Express Bus Versus Rail Transit: How a Marriage of Mode and Mission Affects Transit Performance

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

planning - service quality, land use - planning, place - cbd, mode - bus, mode - rail, mode - subway/metro


Transportation system performance, Strategies, Strategic planning, Service quality, Rail transit, Quality of service, Priorities, Passenger service quality, Objectives, Multiple destinations, Metropolitan areas, Goals, Express buses, Downtowns, Conurbations, City centers, Central business districts


There is debate about the relative merits of investing in rail or express bus modes to improve regional transit performance. The debate largely assumes that both modes serve a single function of providing higher-speed service to the central business district (CBD) over relatively long travel distances. The debate generally overlooks other functions that might be served by express bus and rail transit modes and thus ignores that the two modes may perform differently depending on the service mission they are assigned. Performance of the two modes is examined in four metropolitan areas with different strategies for providing high-quality, regional transit service: a CBD-focused strategy, a hybrid strategy that serves the CBD and a few other destinations, and a multidestination strategy that serves a widely dispersed set of destinations. With a combination of route and system performance statistics and qualitative insights derived from key contact interviews, the performance of the express bus and rail transit modes in each metropolitan area, and among the set of metropolitan areas, was evaluated while the service mission to which each mode has been applied was considered. It was found that the combination of a rail transit backbone and a multidestination service strategy leads to better performance than any other marriage of mode and mission.