A rendering of a self-driving "trackless train"
This doesn't look like a bus. But it kind of is. Miami-Dade County

New “trackless trains” out of China suggest buses by any other name could smell sweeter.  

It’s the shape of a swoopy modern streetcar, but it’s got rubber-shod wheels of a bus. Also, there’s no driver—it’s automated like a tram. The “trackless train” is sort of a jackalope of public transportation.

Or maybe it’s more like a donkey than a truly mythical creature; unlike a certain infamous straddling bus, this hybrid transportation innovation is for real.

Since late October, oblong, self-driving vehicles have been using sensor technology to follow markings painted on the streets of Zhuzhou, China. Operators are behind the wheel for now, but the idea is that they won’t be needed by the time the city builds a network larger than the 3.1-kilometer test track, a dedicated lane on a heavily trafficked boulevard. Word of the apparently successful pilot reached Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, who was so impressed by videos of Zhuzhou’s system in action that he says he’s planning a trip in person to see if it wouldn’t make sense as an answer to his city’s transit challenges. “It’s a solution we can implement now,” Gimenez said last week. “Not one that will take decades to complete.” (All aboard the “Commie bus,” according to one none-too-impressed local columnist.)

Battery-powered and capable of speeds up to 43 miles per hour, a three-carriage vehicle can hold more than 300 passengers. CRRC, the Chinese transportation company that manufactures them, estimates that building and running a network of robo-rail-buses would be about 20 percent of the cost of a subway system, according to Dezeen.

In essence, trackless trains hit every objective high-quality transit systems should: They fit lots of people, run in dedicated lanes, are electric-powered, and are relatively cheap and easy to build. In other words, they are nearly identical to bus rapid transit, with a crucial, and arguably worrying, distinction: They’re called trains instead. (Or, in the case of the video the Miami-Dade administration recently showed business leaders, “rapid transit service.”)

What’s in a name? When that word is “bus,” a lot of strongly negative reactions. Studies in cities over the world show that riders overwhelmingly prefer trains—whether subways, streetcars, or light-rail systems—to buses. Some of the reasons are tied to bad bus riding experiences: Buses belch diesel fumes, get stuck in traffic, clump and cluster, hit potholes, and break down. Fare collection can be both tedious and flustering, and they can be difficult to board if you’re older or disabled. And some bus stops are unpleasant by design. Fixed rail transit, on the other hand, is less susceptible to the whims of traffic, more predictable, easier to hop on, and often provide a physically more comfortable ride.

Then there are the more emotional, social reasons many people avoid buses: In U.S. cities, buses tend to be the only transportation mode available to lower-income citizens, who therefore make up a disproportionate share of riders. The second-class stigma gets reinforced through routine underfunding. When it’s time to raise tax dollars to build transit, officials often dangle uber-expensive rail projects that appeal to higher-income, non-transit users whose votes are needed, rather than invest in a more advanced bus system that could perform as well or better, and for less money. As L.A. and Denver have recently shown, rail-centric packages often fail to produce the ridership increases that they promise, are incredibly costly, and still don’t directly serve people who already ride transit and arguably need improvements the most. Because buses stay crappy.

How projects are described and packaged can affect the way people feel about them, which is why a slick video with CGI-rendered trackless trains might be so alluring to city leaders desperate for new narratives. But if transit is going to succeed, the rail-bias cycle needs to break. And it actually can, studies have found, when buses are as good as trains. The Orange Line, a BRT that runs along a closed corridor through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, has spacious cars, frequent service, dedicated lanes, and smooth connections to bus and rail; it’s tripled its original ridership estimates. In a 2009 report by the U.S. DOT, some Orange Line passengers said they didn’t even see it as a bus at all, but something closer to a train. Part of that is due to how the system was marketed and branded—the Orange Line was always portrayed as an extension of L.A.’s Metro rail system, rather than as a regular part of the bus network. But it’s also because this bus is objectively superior to most others.

Buses that aren’t “bus-like” represent a growing focus for enterprising disruptors looking to repackage existing technologies—witness Cabin, the sleep-pod equipped “hipster bus” service plying the L.A.-to-S.F. route, which is trying to steal passengers from airlines. Mounting an image upgrade for this humble mobility mode is a worthy endeavor, but calling them “trackless trains” is a bit of branding misdirection that might create yet another “tier” of transit that simply shouldn’t be. Buses can and should run as well as trains. When they do, they ought to be admired as the most evolved of their kind, and not a new species.

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