Why do we prefer trains over buses? Yes, the magnetic pull of steel wheels, but there are also more practical reasons. If buses can mimic some reasons, then they might get more riders per dollar spent than trains!

Say you see a random bus. Is it an option for you? Not if you don’t know where it came from, where it is going, or how often it comes by. A train track passively informs us where we can get on and off. So how can buses be more like trains? Here are Metro Analytics’ “8-Fs” for creating “bus tracks” nearly as visible and potentially much more popular and influential on economic development, per dollar spent, than trains.

  1. Frequent – Vehicles come so often that no one needs to bother with a schedule.
  2. Familiar – No need to research routes. “You Are Here” signs & route branding strategies help “bus tracks” become common knowledge.
  3. Fare – Free fare zones, routes, times, and other fare incentives can attract short circulation trips that simply will not pay a fare if they have another option.
  4. Fast – If possible, reduce time spent at stops or in congestion, to attract more riders (queue jumpers, limited stop, dedicated lanes, off-board payment, etc).
  5. Focused Flexibility – Avoid circuitous routes and low-value diversions. Direct routes are easy to remember. But flexibility allows buses to travel outside fixed guideway when necessary.
  6. Fun – The Corvette folks should tackle the big, ugly bus. Do they all need to be huge? Smaller vehicles, more often = same seat miles. Cool vehicles, stops, & creative marketing remove stigmas.
  7. Fusion – With land use, that is.  Create a platform for walkable, high-density infill so that the market can react to the entire improved environment, and justify transition to steel-wheels later.
  8. Frugal – Lower cost per mile = more miles! (i.e. Frequency). Trains usually have high capital cost relative to BRT, and don’t always “make up the difference” through reduced operating cost. Big empty buses every 10-minutes also doesn’t seem frugal, so smaller, fuller mini-buses might be ideal.

We elaborate on these concepts in this white paper entitled “The Eights” of Making Buses More Like Trains! Additional topics in the paper include:

  • 8 Rules for Creating Multi-Route Branded Corridor Segments (a strategy for creating an “almost no-cost track” where 2 or more routes happen to overlap).
  • 8 Transit Enhancements to Attract Riders
  • 8 Strategies to Minimize Operational Costs and Acquire Operating Funds
  • 8 Rubber-Tire Vehicle Styles That Could Work Well for Circulation
  • 8 Examples of Branded Bus Corridors in the US and Australia

To be clear, trains may well be the right solution for many situations.  We are not “anti- train!”  These are ideas to help you get greater return on your investment in buses – the lion’s share of most systems.


Mike is president of Metro Analytics and frequent author at Strong Towns. Strengths include Travel Demand Forecasting, Data Visualization, Place-Making Intersections, and Big Picture multi-modal solutions.

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