To Save Money on Building Rail, Spend Money on Marketing Buses

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“Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.”

That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome: Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain link from La Guardia Airport in New York could be the latest example. It might cost $450 million or it might be more like $1 billion — the M.T.A. head Tom Prendergast wavered between the figures in a public hearing last month — but either way, from most places in New York City, it won’t be faster than taking existing bus service to the airport, because it will run southeast from the airport, away from Manhattan.

In California, Bay Area Rapid Transit spent nearly half a billion dollars to build a three-mile rail connector to the airport in Oakland, which opened last year; it saves about 3,000 daily riders four minutes over the shuttle bus service it replaced. Atlanta’s downtown streetcar loop was a relative bargain at $100 million; unfortunately, Rebecca Burns, a writer at Atlanta magazine, took it to work for a week and found it was slower than walking. Washington’s shiny new streetcars, expected to serve 1,500 riders a day along H Street Northeast, are slowing the bus service that already serves 12,000 daily riders on that road.

What if transit agencies spent just a fraction of what it costs to lay new rails to spruce up the buses and tell riders they’re faster than they realize?

That 2009 transit report gives reason to believe it’s possible. The researchers conducted focus groups with “choice riders” in Los Angeles: people who have cars but sometimes use transit. These riders had an unsurprising preference for trains.

“Riding the bus carries a ‘shame factor,’ ” the researchers found. “Most of the choice riders would not consider using it, or if they did, they would feel ashamed and keep it a secret.”

But what the local transit agency marketed as the “Orange Line” — really just a bus route in the San Fernando Valley with high frequencies on a dedicated right of way — managed to gain acceptance among “choice riders.”

Focus group participants “used terms like the ‘train-bus’ or the ‘bourgeois bus’ to describe the Orange Line service,” the researchers said. The Orange Line has repeatedly beaten its ridership estimates, and nearly half its riders have access to a car, compared with just a quarter on regular local bus routes in Los Angeles. That performance shows it is possible to overcome anti-bus bias with the right amenities and marketing.

In New York, the city and the state could make a similar effort to sell the Q70 and M60 services to people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus to the airport. Dedicated boarding areas and improved buses could be bought for a fraction of the price of a new train system.

Again, there’s precedent: The M.T.A. gave New York a memorable jingle in the 1980s, with its J.F.K. express train service and “Train to the Plane” ads. The Train to the Plane was really a Train to the Bus to the Plane — riders transferred to a shuttle bus at Howard Beach. La Guardia is better suited for such a service, because the subway stations in Queens with bus service to the airport, in Woodside and Jackson Heights, are a much shorter ride from Midtown.

Read more: To Save Money on Building Rail, Spend Money on Marketing Buses

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