Transit: On Road and Rail

Although buses have a clear advantage in neighborhood transit service, the choice for mainline transit often arouses passionate debate. The traditional arguments are as follows:

In favor of bus

  • Since most people now drive cars and trip origins and destinations have become widely scattered, rail is no longer appropriate in most places. So few people share common origins and destinations that the volume capacity of rail isn't justified any more.
  • Buses are much cheaper than rail cars.
  • Roads are already there, so rail infrastucture is a duplication.
  • People don't like to transfer. Buses can travel along main corridors, then move onto local streets to take people directly to their final destinations.
In favor of rail
  • Buses are too slow and undependable, because they are stuck in the same traffic as cars.
  • Being more permanent, rail encourages long term transit-oriented development.
  • Transit-oriented development in turn lets people shift many of their trips to walking and bicycles.
  • Rail rides are more comfortable than bus rides, so people choose rail over bus for otherwise comparable service.

Which is best for Sonoma and Marin counties?

In a uniformly low density area, buses would be the only practical mode, even for mainline service. As one moves up the density scale, rail can become an economical choice for mainline service. What is often overlooked however, is that the viability of rail service is in part based on expanded bus service. Any time rail is introduced, bus services need to be intensified in order to make the best use of the high capital investment in mainline service. The objective is a better system of alternatives to cars -- and fewer cars. Nearly everyone agrees that there are too many cars, and a diminished number would be welcome.

A well-designed transit system is fundamentally different than a car-highway system. A transit system designed to
mimic a car system is doomed to failure.

Whereas the car-highway system is based on the seated driver, a transit system is based on the pedestrian. The notion of a "single seat ride" springs from attempts at car-mimicry. Pedestrian-based transit design acknowledges the need for the rider to walk (and perhaps wait) between riding segments of a journey. Rather than seek to eliminate the need for walking connections because they are so onerous, good transit design assures that walking connections can be made comfortably, easily and with minimal delay. Good transit design pays attention to the connectivity and comfort at nodes. Nodes should be treated as opportunities rather than a necessary imposition.

With HOV lanes, freeways offer some potential for good mainline service with buses. The chief limitation is at the nodes. A node that works for a system built around the seated person is the antithesis of a node of a pedestrian centered transport system. Freeway interchanges are vast inhospitable wastelands for pedestrians. Therefore, mainline bus services can use freeways only segment by segment, with the transit nodes being off-freeway; buses must leave the freeway to stop at a significant pedestrian oriented and well-connected place, then return to the freeway to resume high speed travel. It is so arduous that it is rarely worthwhile.

Routes should be simple and direct

A good way to tell if routes and schedules are too complex is that they become hard to explain to the users.

Fortunately, the SMART line is shaping up as a simple route. In the beginning there will be unwanted complexity in running bi-directional service on a mostly single track, but that can be gradually eliminated as time brings more and more double tracking.

This simply configured rail line offers the possibility of a very effective service when combined with a strong bus network with good connections at every station. Unfortunately, too much of the current bus network is a maze of loops and meanders.

An example of where a relatively new rail system has been overlaid on an effective and well connected bus system is Los Angeles. The combination has produced synergistic enhancements of travel opportunities.


More on buses
More on rail

The Curitiba Model

Wherever there is the prospect for rail service, someone will surface with the counterproposal that a Curitiba-style bus system be built instead of rail.

John Holtzclaw, the national transportation director of the Sierra Club, recently returned from Curitiba and reported on his findings.

He writes about Curitiba with respect, but unlike most who tout the Curitiba model, his report is balanced .  He includes some comments about what might be done better in Curitiba, as well as justified praise for what has been accomplished there.  And he notes that they would built LRT in some places, if they had the financial resources.

Once one of its bus lines is replaced with light rail, the Curitiba model will no longer be useful as a weapon of mass transit obfuscation.

Download Curitiba report.  84Kb PDF.


The way that the benefits of rail service can expand far beyond the the rail line itself was demonstrated in a unique study undertaken in Los Angeles. To see what happened elsewhere along the Highway 101 corridor, click here.