Datapoint of One

Bus vs Train

I attended a conference recently where one of the discussion items was public transport. Specifically, light rail (subways, skytrains, etc.) has been stastically shown to compel people to switch from driving to transit use, whereas buses couldn’t. People, vaguely described as middle-class and above, refuse to take buses but consider taking light rail. This is a problem for cities that now feel like they must build this infrastructure, whereas buses could use infrastructure in place, i.e. roads. The experts posited that, for whatever reason, people look down on buses, but not on rail. They chalked it down to a vague “snob effect.” The various hypotheses to explain this “snob effect” ranged from socio-economic to class to smells on buses (I kid you not). No one had an answer.

Allow me a crack, given my personal philosophy.


10 years ago given my humble position in the socio-economic ladder, I had to take the bus. I didn’t mind it, at first. As population increased, oil prices climbed and municipal road-building initiatives failed to keep up (everywhere on the continent), traffic became steadily worse. Any accident, bottleneck or construction zone threatened to turn a 50-minute commute into two hours. Given the buses’ set routes and schedules, there was no way for me to avoid the traffic because bus drivers don’t have the latitude to adjust their routes for traffic conditions. The only option I had was to possibly catch an earlier bus, but still no guarantees. And of course, there was always the off chance that I would be where I need to be an hour and a half ahead of schedule.

Time is money and the second I could afford a car (or more accurately, when my parents bought one for me), I switched to driving. As an individual driver, I have the flexibility a bus driver doesn’t. I can pick alternate routes, cut people off, speed to get to my destination, etc. I gained control over time, as opposed to the other way around. Since then, I have never looked back. At buses, I mean.

Populations continued to increase, oil prices continued to climb and municipal efforts to manage road-building fell even further behind. This was especially true in Vancouver where I lived because Vancouver is the only city in North America that does not have dedicated highways into downtown. On a sidenote which stretches over the last 50 odd years, Vancouver politicians couldn’t agree on a route for the highway into downtown; then, the plebs began seeing how the sausages were made; so, the highway never made it into the downtown; hence, the light rail system (the Skytrain) had to be developed in response; and thus, today in an era of $100 / barrel oil prices (sweet West Texan Crude, baby), Vancouver politicians are lauded for their foresight. I digress. My 50 minute commutes again began stretching over two hours. Scheduling became increasingly difficult. What to do now?

Switching to buses doesn’t help, but the skytrains do. Why? Buses and cars share the same pipe. The skytrains run on their own pipe. Moreover, service is not usually interrupted and the trains are on time. The only possible downside is waiting on the platforms when there’s crowds (but that has been manageable so far). If you can get to the platform at a certain time, you’re more or less assured of reaching your destination in time. Moreover, the skytrains are fast and the routes efficiently plotted across the city. Even if I faced no traffic at all, the skytrains are still faster. So, for a person who can afford to drive a car, it makes sense in certain situations to switch to light rail.


If you take this datapoint of moi and ascribe the trends across the entire population, you would come to the following train (ed. note: no pun intended) of logic. One of the major solutions to alleviating traffic congestion is to reduce the number of cars on the road, in the absence of a major road building program (thank you financial depression). In order to do that, you need to incentivise people to consider alternative modes of transportation, i.e. mass transit. Two of the choices are buses and light-rail. Buses, for reasons mentioned above, are not the preferred choice of people who have the option of making that choice, i.e. those with the financial means to drive. Rail is an alternative that appeals to this segment of the population because of the possibility to cut down commute times, while avoiding traffic congestion.

Hence, you see the trend in the data of collections of higher-income people, with a demonstrable ability to afford driving, making the switch over to rail, but not necessarily buses. The point of this post was to demonstrate that buses aren’t conducive to getting people to adopt mass transit not because pretentious people have some silly qualms about buses. There is a statistical term for this example, i.e. the data leading to false conclusions like the “snob effect.” Perhaps, someone can remind me what that is? My second year stats class has been blacked out, with pockets of blurriness, in my memory. I intend to keep it that way.

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2 Responses to Datapoint of One

  1. zolltan says:

    I generally agree on buses vs. light rail – it’s the convenience, stupid. But some of the specifics I don’t buy. For instance, I don’t get why you think rising oil prices contribute to increasing traffic: shouldn’t it be the other way around? Also, comparing Vancouver and Seattle (which DOES have a highway into downtown, a thing that, transportation apart, uglifies the city a ton), makes me seriously doubt the idea that that is a very good traffic reduction measure. “Datapoint of Two”, I know, but, still. And, this isn’t really jive with my point or yours, but just curious, that our friend V. specifically cited smell as the reason he dislikes buses.

    • Zuuko says:

      Rising oil prices doesn’t lead to increased traffic congestion. I think when I originally crafted that sentence, it was supposed to read, “As population increased, oil prices climbed and municipal road-building initiatives failed to keep up (everywhere on the continent), traffic and the driving experience became steadily worse. My point was supposed to be that these three issues were leading to worse traffic and driving experience (paying above $60 too fill up every time you drive is a feeling akin to getting screwed with your pants on).

      On highways, they do reduce congestion for a period of time (like 10 years), but gradually congestion levels do increase and get back to levels before the highway was built. So case in point Seattle. Congestions is probably worse now than before.

      Anyone that studies traffic patterns knows that traffic is one way in the mornings and opposite in the evenings, coinciding with work schedules. During those specific times of day, highways (eg. Seattle’s) face increased congestion. At other times of the day, they fall. The best way to think of highways is like the power grid, especially in terms of load-bearing capacities. In peak hours, there is only so much the grid can handle.

      I mentioned the curious and unique fact about Vancouver because I was trying to make the point that Vancouver doesn’t even have a power grid to speak of. It has a series of roads into downtown that operate beyond capacity, in both directions pretty much at any time of the day except extreme hours. Vancouver has no highway which naturally filters the laborers trying to get into downtown. That’s why the skytrain in the most convenient route to get from say burnaby or surrey into downtown; its pretty much a straight line. In other cities, the highway is supposed to have this function. If you want to get from Everett to Seattle, you pretty much take the highway in part because it is a straight line between the two points. That’s why later in the post I mentioned that the skytrain is efficiently plotted.

      I suppose this post is a good illustration of my pedestrian abilities as a writer; my writing conveys the opposite points to the arguments I’m trying to make or the reader can’t draw a straight line between points A and B in my writing. sigh…

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