How ‘bus stigma’ can be contagious

I participated in an interesting conversation today that reminded me how ‘bus stigma’ is self-reinforcing.

Scene: at work, in the lunchroom. Our company owner, a very smart guy based in Irvine, is visiting us this week.

He asked where the nearest Red Line MAX station to the office was, to find out how to get back to the airport from the office. The geographical answer is that the 1st and Yamhill station is the closest, but it’s a bit of a hike (about a mile). Several people explained that it’s a bit far to walk, but you can take the bus from the stop outside our window (which you can see from the lunchroom) to either the Red Line MAX or the Green Line MAX, or you could walk to the Green Line MAX instead. If you take the Green, they explained, you then transfer “after the Steel Bridge” (a very visitor-accessible way of saying “at the Rose Quarter Transit Center”). You can stay on longer but definitely have to get off by Gateway.

I noticed, vaguely, that he seemed receptive to the suggestions about walking. He mentioned that he had walked from the Red Line to the office. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the suggestions about taking the bus, but when they reached a critical mass, he finally asked “How often does the bus come by here?” Oh, everyone said, about every ten minutes or so (we have 3 buses at the same stop, otherwise it wouldn’t be quite so good). Oh, that’s quite good, he said. “In Southern California* the buses come every hour and a half.”

Buses get a bad rap because so many bus services are inadquate or only barely adequate. Subway or light rail systems tend to be more frequent, because they usually form the core of a system wherever they are, and because they represent a large amount of sunk capital cost, so abandoning them looks pretty bad.  So buses tend to look slightly worse to most people, and they look especially bad to people who live in places with no rail at all, and bus services that really aren’t very useful to most people. And when they go visit other cities, they may automatically focus on the rail system (which is often more well-known, well-publicized, well-mapped, and simpler, not to mention the part of the system that’s usually connected to the airport, where they arrive) and ignore the buses that form the veins and arteries of the system, complementing the rail system spine. They miss an opportunity to learn that buses can be useful, and they go back home thinking “I want a light rail system!” And then they may even try to build one, because isn’t it the rail that’s so cool and useful? But since rail requires a larger capital investment, it pulls money away from other options in order to create a decent rail system, buses suffer, and modal bias is reinforced once again.

* I assume he meant something like “in the part of Southern California I live in” (Orange County), since LA has a frequent bus network.