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.