Recently, I noted in a post about mass transit rail versus buses on rustwire.com, that bus rapid transit (BRT) does not have the “WOW” factor of a light rail transit (LRT), commuter rail, subways, or a modern streetcar system. At least one respondent questioned what a “WOW” factor was and how you identify it. Fair question.
I hate to be glib, but when you see something that has the “WOW” factor, you know it. Doesn’t matter whether it is a stunning scenic vista, a beautiful butterfly, a cool new high tech gadget, or a fancy mode of transportation. Either it has got it (the WOW factor) or it doesn’t.
Let’s face reality, people adore trains. I do not know whether this was ingrained into our brains as kids or what, but with the exception of waiting for one to pass at a crossing, most of us has a strong affinity for trains. I think deep down inside, nearly all Americans would love to have a passenger railroad system like is available in Europe.
Buses on the other hand, are often (not always) seen as diesel-belching vehicles that make a bunch of noise and who were the death-knell of most interurban railways, trolleys, and streetcars, which just happen to all be members of the beloved train family. Hence, buses are the equivalent of the “anti-train.”
Trains have a “WOW” factor and buses simply don’t. Some new buses may look sleeker, fancier, more clean, and tech-inspired, but they remain for all intents and purposes, buses. One clear variation to this perception has to do with double-decker buses. For some reason, probably because we do not have them here, Americans literally drool and lather over double-decker buses. You can’t keep us off double-decker buses in the United Kingdom.
As kids (and adults) we collect toy trains, not toy buses. Model railroad clubs, shows, and fairs dot the nation. I doubt there is a single model bus club in the country. Hundreds of movies, books, play, songs, and shows are written about trains and train travel. Comparatively few (Speed being a notable exception) focus on buses. Most children know the stories of The Little Engine That Could or Thomas and Friends. To my recollection, there is nothing even remotely comparable for buses.
Back to “WOW” for a moment. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as a word used for the following purpose:
“to express wonder, amazement, or great pleasure.”
Perhaps, because we see buses all the time, there is little or no wonder or amazement left in them. Light rail, subways, streetcars, and trolleys are seen much less frequently (unless you live in a major metropolitan area) – hence to many people, they evoke a sense of wonder or amazement.
Will BRT’s be able to do evoke a “WOW” reaction? I do not know. Perhaps initially, but I wonder if they will for the long run. Buses carry a lot of baggage (no pun intended) for past sins and despite numerous attempts to counteract it. Unfortunately, they also sometimes carry an unfair socio-economic stigma.
Personally, I think the stigma is flat out wrong. I have commuted by bus a number of times in my life and find it more relaxing and enjoyable than sitting in traffic. Still, I have heard the same negative reference to buses made by 20 somethings to 80 somethings. Personally, I hope my concern over this issue is overdone. Maybe after some BRT success stories are better publicized in the United States, the stigma will abate.
However, it is fair to say that even if the negative stereotype of buses does abate, that does not mean they will ever come close to replacing trains in the hearts and minds of most Americans.
For many American cities which lack other “WOW” factors, like scenic settings or iconic skylines and structures, a rail transit system is a means to an end for creative placemaking. Only time will tell if BRTs offer the same opportunity.