In my last post I celebrated the nearing opening of the Twin Cities' second light rail line. The project improved a heavily used transit corridor in two ways: it will increase capacity, and it will provide faster and more reliable service between Minneapolis, a major university and St Paul by operating in a dedicated right-of-way. However, as sleek as trains may be, it's not solely the conversion from bus to rail that matters. Let's first dispense with the myth that trains are inherently better than buses. As a passenger I don't care how the vehicle propels itself; I just want to reach my destination. What really matters for passengers is the service quality: a high quality transit line is fast, frequent, reliable and runs all day. At any time you can just show up at an easy-to-find station and count on completing your trip without extra effort or delays. Long waits, indirect routing, traffic and other delays are major disincentives to transit use and can happen regardless of the vehicle type.
The reason we believe that trains are inherently better than buses is that in most places we arbitrarily treat them better by giving them priority on the street, paying fares in advance and running frequent and well marketed service. Bus riders are subjected to long and uncomfortable waits, lines at the front door, traffic congestion and unpredictable delays, even though there is nothing stopping us from running high quality bus service.
In places that don't need the capacity that rail provides, let's build dedicated infrastructure for buses and implement all the other things we do without question for rail but never do for buses. For example, proof-of-payment fare collection (before boarding) can be implemented system-wide and would cut running times by 20 to 30 percent. The money saved in operating costs could be used to make other improvements like increasing frequency to address crowding, installing bus priority measures in congested areas and upgrading bus stops.
The question then is, if you really make an effort to improve bus service, will ridership grow so much that you will need rail vehicles for capacity reasons? If so, great!