NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Bus Systems Are More Cost Effective than Rail Transit

August 8, 2014

Inspired by the prospect of federal funding, 30 cities across the nation are building rail transit lines. Unfortunately, the new rail lines are expensive and offer little additional carrying capacity.

Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute has an alternative to rail transit: "rapid bus" systems. Such a bus system would be speedy and convenient. Running from neighborhoods into the downtown areas of cities, buses could reach more people than rail lines and transport more people for less money:

  • Rail lines are limited in their ability to serve multiple areas, whereas buses can reach many more individuals throughout a city: A four-line light rail system can bring 36,000 people into a city's downtown center, while O'Toole gives the example of a rapid bus system that could bring in 140,000 per hour.
  • A rapid bus system could offer more frequent, faster service with less need for transfers.
  • Buses are more comfortable: When operating at capacity, more than half of the passengers on a rail line must stand. Yet two-thirds to three-fourths of bus riders can sit during transport.
  • A rapid bus system is much less expensive to maintain than a rail system.

O'Toole shows why it is much cheaper to develop a rapid bus system instead of rail lines:

  • The average urban area requires 52 miles of rail lines, and the average cost of one mile of rail line is about $100 million, for a total of $5.2 billion.
  • In comparison, the capital costs for a high-frequency rapid bus system would only be $110 million.

While O'Toole says that it wouldn't make sense for rapid bus systems to replace public transportation in cities like New York City with long-established subway systems, rapid bus systems could replace aging rail systems in places like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Source: Randal O'Toole, "Rapid Bus: A Low-Cost, High-Capacity Transit System for Major Urban Areas," Cato Institute, July 30, 2014.


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