cars, they typically get stuck in the exact same congestion. Nobody likes being stuck in a traffic jam. You could say that being on a bus in traffic is less stress-inducing than being behind the wheel; but that's not the point. A good rail transit system avoids traffic altogether.

Bus routes are often disorienting. They have too many turns and zig-zags. People can never be entirely sure where they are going. I've also yet to see a truly good bus map. The beauty of a well-designed rail map is that it simplifies something that's actually rather complex. A good map can convince people that they are traveling in a straight line, even when they are turning and zig-zagging all over the place. And since the locations of rail stations never change, you don't have to worry about being detoured away from or losing track of your destination.

Buses are bumpy. Anyone who has ever ridden a bus on a really pothole-infested street knows how awful this can be. Trains, by comparison, are typically very smooth.

People find comfort in rail stations. They feel exposed waiting out on a street corner for a bus and they don't like it. Regardless of how much safer waiting in a rail station actually is, people perceive it to be more so, and thus feel much more comfortable down (or up) in stations than they do out on the street.


    More people ride the bus than the L in Chicago. NYC has a huge bus fleet. More people ride the bus in London than they do the Tube. Los Angeles has a gigantic bus system.

    When quality bus service is available, people will ride it. People will chose the mode that is right for them to get where they are going.


    I would also add that buses, unlike trains, have very jerky movements and tend to throw you around a lot. Try to sit down and read on a bus--it's challenging, with the constant and quick accelerations and decelerations. On a train, in contrast, it's usually a much easier ride so you can read, do crosswords, or what-have-you.


    There's more tangible reasons why people dislike buses. For starters, buses are far more frequently late, and far more vulnerable to significant variations in travel time. So if you are going to a meeting or making an appointment, the bus might get you there within a 20 minute window, but rail is much more accurate in time--the rhythm of starts and stops is much more predictable (don't have to worry about a bunch of oncoming passengers etc).

    Also, a lot of neighborhoods that are given buses instead of rail see it as quite the injustice, sort of like a slap in the face that their neighborhood isn't an institutional priority for investment. This is less tangible of a criticism, but is much stronger than a feeling of inconvenience.

    On April 28, 2010 Rana said...

    Very true. All your reasons. Some overlap with the last comment, but I think a critical factor is that unpredictability.

    It is undeniably miserable to stand at a lonely bus stop, exposed to the wind and the rain, often with no clue if your intended bus is in two minutes or an hour.

    Whereas train and tram systems tend to have large sheltered stations, usually with an accurate board saying when the next one is due. You can sit and comfortably read a book or work on laptop while safe in the knowledge the bus won't pass while you're engrossed in it.

    On April 28, 2010 rg said...

    I moved because I hated the bus so much -- I actually sold my house and bought another one close to a subway station. It was worth all of the hassle, etc. that comes with buying and selling a house and moving. While real estate values tell you that my new neighborhood is not a nice as my old one, the quality of my day-to-day life emphatically says otherwise. (Note to any transit dependent person thinking of moving to NE DC along the route of the D6 Bus: DON'T DO IT!!!! At least not if you have other options. And don't think that walking a few blocks north and taking the X2 Bus will solve your problems. It will not! While the X2 runs more often than the D6, the buses are hot (even in winter) and always packed to the gills and the ride quality is horrible.)

    Just because a lot of people ride the bus in any given city does not mean that buses are as good as rail in terms of quality of service and the quality of the travel experience. They are not. Ever. Not in any circumstance. Buses have a place in the transit mix, especially in lower density areas and along less-traveled routes, but given the choice between bus and rail, most people will choose rail for all of the reasons outlined in this post. When I had no other choice, I rode the bus. I still take the bus occassionally, but now that I have a choice between bus and rail, I choose rail 99 percent of the time. It simply makes no sense to choose the bus, even though several bus routes serve my neighborhood, when there are two subway stations near my house.

    On April 29, 2010 Jeff said...

    Everything you said is probably true, but I thought the reason people prefer trains is simply that the bus is for poor people (and typically minorities dominate ridership). This is, at least, the common perception to a prospective car user who might consider mass transit. The thing about the bus is that it is subject to everything that you hate about cars: the constant stop lights, the detours and traffic jams, and roads that are less than ideally maintained, and ultimately, it is always much slower than driving yourself. Given the choice between experiencing those things in your own car or on a bus, I'd say most people choose their own car unless money is a factor, which goes back to the argument about the social stigma of bus users. I'd disagree with you and say that there is nothing more annoying than being stuck in traffic on a bus. In your own car you have the perception of some amount of control, which vanishes when you are on a bus, running late, and frustrated. You may have no more control in your own car, but you sort of feel like you do.
    I think rail's success is the reduced frequency of stops, fixed stations, and the simple fact that it's a service that isn't a motor vehicle.
    I am really looking forward to the results of the 34th St project in New York. I'm especially interested to see if cross-town bus ridership increases with a dedicated lane that will make the trip shorter. Cross town buses are slower than walking. The only reason to ride at all is to avoid getting sweaty when it's hot.