Alternative transportation has been gaining in popularity in recent years, and especially so since the summer 2008 gas price shocks. Transit-oriented development is now politically hot. Sales of bicycles have spiked dramatically, and cyclists are everywhere on city streets (even here in the 'burbs). Light rail and streetcar projects are opening up across the country, and residents are flocking to rail-served neighbourhoods in droves. Upon hearing that I'm a transportation activist, people in my social circle will now excitedly exclaim "Hey, that's great! We should plan a train trip sometime."
All of that, of course, leaves out the bus. For some reason, the bus has an image problem. Even environmentally-conscious folks would never even consider riding a bus. I have had people tell me that buses are dirty, smelly, and unpleasant, that they often break down, and one girl told me that she would often get "funny looks" when riding the bus. (She lived a year here without a car, and is now never more than steps from it.) My parents and I nearly got in a screaming match when I asserted that it would be safe for a teenage girl to ride the public transit system to school and back on a daily basis. (Of course, teenage girls do that all the time here. Ride a bus between 2 and 3pm near any public school.) This aversion to buses is nearly universal, and it goes beyond the usual complaints of public transit use- knowing where it goes, what the fare is, etc. It may, of course, be different for those in major cities, but judging from The Bus Bench's Browne Molyneux's frequent and colourful descriptions of Metro Local service, I doubt it.
I don't, personally, understand this trouble with buses. My first bus was one of these, an AC Transit Gillig Phantom, at the age of two on AC's #29 in Fremont, CA (a route which no longer exists). I was one of a handful of people who rode the bus in the small mountain town where I grew up. I still, of course, ride the bus regularly. I am told that there was a time many years ago when a city bus was a place you did not want to be, and perhaps this trauma has burrowed its way into our collective unconsciousness. My many, many hours riding many, many transit systems have been almost uniformly clean, safe and uneventful. I have been on a broken-down bus only twice, and only once on a broken-down train. I rarely feel unsafe at a transit stop, either from traffic or the threat of passers-by. (I admit to being a touch wary in downtown Baltimore.) While buses definitely have their quirks, the overwhelming majority of time spent on them, by the overwhelming majority of riders, is pleasantly uneventful.
Here are the facts. Local rail transit- that is, rail that serves travel within a city, rather than between cities- is available in a total of six California cities- San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Oceanside-Escondido (and SPRINTER's not much better than a bus), and San Diego. If you want to be generous, you can add Pasadena (Metro Gold Line), Long Beach (Metro Blue Line) and Oakland (BART). That's it. If you don't live in the central urban area of one of those cities, you don't get to ride the train to get around your city. You may have a train that serves your city- many Southern California cities see Metrolink service, and most East Bay communities have a BART station- but it probably isn't a practical option for getting about your town. Outside of California, the numbers get even worse. There is no local rail in New Mexico, only one system (though a good one- TriMet) in Oregon, and Washington just got around to opening a couple of lines, one streetcar and the other a regional light rail. Nevada has 1 (Vegas Monorail), Utah 1 (TRAX in Salt Lake City), Arizona 1 (Valley METRO), Texas 2 (Houston and Dallas), Colorado 1 (Denver RTD), and none in Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma or Kansas. And, of course, if you are lucky enough to live in one of those cities, the train doesn't go everywhere you need to be.
Contrast this with the humble bus. (See the very end of that article.) Bus service is ubiquitous (though not universal). If you are in a major city, there are probably several bus stops within a short walk of you. The suburbs are flush with bus service, as are some extraordinarily tiny communities. El Centro, Calexico, and Brawley, CA, cities in Imperial County whose populations sit in the low 5 digits, boast bus-based public transit. Blythe and Needles, CA, tiny outposts on the Colorado River, both have local bus operators. Hanford, CA doesn't even have a freeway in it, but it's well-served by a local bus system. Rail is a rarity, but bus service is nearly everywhere.
I would love to see rail transit flourish everywhere. Train travel is nearly always preferable to bus travel, with smooth rides, defined routes, and the frequent service that only a dedicated right-of-way can provide. However, the bus is the dominant form of public transport in the vast majority of the nation (world?) at the moment. Buses have certain advantages over trains, too- they are operationally flexible, have very little capital costs, and a new bus service can be started almost immediately. Also, regardless of how much it flourishes, rail transit is never going to reach many places- it's just not practical. Buses can, and often do, reach those places. (Think Wrightwood.) Transit and environmental activists of all stripes need to make a concerted effort to rid the bus of the horrible stigma that has attached to it, and to not just advocate for sexy new rail lines and bicycles, but for the plain old city bus.