Some people feel buses are the answer to all our mass transit needs. They will, of course, admit that big expensive commuter rail systems are more pleasant than a fleet of buses (anyone who has ridden on both can attest to this), but they will simply point to the price tag as the major issue at hand. How can we afford such large transit systems?
In fact, if you look at the issue from a certain perspective rail systems seem simply fascist. Whereas bus networks can be easily adapted to meet the ever changing demands of the customers (we must keep them happy!) , rail systems dictate what the customer behavior should be. It is very easy to change a bus route to accommodate a new population distribution (for example, the construction of a new subdivision); it is extremely difficult to change a rail system.
A rail system has the remarkable effect of change the area around it. Transit stops usually become hubs of development; property values go up around them and people try to move as close by as possible. In the Washington DC area, for example, real estate prices are largely a function of distance to a metro stop; people want to use the metro and thus want to be near a stop. But it is not clear how we should feel about this trend. On the one hand, a rail system can have an incredible stabilizing effect on a community. It supports clear neighborhood centers and a maximization of space (i.e. higher density) around the stops of the metro. This in turn greatly decreases the dependence of residents on cars and thus decreases energy consumption; if you live near a metro station/neighborhood center, you have all your basic needs met within walking distance and you can take the train to anywhere else you need to go.
However, the flip side of stability is restrictiveness. The rail will stay where it is for a great while and therefore people are forced to live where that system exists if they want the high quality mass transit that their tax dollars helped build. People must, in effect, react to what the government has provided and are not as free when choosing where to live. The government can, in effect, coerce people to live in a specified pattern. The ethical implications of all this are rather interesting, and when I have time I’ll post about my take on it. However, for now this is an issue about which I am still starting to form a view.