Buses Don't Get No Respect

Metrobus cruising through Washington, D.C. Photo by JLaw45.

Buses are a bit like the Rodney Dangerfield of public transportation: they don’t get no respect.  In general, the smart growth community holds up rail transit as the paragon of public transportation, and bicycling as its noble sidekick in the fight against sprawl and climate change.  Buses are a bit of an ugly stepsister.  Yes, they take cars off the road and get people where they need to go, but they aren’t usually electric and they usually can’t avoid traffic.  They’re cheap, and usually it shows.  In other words, they aren’t sexy.

Then again, don’t forget about the question posed by Erica Schlaikjer on TheCityFix Global: “Who Said Buses Can’t Be Cool?” You can’t deny the user appeal of sleek and hip bus systems like the Metro Orange Line in Los Angeles. And check out the high quality bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Bogota, where sophisticated transit on wheels — not rail — show how “an updated version of America’s most boring way to ride may very well be the fastest, cheapest way to solve some of our nation’s most pressing problems,” as stated in GOOD magazine and echoed by a recent front page article in the New York Times, which said BRT “may hold a key to combating climate change.”

However, in this town, I think that it’s reasonable to say that Metrorail is a sexy system.  Traveling at high speeds through subterranean corridors is a little glamorous. But I think part of metro’s sexiness comes from its simplicity.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the system is foolproof, but when John and Jane Smith from Peoria come in to visit, they can get from their hotel in Greenbelt to the Smithsonian without too much trouble.

In my opinion, one of the things that makes Metrorail a “sexy” system is the ability to distort geographic realities.  A rider can enter the system at one station, and, after a period of time in a Ted Stevens internet, arrive at another one. In many cases this whole interaction happens below ground, and in almost all cases it occurs without following any type of established traffic or roadway procedure.  Contrast that with the all too terrestrial bus, where turns and stoplights are felt.

As much as the ride itself distorts geographic reality, the system map (and the maps of many other systems) bends space to provide a simple picture.  The Metro map uses gentle angles and big, bold lines, which don’t necessarily represent the path (or scale) of Metro lines.   The distance between Clarendon and Court House on the Orange line, for example, are obviously not the same distance apart as Vienna and Dun Loring, yet they take the same amount of space on the map.

I’ve often been an apologist for buses, but I feel that their geographic constraints are part of what makes buses so much less desirable in many communities as rail.  I think that the Circulator is a step in the right direction, not only because its map uses right angles (if only because that’s also what the bus actually does) but because the buses themselves have a stylized version of the routes. I wonder if Metrobuses would see an increase in casual ridership if some of the maps were drawn in a more stylized way that didn’t necessarily adhere to a geographic reality. (D.C. should take a hint from Los Angeles, which rebranded its entire Metro system to appeal to the general public. The result? Increased ridership, public recognition and user satisfaction.)  It seems like a relatively insignificant change, but it’s one that will help bring our buses in D.C. a little more respect.

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