The Myth That Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses

Actually it is not a myth, transit customers do prefer rail to buses. The study does leave out the fact that rail’s operating costs can be much less than buses because the tram can operate in multiple units, thus with one driver carrying more passengers.

In the end though, transit customers perceive that BRT is just a bus operating on a tarted up rights of way and for all intents and purposes, BRT is just a bus.

If BRT or guided bus had preformed much better in the past, maybe the mode would be seen in a better light, but BRT tends to cost more and carry less customers than what those promoting the mode had promised.

It must pointed out that the so-called BRT mentioned in the Mayor’s Council’s transit proposals is not BRT at all, rather just a B-line limited stop express bus, with no signal priority at intersections nor a proper BRT guide-way.

The Myth That Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses



Take a look at the image above. This rendering represents modern bus rapid transit service. The BRT vehicle travels in its own separate lane, free from the constraints of traffic congestion or traffic lights. The bus is sleek and the shelter is pleasant. If you could see the boarding procedure, too, you’d find that passengers buy their fares ahead of time, enabling them to enter quickly through any door, just as they do on a train.

Now take a look at the image below, which shows a modern light rail service. The scenes are remarkably similar. This train travels in the same dedicated lane and even has the same style. The only real difference you’ll find, if you look very close, is the faint sign of tracks on the ground.



Given what we know from these two pictures alone, there’s no reason to suspect these two ridesai??i??modern BRT or modern light railai??i??would be noticeably different experiences. And yet when transport scholars David Hensher and Corinne Mulley of the University of Sydney Business School showed these images to about 1,370 people in six Australian capital cities, the difference in preference was enormous.

For the study, Hensher and Mulley gave survey respondents the two images above, plus two others whose only difference was older-looking vehicle styles (one bus and one train), and asked them to rank the four images in terms of “which one you would like to travel in most.” They found that 55 percent chose the modern light rail image, and another 18 percent chose the older light rail. Only about 17 percent chose the modern BRT. Just 10 percent chose the classic old bus.


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4 Responses to “The Myth That Everyone Naturally Prefers Trains to Buses”
  1. Haveacow says:

    I read the article yesterday on Atlantic magazine’s City Lab Site, I think the real point that they were trying to get across was that, if you give actually give real modern BRT (not a over marketed express bus operating in or almost in a mixed traffic condition) a chance it will win converts from rail. As much as I look forward to the coming of the Confederation LRT Line in Ottawa, for sheer speed its really hard to beat the Transitway sometimes. When its not peak hours those buses can really move fast. One advantage for the Transitway is that, if no one wants to get off at a Transitway station and no one is waiting in the bus waiting area to get on, the bus can simply bypass the station and continue on. Last Saturday afternoon I traveled on the Transitway over 4.6 km from Westboro Station to Downtown Ottawa (The Rideau Centre Station) in less than 7 minutes. Now this does not happen every day but I seriously doubt the LRT stopping at every station could beat that time.

    Keep in mind I do support the conversion of most of the existing Transitway to LRT for many reasons but, a good BRT system, (again a proper BRT system) can be very fast and efficient in its own right. With proper planning it can also be very popular with passengers, just as popular as rail given the chance, which was the point of the article. Done well it is not just a precursor to LRT but a good independent system that does have some operating advantage compared to rail when it is operated as a true BRT system not a transit line that simulates the rail experience for less cost. This in my opinion is the single biggest planning mistake, when you operate a BRT system as rail line with buses. As I have said before though it depends on the particulars of the individual right of way chosen, which is a better operating technology, rail or bus.

  2. zielgerade says:

    If the study is right the outcome of the public decision in the district of Erlangen-Höchstadt (Germany) on 19 April 2015 should be clear – in favour of the ‘StUB’, an LRT connecting the city of Erlangen with its surroundings. BRT is exactly what critics promote as alternative.

    It is not a direct decision about the ‘StUB’ – question is if the district will take part in the ‘Zweckverband’ (Special-Purpose association) that will plan, build and operate it. The other participants in the project, the cities of Erlangen and Nuremberg already joined the association.

    If interested you may find a map of the planned LRT here:

  3. zweisystem says:

    I am surprised that O-Bahn kerb guided bus had not been more successful that it has.

    In Vancouver, our BRT is just tarted up express buses as BRT has more cachet.

  4. Claude says:

    I think the interesting take-away to the article is that those who have direct experience with both, much to the author’s surprise, really do prefer rail.