Friday, June 08, 2012

“Bus Snob”: Next pejorative label

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Time to tag us light rail transit (LRT) advocates with a new label, now that LRT and streetcars are slowly but inexorably re-establishing their presence on the U.S. landscape.

United Streetcar prototypeAfter all, for decades one could use "freaking rail nut" (or equivalent), "trolley jolly," "foamer" (an oldie but still a goodie), or other precise terminology to besmear rail advocates locally or nationwide, regardless of the merit of a given project or situation. But as passenger rail's successes keep mounting, opponents need new verbal ammo.

I'll let Washington Examiner editor Barbara Hollingsworth set the table in her own words, published June 5: Bus Snobs "are people who are all for spending billions of other people's tax dollars on hideously expensive and underused rail lines, but balk at achieving the same ends using much cheaper bus rapid transit."

Hmmm. Even if that definition were airtight and inarguable, that would seem, to me, to describe rail snobs, people who wouldn't deem to stoop so low in social standing as to ride a bus. Still, one version of Webster's backs up Ms. Hollingsworth's usage, offering Definition No. 3a as "one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those (s)he regards as inferior." Some rail advocates almost certainly fit that bill vis a vis buses. Some.

But if Ms. Hollingsworth is grading me, she bats .250, at best, for I don't avoid or ignore buses, let alone think buses (or their users) are inferior; indeed, I think it's today's bus advocates who fit the bill more cleanly. As I've said: I ride the bus. Often. Do bus backers? In her missive, Ms. Hollingsworth doesn't say.

Let's grant that she does. Does she therefore avoid D.C.'s Metrorail because of its higher capital costs? Is she determined to shun streetcars and LRT in D.C.'s Northeast, or Arlington, or Alexandria or in Montgomery County because of its higher capital costs? Again, Ms. Hollingsworth doesn't say.

Capital costs are indeed the columnist's primary argument, whereas the operating costs down the (rail)road—costs which favor passenger rail to great degree—are never addressed. That makes "much cheaper bus rapid transit" open to debate. We'll save other dubious assertions, concerning "underused rail lines" (Metrorail is underused?) and "other people's tax dollars" as opposed to mine, too, on the table for another day. Then, too, some concern for the almighty automobile peeks through, as she asserts, "Additional buses would increase transit capacity on Columbia Pike without taking away a critical lane from cars, which most Arlington commuters still use to get to work." The present is future, one might presume, and the auto remains king.

To be fair, Ms. Hollingsworth does give nodding approval to D.C.'s growing ZipCar and bicycle lane presence, so we're in agreement on that end of the modal scale. In fact, that's more open-minded than some folks I know who fret over a loss of bus ridership due to those modal choices—no longer joke material, walking and bicycling are serious options now, and not just in D.C.

I don't believe in "zero-sum" games when it comes to public transit, however, so I don't believe one mode "steals" from another—a presumption and penalty the Federal Transit Administration heaped on LRT for years whenever a proposal surfaced. The proposals kept surfacing, and FTA these days takes a lot more factors into account than "diverted" ridership.

Ms. Hollingsworth appears not to see that. In castigating Washington, D.C.-area pro-rail officials of various stripes, she dismisses pro-rail folks as fiscally reckless and nothing else, and then thrusts with what she must think is the telling blow: "[T]hey know once taxpayers clearly understand the cost-benefit equation, they'll never go back to streetcars or light rail."

Is that why LRT and streetcars are proliferating—because folks never will go back? Because BRT's "benefits" equal those of LRT? All the time? Every time?

That's not what this observer sees. But let's find out in the public and political realm, preferably free of sweeping labels too hastily applied. I'm glad Ms. Hollingsworth weighed in on the matter. We'll see what her take (and mine!) might be, 10 years from now when LRT and streetcars are once again much more visible on the American landscape. Batter up.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.