A lot of politicians like to look to the future to avoid dealing with the present. Many see self-driving cars as an excuse not to invest in transit, particularly light rail, complaining that we should be using 21st century technology, not 19th. The Mayor of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was one of these; In the spring, he was all over autonomous cars; critics noted in Streetsblog that “Instead of looking ahead to an uncertain technology that won’t solve the spatial efficiency problem of cars in cities, Giminez should embrace the proven policies under his nose.”
Now, he is all over the new “trackless train” from China, shown previously in a TreeHugger post with a title that said it all: Is this a “trackless train” or a bendy bus? Unlike autonomous cars, it actually exists. The Mayor tells the Miami Herald:
“I believe we are on the cusp of unbelievable transformation, driven by new technology that will place us ahead of other cities because we are in the midst of creating a transportation infrastructure with those new technologies in mind. It’s a solution we can implement now. Not one that will take decades to complete.”
In Citylab, Laura Bliss points out the obvious, writing Can We Just Call This a Bus? Since that is what it is, a big bendy bus that happens to be electric and sorta self-driving. She goes on to note that Americans don’t like buses very much.
What’s in a name? When that word is “bus,” a lot of strongly negative reactions. Studies in cities over the world show that riders overwhelmingly prefer trains—whether subways, streetcars, or light-rail systems—to buses.
Bliss doesn’t link to those studies, but I suspect that studies might also show that most people overwhelmingly prefer to fly first-class instead of economy. But BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, can be pretty good if it is well designed with dedicated rights of way, well funded and well maintained. If you look at these interiors, from the big bendy bus in China, to one in Copenhagen, to a new streetcar in Toronto, they all look pretty much alike.
According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, (ITDP), “We’re seeing that when it’s done well, BRT attracts large ridership and can provide similar levels of speed, capacity, and comfort as metro and light rail transit options.”
But that’s not what people see in the USA; Bliss explains:
Then there are the more emotional, social reasons many people avoid buses: In U.S. cities, buses tend to be the only transportation mode available to lower-income citizens, who therefore make up a disproportionate share of riders. The second-class stigma gets reinforced through routine underfunding.
Big bendy bus in Copenhagen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Bliss is trying to break the American anti-bus bias. (Buses sure are nice in Copenhagen) She concludes, as we did, that this Trackless Train is really just a slick bendy bus, and that we should just call it a bus.
Mounting an image upgrade for this humble mobility mode is a worthy endeavor, but calling them “trackless trains” is a bit of branding misdirection that might create yet another “tier” of transit that simply shouldn’t be. Buses can and should run as well as trains. When they do, they ought to be admired as the most evolved of their kind, and not a new species.
Big bendy damned trolley in Toronto/CC BY 2.0
I am not entirely sure that she is correct. In Toronto where I live, the late mayor Rob Ford hated streetcars because they got in his way. Because he was particularly thick-headed, he considered every form of surface rail transport “a damned trolley” even if it was bendy and fast and had a dedicated right of way. In pandering to his suburban constituency, the City is now planning to build his legacy: a multi-billion dollar one-stop subway extension that serves far fewer people than the 24 stop light rail network proposal that it replaced.
Perhaps calling this bendy bus a Trackless Train will make it more palatable; in fact, it has nothing to do with whether it is on steel or rubber wheels; it is all about the right of way. That’s the gold standard of BRT. There are lots of big bendy buses in use on BRT lines around the world; electrifying them is obviously a good thing, though if it has a dedicated right of way it is probably just as easy to have a wire overhead than it is to have batteries. If it doesn’t have an ROW, then it is just a bus.