Poor buses. Even though they’re faster, cheaper and more flexible, all the politicians seem to fall in love with light rail. There’s a vibe of junior high-school status seeking here — our city should do it because all the other cool cities are doing it. In the eyes of council members and mayors, buses are dorky and riddled with acne, rail is cool, even sexy. Some evidence of this from a positive profile of Tucson rail activist, Steve Farley: Farley sees light rail as the centerpiece of an improved public transit system because it’s a “sexy” alternative to buses. He points to other Southwestern cities–Phoenix, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Denver and Dallas–that have already built or are building light rail systems. In those cities, light rail has been a hit among people who had never before considered using public transit. Rail is a hit? In Denver, Dallas and Phoenix rail accounts for under 1 percent of passenger miles. Salt Lake City is the most touted of the group mentioned above. It’s system enjoys headlines like this: “Light rail giving UTA ridership a major lift.” Then deeper into the article there’s this: But some would argue that TRAX has merely stolen riders from UTA buses. While that’s true, overall ridership throughout UTA’s system has increased. Mike Allegra, UTA director of transit development, said UTA is averaging more than 100,000 trips a day on weekdays (some people use UTA more than once a day) “in a system where we were never carrying that many before.” About 85 percent of UTA riders still take the bus Ã¢â?¬â?? the rest use TRAX, which is bringing in riders who have never used either the bus or train. 85 percent of trips, and still no one notices the poor bus. Who cares how many truly new transit riders rail attracts, it’s sexy and that’s what’s important.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.