Part 6: Political parties, three-axes, and public transport – A summary

By David Levinson and David King.

A comment on power: politics maximizes the ideal subject to the real

To be clear, everyone near power is instrumental – the Democrats favoring rail and construction in general due to  the association with unions and Republicans with their association with “free” roads, or Paul Weyrich with his justifications for suburban commuter rail.  Merriam Webster defines instrumentalism as  a doctrine that ideas are instruments of action and that their usefulness determines their truth. Thus it represents a situation, where values are an instrument to build a coalition to obtain power, as opposed to using power to support core values.  The Libertarians and Greens are purer of heart as they are farther from actual power. (And perhaps they are farther from actual power because they are purer of heart. The causality is mutual.)


Get on the Bus
Get on the Bus


Despite the transportation logic,  trains are more politically popular. A new train on new track in an exclusive right-of-way is a more comfortable ride than a bus on beat-up pavement shared with cars, trucks, and other vehicles.

People riding buses are unhappier with their commute than commuter train riders in Montreal (though about the same as Metro riders). Walking and biking make their commuters happier still.  By implication Greens are happiest with their non-motorized travel.

The unhappiness with bus use is for a variety of reasons. In part poor people (are rightfully) not as happy about the state of reality than those with more resources and opportunities. In part bus riders are likely less happy because of the stigma associated with buses and because of the underfunding of buses due to that stigma.

While that may seem like bad news for an argument about investing more in buses, we think it is an opportunity. It is the mode most easily improved. Thus it is where happiness can be most readily increased by reorganization and increases in service, better integration of information technology,  and enhancing the environment around stops and stations. We should increase the dignity of riding the bus.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King


Bus has received far less attention than rail. In the Twin Cities, the number of planners and engineers, leave aside dollars, per bus rider falls far short of the number per rail rider. In addition to high level design questions, attention to local details does matter, and does pay off. Attention is required.

New London buses
New London buses

Typically, bus/rail comparisons contrast existing local buses, which are old, noisy and slow,   with new trains. New beats old.  Where buses have been used to provide high quality, speedy, quiet (electric), lane separated transit in good markets they perform really well. Finding ways to make buses work requires cooperation of the bus operator (public or private) and the infrastructure provider (almost always the public).

The land use argument is one of choice. Zoning can be changed without building rail, but no one seems to be doing that. Economic development effects have been demonstrated for significant bus improvements.

There is so much more than can be done with buses, and can be done within a year, that it is depressing (if not insane) so few even try.

Take away a few parking spaces, and even some general purpose traffic lanes, and put some paint on the road (reallocating road space to buses), then see how people like the new bus versus the old bus.

Reallocate transit dollars and see how many new high frequency bus services can be deployed for the same resources otherwise dedicated to a short  rail corridor that .

The mainstream political parties tend to exist for political purposes more than for pursuing a coherent set of policies. The evidence suggests no one in power actually wants less public spending, and arguments are about marginal increases in spending. Yet most of the public is far more interested is being able to get around affordably and easily, reaching their valued destinations, than what technology is used.

Political Parties, Three-Axes, And Public Transport

  1. Part 1: Introduction
  2. Part 2: Why Democrats Should Like Buses
  3. Part 3: Why Republicans Should Like Buses
  4. Part 4: Why Libertarians Should Like Buses
  5. Part 5: Why Greens Should Like Buses
  6. Part 6: Summary

2 thoughts on “Part 6: Political parties, three-axes, and public transport – A summary

  1. “Take away a few parking spaces, and even some general purpose traffic lanes, and put some paint on the road (reallocating road space to buses)”

    If it only were so easy. In reality, car snobs have a lot of political power and will fight tooth and nail to prevent road space from being reallocated.

    I have often asked why my local transit agency does not increase bus service. There are lots of problems, and they basically view it as zero sum. Service increase of revenue hours in one place requires decrease elsewhere. Yard space, number of drivers, operational funding all enter into it. But ultimately, they don’t want to be bothered.


  2. Nice post. But I disagree.

    We all love buses!!!! including me- for everyone else to ride. The crux of the problem with buses boils down to the gut. Here’s why:

    1) Buses almost universally run on diesel, which A) spew a lot of emissions and particulates, and B) diesel fumes are mildly nauseating, and C) are definitely carcinogenic, aggravate asthma, and heart disease (Oops, we lost the greens and health concerned)
    2) Buses stop and go incessantly which is mildly nauseating, or at least sickening, and definitely annoying to many people. (the gut again)

    All the other things: slowness, obnoxious passengers, funny smells, and unpredictable seating availability, pale in comparison to the above. The above is why light rail usually has an edge over busing: As Clinton would say -it’s the diesel and jerking around stupid.

    Sadly, while the Green Line in the Twin Cities gotten rid of the diesel, it has all of the jerking around thanks to its inability to escape traffic lights.

    Nick Musachio
    Inventor of Always Green Traffic Control a Kinetic Intersection Control technology.


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