Give Buses a Chance

Private commercial buses are the most cost-effective form of public transportation in the country, according to a new report from the American Bus Association. I’ve always felt that buses haven’t been given a fair shake when it comes to transportation policy. Buses are like the draft horses of our transit network -- they get a lot of work done for minimal investment. But when it comes time for a photo-op, politicians would much rather stand next to a glossy thoroughbred.

The ABA looked at federal subsidies for all modes of transit from 2002 to 2009. Private sector buses got less than 1 percent of the pie, just $83 million, compared to $11 billion for mass transit and $5 billion for airlines. In subsidies per passenger mile traveled, buses received just one-tenth of a penny, compared to more than a quarter for Amtrak, nearly 20 cents for mass transit, and just under a penny for airlines.

All told, the motorcoach industry, which includes intercity buses (some of which are quite upscale), commuter buses, tourist coaches and rural transit, provides about 745 million passenger trips a year, about the same as the airlines and 25 times more than Amtrak. And it does this with practically zero federal support.

As I’ve said before, there’s no silver bullet that will magically rebuild our broken transportation infrastructure. But in these fiscally austere times, we might want to reconsider the value of a workhorse. State, federal and local officials should take a good look at the role that private bus companies can play in creating a cost-effective, convenient transportation network.