The Elite Hatred of Buses

Several times in the past I have posited that folks in power simply hate buses.  How else to explain light rail and high speed rail projects that are both substantially more expensive and substantially less flexible than buses.  Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Politicians like rail better because it is sexier.  Period.   They are trying to spend taxpayer money to support their own re-election talking points.
  • Unions and city workers like rail because it is more expensive.  More money gets spent, either creating more union jobs or giving transit leaders bigger budgets which translate into higher salaries and more prestige for themselves.  And the lack of flexibility is good for them because it makes their job immune to budget cutting.  Just too many sunk costs.
  • Middle and upper-middle class folks in the public have a deep disdain for buses, which they associate with poverty and blue collar labor.  Riding buses hurts their self image, even if the service is no worse than trains.  Rail is the Louis Vuitton handbag of transit.

In Phoenix, light rail requires a subsidy of $3.82 center per mile (that is the government spending above and beyond the fare), which is nearly 10x what we spend on buses.  And light rail uses more energy per passenger mile here than driving.

Anyway, this story from Iowa seems to support my point -- the government is proposing to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a rail service that is slower and more costly than existing private bus service.

The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108—not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.

Oh, one other thing. Cox reports that there is already luxury bus service, with plus for laptops and wireless Internet, from Iowa City to Chicago. It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.


  1. GoneWithTheWind:

    You hit the nail on the head. Light rail spend billions on long construction projects where 100% of the jobs must pay union wages. This is not about public transportation it is about politicians paying off unions. Do you ever wonder how some of the craziest and most unfit people get elected year after year?? This is how they do it. Election fraud is rampant and in almost all cases it is committed by unions. There is no election of any size in this country that does not have union backed election fraud.

  2. NL_:

    I've ridden buses in a number of cities, but especially in SF and Chicago. I agree, the ridership is generally less wealthy and also less white.

    The only exception I've encountered is the commuter buses from Marin to SF. There is no BART connection to Marin (early plans called for it to run underneath the Golden Gate Bridge) so there's a large pool of wealthy Marin residents commuting to San Francisco by bus. These buses tend to be larger and more comfortable, like intercity buses, though the same bus authority also has smaller city buses they sometimes use on the commuter lines. The commuters tend to be white and middle class, but if you ride the same bus authority on a non-commute route the ridership is blatantly poorer, less white, and less anglo.

    I rode the DC metro subway for years and I've used the Chicago L frequently. It's okay, especially with the subsidized fares. But buses are just conceptually better. They pick up and drop off in far more points, they tend to run much more frequently, and you don't have to use stairs to get up or down to the station. And it's not like we can use subway to eliminate street traffic, so the roads still have to be in place. The only benefit to trains is a dedicated lane that in theory is not subject to traffic. But in practice I remember many mornings when the DC metro was jam packed and the cars ahead were stopped for some reason and the commute felt just as long as driving (except I couldn't sit down and couldn't control the radio or the air).

    I think commuter trains have a lot to do with politicians visibly creating something for the voters, and less to do with actual solutions for moving people.

  3. Bob Smith:

    There are a lot of posters on the Arizona subforum of City Data that really love light rail. They love the idea of a Phoenix->Tucson rail line. Pointing out how stupid an idea that is will only get you shouted down, they are completely resistant to reason.

  4. Allen:

    Funny that you mention this line. I ran across this story awhile back. What really got to me is how all the media articles were very similar. I didn't find one story where a reporter bothered to take 10 minutes to Google and look over the Amtrack ridership study for the route that was done a few years ago. It was done before Megabus started serving the route ( I would've expected some questioning of the accuracy of those projected ridership numbers on that alone.

    Personally I suspect a large motivation for the project, at least in terms of Iowa's politics, is that it's going to improve freight service for the Iowa Interstate Railroad. Today they connect to Chicago via trackage rights on CSX ( Both planned routes would improve that connection with the current preferred route giving IAIS a new connection with the BNSF and a more direct route into Chicago.

    I suspect that's why IA's governor has taken the politically "safe" stance of not killing the project but not flat out supporting the state covering the annual operating subsidy.

    As pointed out in the post, one has to wonder why it's supposedly so important to subsidize yet rail passenger service for these towns in Iowa and Illinois. Megabus really isn't good enough?

  5. Roy Lofquist:

    Wanna bet there won't be General Electric engines in those trains?

  6. Not Sure:

    "They love the idea of a Phoenix->Tucson rail line."

    "They love the idea of a Phoenix->Tucson rail line as long as they don't have to pay the full cost of what it takes to get them from one to the other."

    There! Fixed it for you. ;-)

  7. Matt:

    Good article.

    One reason why rail makes sense to me is that it's much harder to cut routes and/or go an hour without a transit option showing up, and that is a consistent and constant worry with buses. AC Transit (East Bay) can be rather unpredictable, even with GPS trackers that may or may not be accurate (yes, that doesn't make sense). IndyGo (Indianapolis) has cut routes/service to the point that I lived in Indy for four years and don't know where any bus stops are.

  8. Dr. T:

    I live near Memphis, and the phenomenon of private bus services filling niche markets was demonstrated after Tupelo, Mississippi became a regional center for casinos. Private buses run between Memphis International Airport and Tupelo. The buses are cheaper than cabs, limos, or car rentals.

    However, I can easily imagine one of the corrupt politicians here pushing for tourism-centered light rail from Nashville (country music) to Memphis (Graceland and jazz music) to Tupelo (Elvis's birthplace and gambling).

  9. TimG:

    Coyote, I think you are missing the point.

    Buses get stuck in traffic. That means it is almost always faster to take the car instead of taking the bus (assuming you can afford the car).

    Train don't. That means it offers some benefit that a car does not. So the decision tree for the average middle class person is: if you offer me rail I would take it but if all you got are buses then I am staying in my car.

    I know that many rail projects are poorly thought out fiascos but I think you are wrong to characterize the opposition to riding the bus as class snobbery. It isn't. It is a simple cost benefit equation calculated by people who can afford their own car.

  10. John Moore:

    I agree with Coyote - the push for light rail and other passenger rail in the US is based on the desires of politicians and the urban elite. They could care less what their maids and nannies need for getting to work.

    Decent arguments can be made for subsidizing some amount of bus service as part of the social safety net. It's impossible to justify rail on that basis or, frankly, any other.

    I've lived and traveled in Europe and made extensive use of their rail systems (especially the London and Paris metro). They are certainly handy, but Europe has constrained streets due to its history, and high population density. Even with all their vaunted mass transit, the traffic is still horrendous.

    Our new ruling class likes its light rail, its uneconomical power projects, and its environmental restrictions which preserve its playground at the cost of everyone else's prosperity. It's time to throw the bums out.

  11. James H:

    Matt - how does it make sense to force other people to pay for trains to run around, possibly empty, that they may never want to use? Just so that maybe one day if it's convenient for you, it will be there? Bus routes get cut because there aren't enough passengers on those routes at that time to make any sense. At least the buses can be re-routed to serve riders in other areas where ridership may be higher.

    TimG - Even if you're stuck in traffic, you can probably get there faster by car most of the time. That's even after 33% of the traffic lanes were taken away to put the tracks down. Only people that work right next to the rail likely save any time, since once you get off the rail, you still need another means to get to your final destination. It takes over an hour to go 20 miles on the light rail, not including time to get to the station, park, wait for the next train, etc.

  12. John:

    I really dislike buses. I'm not a huge supporter of light rail either but it is much more reliable than buses. The "flexibility" of buses is their biggest downfall in my mind. Every time I decide to take a bus I wonder whether it is going to show up at all, be late, or even worse, early. Every time I get on a bus I wonder where I'm going to get off. I don't ride buses much but I've many times had the driver suddenly decide to just skip the part of the route where my destination lies, leaving me with deciding between riding through the entire route back to my point of origin or walking for miles. Either way I'm very, very, late. Trains just don't do that. (Airplanes do though. I once got on a quick 90 minute flight from Denver to Lake Tahoe and wound up in SF. )

  13. Jens Fiederer:

    Commented on this at

    Sometimes buses are bad .... a local urban bus turned out to be much slower than going on foot due to the many stops, and the bus driver apparently taking a 15 minute break in a housing project to get soup, but except for that one my experiences have mostly been weakly positive.

    Except in Mexico, where they really know how to do bus travel (and this is not tourist travel, this was intra-Mexico travel with plenty of likely future farm workers), where the experience was stellar - with "in-flight" movies and plenty of space.

  14. Punkster:

    Megabus shows the cost as $35 one way. No Sunday service though.

    Wish I had known about it when I lived in Cedar Rapids.

  15. Dave Boz:

    One of the available methods to create demand for the train will be to make the competing bus service illegal. Presto: more ridership! But not really, of course, since a lot of the riders will just get into their cars for a faster trip. Not that it matters, since the point of the project is to build and operate the train, not to move people.

  16. John Cheek:

    There is nothing 'elite' about these people;they are fakes,pretenders,elitists.My schoolteacher daughter rides the bus(as does her friends) in Chicago and she loves it!

  17. frankania:

    Jens is right about bus service in Mexico. In order to be efficient, there must be a high number of riders. It is a snowball effect.

    Perhaps one way to get people out of their cars and into buses, is to offer them huge discounts at first, and then phase them out if necessary.

    Mexico has the best bus system (all classes) of any country I have seen, which is 48 countries.

  18. Foxfier:

    The Greyhounds I've taken have all been more comfortable than either the train or airplane, were only slightly slower than driving myself, and the one that went across the Washington Cascades did have an "in flight" movie. Same price as the train, too, about half the price of the gas to drive myself over. (Probably subsidized, but who knows.)

    The buses that served the base in Pensacola were comfortable, fast, clean and must've been making money hand over fist with the way they were always full. They were also privately operated.
    The buses in Seattle/Tacoma, that I've seen, look pretty nasty, have a reputation for freaking assaults that are ignored by the driver, manage to have both a huge number of stops and position them horribly, clearly don't run on time, and are run basically as a means to give a nice living to the union members that drive them. (county run)

  19. Smokey:

    The government wants a high speed choo-choo going from San Francisco to L.A. Final cost approaching $100 BILLION, and every fare will require a hefty taxpayer subsidy for all eternity. The land rights-of-way that now pay property taxes would no longer pay those takes, instead they would constantly suck up taxpayer funds.

    Transit time from LA to SF for this "high speed rail" is estimated to be around 3.5 hours. Contrast that with Southwest Airlines, which will fly you frrom S.F. to L.A. in exactly one hour, for about $99 – less if you make advance reservations. No taxpayer subsidies; instead the airline pays taxes, taking the burden off hard-bitten taxpayers.

    The government isn't the solution, it is the problem. Years ago San Jose decided to build an enormously expensive light rail trolley system. As usual, it failed: taxpayers are forced to cough up over five dollars for every fare to subsidize operating costs. If they charged enough to cover costs, no one would ride the trolley.

    Rail is an obsolete 19th century "solution" to a non-problem. Even buses are more modern and efficient than rail. Unlike rail, they can go anywhere there are roads, and they pay taxes instead of costing taxpayers. And airline service is the cheapest, fastest, and best service of all, yet the bureaucrats want to saddle the public with something that is more costly, much slower, and a tax-sucker instead of a tax payer. Who in their right mind would want something slower and more expensive, and which duplicates services that are already available? Public employee union parasites, that's who. No one else wants this fiasco.

  20. Sam:


    There are ways to privilege buses so they get stuck in traffic a lot less often, ranging from special lanes (bus priority) and better placement of stops to traffic light control, but it is true that it is impossible to eliminate traffic as a problem unless you go all the way to grade-separated bus-only lanes.

    But... light rail also has problems with traffic, since it usually isn't grade separated! (This means that when light rail crosses a road, it is on the road, not at a different level so crossings can happen without interference.) Light rail often seems to be better than buses because they have all the tricks mentioned above applied to them. The bus version of light rail is called bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT costs a small fraction of light rail to build and gets almost all of the benefits, at somewhat higher operating costs (at least in theory, in practice, light rail often has dismally poor operating costs).

  21. JamesQ:


    The speed advantage of light rail compared to buses is very small. From the American Public Transportation Association:

    Average speed of transit vehicles in revenue service, 2009:
    Transit bus: 12.5 mph
    Light rail: 15.1 mph

    So light rail is a whopping 2.6 mph faster.

  22. Matt:

    Trains can sometimes be a good solution to a transportation problem. But we've pretty much already exhausted the areas in the US where that's true.

    I do have to question how they have the stones to call it a "high-speed" rail line, when its city-to-city travel time -- even according to the estimates by its boosters! -- marks it as slower than a bus service that's already operating today. (A bus service which incidentally has its Chicago location directly across the street from where the trains would probably the train promoters can't even claim to offer more convenience.)

    I mean, we already have Amtrak to service the "more expensive than flying, slower than the bus" market. :)