Can We Just Call This a Bus?
LAURA BLISS –
Or maybe it’s more like a donkey than a truly mythical creature; unlike a certain infamous straddling bus, this hybrid transportation innovation is for real.
Since late October, oblong, self-driving vehicles have been using sensor technology to follow markings painted on the streets of Zhuzhou, China. Operators are behind the wheel for now, but the idea is that they won’t be needed by the time the city builds a network larger than the 3.1-kilometer test track, a dedicated lane on a heavily trafficked boulevard. Word of the apparently successful pilot reached Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, who was so impressed by videos of Zhuzhou’s system in action that he says he’s planning a trip in person to see if it wouldn’t make sense as an answer to his city’s transit challenges. “It’s a solution we can implement now,” Gimenez said last week. “Not one that will take decades to complete.” (All aboard the “Commie bus,” according to one none-too-impressed local columnist.)
Battery-powered and capable of speeds up to 43 miles per hour, a three-carriage vehicle can hold more than 300 passengers. CRRC, the Chinese transportation company that manufactures them, estimates that building and running a network of robo-rail-buses would be about 20 percent of the cost of a subway system, according to Dezeen.
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. Some of the reasons are tied to bad bus riding experiences: Buses belch diesel fumes, get stuck in traffic, clump and cluster, hit potholes, and break down. Fare collection can be both tedious and flustering, and they can be difficult to board if you’re older or disabled. And some bus stops are unpleasant by design. Fixed rail transit, on the other hand, is less susceptible to the whims of traffic, more predictable, easier to hop on, and often provide a physically more comfortable ride.
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. When it’s time to raise tax dollars to build transit, officials often dangle uber-expensive rail projects that appeal to higher-income, non-transit users whose votes are needed, rather than invest in a more advanced bus system that could perform as well or better, and for less money. As L.A. and Denver have recently shown, rail-centric packages often fail to produce the ridership increases that they promise, are incredibly costly, and still don’t directly serve people who already ride transit and arguably need improvements the most. Because buses stay crappy.