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.

One thought on “How ‘bus stigma’ can be contagious

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    November 30, 2012 at 8:14am

    Yes, this is a big piece of it. The only place I’ve successfully used a bus system on a regular basis was Chapel Hill, NC, where the bus system is subsidized by UNC-CH and so any error had no cost to me beyond the embarrassment of getting off and crossing the street and getting back on. I knew the town pretty well, and when I took the DATA bus to Durham, I only ever got on and off in one place.

    I’ve been okay in unfamiliar cities if there are visual stop indicators that display the name of the stop or the cross-street (I don’t always understand the verbal announcements). Without that, I spend the entire ride worrying that I’m about to miss my stop. Which has happened, it’s not a totally irrational concern. So any time the bus is an option, I want to have a sense of both the predictability of the bus itself (every 10 minutes sounds awesome) and how well the bus system keeps me informed about where I am on my journey. I don’t feel comfortable relying on visual landmarks when I’m not in a position to correct for a mistake, especially when I don’t have a map I can easily interpret.

    I guess I need to get over this personal issue I have about lack of control. Sometimes I’m going to mess up and get stranded in the middle of nowhere and miss my flight, but that’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. (:

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