Buses are, rather oddly, a bit of a hot topic in North Texas as of late. That’s because, now that Dallas Area Rapid Transit has spent the last 30 years building out the longest light rail network in the United States, a lot of people would like to see the public transit agency start to set up transit services people might actually use. The easiest solution is to rethink the way that DART’s bus system works. If the buses are reliable, the thinking goes, people might actually use them.
That said, there is a general bias against buses in the transit industry. Studies have shown that riders like rail because there is a peace of mind that comes with knowing where your ride is going and there is a benefit to having fixed transit stations.
But what if the problem with buses really just came down to design? If you designed a bus that looked like a train, would more people ride it? Well, a city in China has already made that bet, and Miami may follow suit.
CityLab reports on a new “trackless train” that has some public officials excited because it combines the usability of a subway with the cost and functionality of a bus. Here’s a video animation that shows how it works. It was enough to excite the mayor of Miami to plan a trip to Zhuzhou, China to check out the real system in action. The hope is that these kinds of systems can be rolled out quickly into cities already designed for cars, and they can eventually be automated and driver-less. But let’s face it, all this new transit mode is is a larger redesigned bus. Maybe, however, redesign and re-branding are effective enough to change the way people relate to public transit:
How projects are described and packaged can affect the way people feel about them, which is why a slick video with CGI-rendered trackless trains might be so alluring to city leaders desperate for new narratives. But if transit is going to succeed, the rail-bias cycle needs to break. And it actually can, studies have found, when buses are as good as trains. The Orange Line, a BRT that runs along a closed corridor through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, has spacious cars, frequent service, dedicated lanes, and smooth connections to bus and rail; it’s tripled its original ridership estimates. In a 2009 report by the U.S. DOT, some Orange Line passengers said they didn’t even see it as a bus at all, but something closer to a train. Part of that is due to how the system was marketed and branded—the Orange Line was always portrayed as an extension of L.A.’s Metro rail system, rather than as a regular part of the bus network. But it’s also because this bus is objectively superior to most others.