“Middle-Class People Won’t Ride a Bus”

Supposedly, Margaret Thatcher once said, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” Actually, she never said it and almost certainly didn’t believe it. But rail advocates claim that many people who won’t ride a bus will ride trains. Since they take it as a given that it is imperative to get people out of their cars, building new rail lines seems to be the only option.

While there may be some people who are too snobbish to ride a bus, there is no reason for taxpayer-supported transit agencies to cater to snobs. The reality is that transit ridership is sensitive to frequencies and speeds. As many streetcar lines have proven, slow rail lines fail to attract many riders, while bus-rapid transit lines in many cities have proven that fast, frequent bus service can attract as many riders as trains at a far lower cost.

This point was made in 2010 by Peter Rogoff, who was then the head of the Federal Transit Administration. “Paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive,” he said in a speech in Boston. In response to those who claim that rail cars attracted more riders than buses, Rogoff pointed out, “you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” While buses don’t work in every situation, he argued, bus rapid transit “is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.”

A number of luxury bus companies have proven that well-off people will ride buses. Several companies provide cut-rate bus services between New York and Washington or New York and Boston, but a company called Vamoose provides luxury bus service between New York and DC while a company called Limoliner provides luxury bus service between New York and Boston. In New York City, a company called the Hampton Jitney provides luxury bus service from Manhattan to eastern Long Island. All of these services are competing successfully and without subsidies against subsidized rail lines.