Friday, February 03, 2012

It helps if you ride (your mode)

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Full disclosure and credibility claim right upfront: I ride the bus. More than once a year. And more than one O/D pair. That’s just to make it clear that the Managing Editor of Railway Age isn’t completely blinded by, or supportive of only, the rail passenger mode. (I’m lucky; I get to ride the ferry, too.)

So: I ride the bus. All you BRT advocates out there, especially those arguing it’s “just like light rail, but cheaper”: Do you ride any bus at all, let alone any BRT?

I’ve already been figuratively (if very politely) spanked for this by one earnest official from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority during a dinner in Chicago, and I certainly understand GCRTA defending its “need” to opt for buses as political cover, as a need to offer something to its riders and taxpayers.

My question stands, and not just because I can counter with data on operating costs, environmental impact, or some such. I ride the bus. As a passenger, a customer, I know what buses can do, and what they cannot. I often wonder whether bus advocates (and you can find them) have the same background.

In New Orleans last October, attending the APTA 2011 Expo, I rode the streetcar once (round trip) to dinner with other attendees, predominantly pro-rail types. They knew their mode, even to the point of aiding the operator with disabled-rider options. The Big Easy’s streetcar system has grown since I last visited, and it was gratifying.

But APTA thoughtfully provided shuttle bus service to and from various hotels and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, so one morning, instead of walking, I rode the bus. It worked well enough, the driver was courteous, the bus was clean, and if trip time wasn’t particularly speedy, neither was it outrageous. All in all, all OK.

Except: Numerous other APTA attendees—and I mean many—boarded, rode, and departed from the bus with the aura of slight confusion strongly suggesting that they don’t—or seldom—ride the bus. I was startled, and quickly revisited most of the huge APTA display showcase that, in all fairness, was dominated by buses, including—yes, indeed—buses trying real, real hard to look “just like light rail transit, only cheaper.”

By extension, one could rightfully conclude that most APTA attendees and members and associated entities are bus-oriented; rail’s presence, while enhanced by streetcar debuts, was comparatively small. So in essence, it was a bus crowd in New Orleans, myself included, with some rail thrown in. No knock on APTA for that; its job is to promote public transit in various modes and options—a good thing.

But I’m still wondering: I ride the bus. Do the others?

Feel free to react or respond to this; reach me at

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.