Infrastructure Spending: Are Buses The Answer?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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University of Minnesota transportation analyst David Levinson was recently asked this question: “If you had a billion dollars and were really setting out to help low-income residents, how would you have spent the money?”

His answer:

I would improve the bus system. Buses are more adaptable and flexible than rail. This matters because land use patterns change over time, and this kind of flexibility allows the transportation services to follow their customers.  Buses also have the advantage that they can “free ride” on existing roads, and so have much lower infrastructure costs. In just about all US cities buses serve more riders than rail system do, yet rail attracts the bulk of funding.

It’s important to note the specificity of the question. Asking someone what they would do with a billion dollars to help low-income folks is different from asking: “What’s the most important thing we can spend money on? — or any number of other prompts which might elicit a different response. 

Praise for buses is a popular, if counterintuitive, sentiment among some leading conservative economists and commentators these days, including AEI’s Jim Pethokoukis. Interestingly, though, it is the very thing Levinson cites — the flexibility of buses — that some believe makes buses inferior to other alternatives.

This is from the late conservative leader Paul Weyrich:

The [George W. Bush] Administration says buses are superior because they are more flexible. Yet that is the weakness of a bus system. Riders aren’t sure if the bus is really coming and moreover they aren’t sure a bus rapid transit system will be there next year. A fixed rail system is reliable and will be there for decades to come.

… And as Weyrich and William S. Lind jointly noted, unlike rail, buses do nothing to incentivize construction and development:

Bus service can change overnight. A bus route can be discontinued or re-routed easily. No developer can invest on the basis of something so ephemeral. A rail line, in contrast, is a fixed, high-value asset. It cannot get up and move, and the amount of capital invested in it makes service discontinuance highly unlikely. A developer can invest in, say, a new office building near a rail transit line in confidence that twenty years from now, the rail line will still be there providing transit service. The asset that service represents to the developer will not vanish overnight.

This is not to say that buses are of no value. When it comes to specifically helping low-income folks get to and from work, there are some good arguments that this is how we get the most bang for our buck — at least, in the short term.

Along those lines, over at the Washington Post, Michael Strain posits this idea:

We could simply buy buses, have them pick up workers in lower-income, outer neighborhoods and exurbs, and then run them express from those places — not stopping along the way in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods — all the way into commercial centers. In larger cities, we could run the buses express from low-income exurbs to the last stop on commuter rail lines; basically, we could give low-income workers a fast lift to the train, connecting residents of exurbs with the labor markets of major cities.

This may or may not be a valid idea to address a specific need. Still, any notion that buses are some sort of infrastructure panacea for the rest of us is probably misguided.

Matt K. Lewis