Photo from Eric Allix Rogers on flickr.
In the never ending debate about streetcars versus bus, rider comfort is a point of contention. Streetcar supporters say rail is smoother and more comfortable and therefore appeals to more people. Opponents say that’s overblown or doesn’t matter.
School buses prove it does matter.
The inside of school buses is much less comfortable than the inside of comparatively luxurious transit buses used for BRT. School buses have narrower aisles, and group benches instead of individual seats. They usually don’t have air conditioning. They’re high-floor, and ugly, and definitely uncool.
And although school buses are shorter than articulated buses, you could squeeze through the same capacity if you simply run more of them. That would be easy because school buses are way, way cheaper. A new school bus costs about $75,000, versus maybe $700,000 for an articulated transit bus.
So instead of attacking streetcars, why aren’t BRT proponents demanding school buses, and calling wasteful any proposal that uses unnecessarily expensive transit buses?
Because ride quality matters, and desirability matters, and because being cool matters if you hope to attract riders who can opt to drive whenever they want.
The arguments streetcar opponents use to denigrate the ride quality benefits of streetcars could be used with equal validity to denigrate BRT, in favor of school buses. But nobody makes that argument, because everyone knows it’s wrong.
If you want anybody other than captive minors to ride transit then you have to shell out for luxurious rider amenities.
Don’t be dogmatic, mind the details
Of course, none of this is a zero sum game. Sometimes school buses are the right solution, even though they stink compared to streetcars and transit buses. Likewise, sometimes BRT is the right solution, and sometimes it’s streetcar.
Even among the modes, it’s not zero sum. Just how much of a ride quality benefit rail provides can vary a lot depending on the specific vehicle and route.
Rail is typically smoother than bus for two reasons: The vehicle is heavier and therefore jostles around less, and gliding along a rail is inherently smoother than rumbling over asphalt. But individual results vary. The US-built Oregon Ironworks streetcar in Portland is reportedly pretty jerky. That’s due partly to a prototype propulsion system that isn’t quite right, but also partly to the fact that it’s one of the smallest and lightest modern streetcars on the market.
DC has 3 of those Oregon Ironworks streetcars on order right now. They’re supposedly improved over the prototype model, but if they aren’t as smooth as the 3 Czech-built streetcars currently being tested in Anacostia then DDOT may want to consider a different vendor for future purchases.
The trick, as with any decision, is to match the needs to the corridor.
For elementary school trips, the benefits of luxurious transit buses aren’t worth their added costs over school buses. For adult commuting trips that compete with cars, it’s worth it to pay more.
And although the benefits of rail aren’t worth the cost trade-offs for probably 90% of the bus routes in the region, there are a dozen or so high-profile corridors where it is worth the expense.