Why do we dislike buses?

Houston, we have a problem...

Melburnian’s seem to love trains and dislike buses. Melbourne Airport and Doncaster are both served by high-frequency bus services with a wide span of operating hours, yet large numbers of people want to spend billions replacing them with trains.

The list of criticisms of buses – relative to trains – is long. Right at the top is slowness. Buses operate in traffic, follow circuitous routes, stop frequently and idle while passengers dig out spare change to pay the driver. They’re uncomfortable too. Shelters are perfunctory, the ride is jerky and difficult if standing, seats are jammed too close together and too many drivers don’t seem to actually like passengers. And buses are unreliable. They’re invariably late and if you miss one the wait for the next one will seem interminable. If it’s night or a weekend there’s a good chance that was the last bus for the day.

Then there are systemic criticisms. Buses aren’t ‘legible’ — prospective passengers can’t see where the route goes. Sometimes routes vary over the course of a day. Buses are also impermanent. Developers are less inclined to risk investing along a route if it can be changed overnight or even removed. And there’re hard-nosed criticisms, too. Buses don’t carry many passengers. Operating costs are high because each vehicles requires a driver. Per capita GHG emissions and energy consumption are no better than cars. Engines are noisy and polluting.

As things stand, buses look pretty bad compared to trains, even given the unreliability and crowding that characterises peak hour train services in many Australian cities. Buses have a serious image problem, not just here but in many western cities.

But it’s an unfair comparison*. The key reason buses are perceived so poorly relative to rail is they are mostly assigned to marginal routes with low patronage. Operators follow indirect routes and stop frequently to maximise revenue; they reduce frequency and hours of operation to minimise costs. They can do that because their customers aren’t usually sophisticated CBD workers but travellers who are mostly “captive” to public transport. In other words buses mostly operate in a different market to trains. But it’s given them a bad reputation.

Most of the criticisms can be fully addressed, or at least softened, when the comparison is like-for-like i.e. when buses operate the sorts of long-haul commuter services that urban rail is customarily used for in Australia. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems typically have high patronage and operate in their own right of way (just like trains) or in dedicated on-road bus lanes. Stops are major interchanges spaced kilometres apart and tickets are bought before entry.

BRT vehicles can be made with the internal look and ‘feel’ of (light) rail and the jerky ride can be minimised with electric engines. Articulated buses carry large numbers of passengers and can provide better leg room. According to Corinne Mulley, Chair in Public Transport at Sydney University, Brisbane’s South East Busway carries 15,000 passengers per hour and in Bogota buses carry 45,000 per hour.  She says “US evidence points to infrastructure costs for dedicated buses being approximately one third of light rail costs”. As a point of reference, Eddington forecast that a Doncaster rail line would carry up to 12,250 one-way trips per day.

Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit - carries 800,000 passengers per day!

So when compared on a like-for-like basis, many of the supposed disadvantages of buses don’t necessarily hold. In fact buses have a singular advantage over trains (and light rail for that matter) – they can overtake each other and they can drive around obstacles. The problems of mixing stopping and express services that limit the capacity of rail are thus more manageable with buses. While there’s no getting away from the fact that buses are different, they’re not inherently inferior to trains on most counts. Higher operating costs are probably their chief negative on commuter routes.

However that comparison can only be taken so far. The fact is the key advantage of buses relative to rail for commuter operations is their low set-up cost. That advantage derives to a significant extent from their use of existing roads, where the enemy of the bus is congestion and parking. Unless BRT has dedicated on-road lanes it will continue to be rail’s poor cousin.

At present, even BRT services like Skybus and DART (Doncaster Area Rapid Transit) aren’t provided with bus-only lanes along their entire routes because that would deny cars. Skybus trip times consequently blow out from 20 minutes off peak to over 40 minutes in peak hour. As Melburnians know only too well, motorists don’t like giving up road space to buses. Hence buses need to operate at high frequencies and high occupancy to win and keep dedicated lanes – when done properly, BRT fills this specification admirably.

There is another reason the comparison with commuter rail operations doesn’t tell the full story – buses will continue to be used for low volume and marginal feeder services. They will always struggle to be seen as attractive in this role, especially compared to trains. But of course what shouldn’t be overlooked is that buses are used on these sorts of services because trains (and even light rail) simply aren’t well suited to it – the cost would be astronomical.

Thus buses have a poor reputation because most people’s experience of them is in a vastly different context to their experience of rail. On a like-for-like basis with proper implementation – like BRT – buses are a fair substitute for rail and much cheaper. On low volume feeder services the comparison with trains is essentially irrelevant because buses are the only practical option.

*Note that I’m comparing buses to trains (not light rail).


18 Comments on “Why do we dislike buses?”

  1. kymbos says:

    Great analysis – insightful as ever.

  2. RED says:

    I used to be on the 200 bus route in Kew. It was always very good service, and in fact much better that the Frankston train I have to catch now. We should be doing much more to prioritise buses on existing roads.

  3. brisurban says:

    Well I would dispute Melbourne’s love for trains. Certainly they like their trams, but trains seem to get a never ending beat up about platform over-shootings, catching on fire, braking problems, overcrowding and the word “CONNEX” has become synonymous with catastrophe. It almost seems like Melbourne’s train network is some kind of poison chalice. Oh, and I don’t even live in Melbourne– this all the stuff I’ve seen in the media from Brisbane!

    I think the problem with the perception of buses is that they are seen as second best. And in many cases they might be thought of as such because they are museum pieces.* Everyone wants a metro station outside their front door to take them on a direct trip to wherever they want to go. Quite simply, this is never going to happen unless you live in Paris.

    * Brisbane, before the buses got fixed up and BRT got going had a shocking bus system. Rusty metal boxes on four wheels belching out diesel smoke, no air-conditioning, very loud rurr-rurr, 1970’s faded and worn out brown furnishings and terrible suspension would rock up infrequently at your bus stop. Canberra at the moment has some museum pieces as well.

    The good news is that this can be fixed up. Brisbane dumped its museum pieces has great new buses and an excellent busway. However, in the latest SEQ 2031 plan there will be a shift now to rehabilitating rail. There are 149 train stations in South East Queensland, 85 of those are within Brisbane City.

    I would say though, with the South East Busway, I think it would now be better off as rail. BRT was the correct choice, but when you have 15 000+ people coming into the city on buses, that’s a lot of labour (400 drivers or so in 1 hour) and also you have to wait for “your” bus. With bus + rail you’d catch the first train and then transfer out to a feeder bus, and it could also be more frequent this way. The cost of constructing the newer busways are also comparable to the costs of heavy rail (around 100 million and higher per km).

    One thing that is very good is the BUZ and SmartBus. These are even cheaper than dedicated busways, and they work. You may be interested in this: http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/6058/1/thredbo10-themeA-Warren.pdf

    In summing up, why do people dislike buses? Its probably not a dislike for buses at all- its a dislike for bad service, poor frequency and ancient vehicles. It is just a co-incidence that many places have managed to let their bus systems get into bad shape. I’m sure the people of Adelaide and Auckland don’t like rail- the bus patronage in Adeliade (50 million) is far higher than that on the train system (11 million), and that’s because Adelaide runs infrequent, ancient, diesel museum pieces…

  4. Russ says:

    BrisUrban’s 5th paragraph contains the key point. High frequency, dedicated lines with stations is expensive; low frequency, on-road with stops is cheap. The transport mode doesn’t matter as much as those elements. Buses are synonymous with the latter, rail with the former, which affects their relatively poorly thought out political preferences.

    • brisurban says:

      I think in Adelaide and Auckland the situation is reversed somewhat, but for the same reasons. Its the trains that are old, diesel, noisy, infrequent and slow, so everyone shuns them (trains).

  5. Michael says:

    So to summarise, if buses were like trains people would like them.

  6. Alan Davies says:

    I just added this video of the Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit to the original post. It’s claimed to handle 800,000 passengers per day! That makes sense when labour is cheap.

    Update: a traveller’s view of public transport.

    • brisurban says:

      The peak capacity is around 23 or 26 000? I don’t think it highlights the inherent superiority of any particular technology, but rather suggests that the line has good OFF-PEAK loadings. Off-peak patronage has been totally overlooked in the transport planning arena I feel.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Buses could well be a better economic proposition than trains when drivers don’t get paid a lot and your low currency means imported items like trains are expensive.

  7. Luke says:

    Being, for my sins, a pom, I have this baggage too:
    ‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count
    himself as a failure’ Margaret Thatcher, 1986
    Naturally simple snobbery will be less pronounced in the Australian context, but I think there may possibly be some correlation there with the Melbourne dynamic of affluent inner suburbs well served by trains/trams vs. less affluent outer suburbs served poorly by busses. Even despite the source of the dichotomy being the sound reasons well described above.

    • Alan Davies says:

      My 15yo son uses trains to get to school and buses on weekends for social activities. We’re 8 km from the CBD. He’s adamant that bus users are on average a less pleasant class of person than train users. Of course maybe it’s simply that “less pleasant” persons are more visible on buses.

      • Michael says:

        The off-peak crowd on some buses is pushing intolerable on some suburban services. It’s not hard to pin-point the trouble makers though. I have witnessed some unbelievable behaviour (yelling racist obscenities and spitting at pedestrians through the window) before I gave up using the service. It is a class of late teenage boy, almost exclusively caucasian that when in a group indulges in this kind of behaviour and essentially keeps other people off the buses. The seems to be no action taken against them either. I don’t necessarily endorse the private transit police force (I don’t know enough about it) but I can totally understand why it would be popular.

      • Michael says:

        I often wonder whether CCTV cameras on trains have had any measurable effect on behaviour. Would people have any more reserve on buses if they feared footage of their exploits would be made available to the general public where their incompetent parents might see what their progeny get up to.

  8. Bruce Dickson says:

    Think the litany of sins you listed for buses at the start of your article provides a superb overview of why buses are disliked and I might add RIGHTFULLY so! And sadly in most places these serious shortcomings still hold true. No wonder trams, light rail and trains are see in a superior light.

    As you correctly point out though, it does not necessarily have to be this way (but I suspect you have overlooked many of the reasons it will most likely stay that way).

    You have listed a variety of changes via which many of these genuine problems with buses could be addressed and again pointed out the cost/benefit issues involved. My only concern is that (regardless of any ultimate monetary advantages of bus v rail) the investment boundaries/limits and ROI expectations still perceived for buses by operators (private or public) will allow very few of these broad ranging and significant changes to consistently be implemented AND over a city’s entire bus network … in order to more fully and widely reverse the very real ‘bus negatives’.

    On a different tack relating to public transport (it may be something to do with the power of the taxi lobbies) but I am astonished that in smaller communities and regional areas as well as maybe some self defined intra-regional/suburban areas of larger cities, the seemingly very successful example created by Asian and Pacific Island communities of using small scale vehicles with flexible routes, high frequency around the clock service, and ‘hail me down anywhere’ operations (as well as quite affordable fares) is not investigated more thoroughly .. to see if it could also work well in Australia (or greater Melbourne and regional Victoria).

    Obviously safety standards of all kinds and regulation of operators would be a special consideration (as these appear to be too lax elsewhere) but they could potentially overcome a lot of the negatives that you have so correctly listed for most bus services in Australia.

    Would you have looked into this seemingly very significant optional model in any depth … it would be interesting to hear your thoughts posted on this blog if you have.

    I would also be interested in what you have uncovered concerning

  9. Bruce Dickson says:

    … Meant to stress that in overcoming the appalling list of negatives you have so ably created for buses, my thoughts are that just tackling or solving one of two or three from this list – even if some of the more significant – will not fully solve the overall negative feelings.

    To achieve this would really require that the vast majority, if not all, of the sins would have to be tackled in a single-minded approach, achieved through a complete, systematic and comprehensive overhaul – the costs of which, if your comparisons with rail expense are accurate – should actually be affordable.

    But as I say, seeing such a total or even near total outcome achieved .. so as to not leave any remaining major negatives in our minds .. is something less than likely in most places for a diversity of reasons.

  10. […] In the meantime, there is considerable potential to increase the capacity and speed of Skybus. As pointed out here, Brisbane’s south-east busway already carries 15,000 passengers per […]


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