11 Simple Ways to Speed Up Your City’s Buses

Turning at busy intersections costs buses time.
Turning at busy intersections slows down buses, so many transit agencies are simplifying routes to speed up service. Photo: Steven Vance

All across America, city buses are waiting. Waiting at stoplights, waiting behind long lines of cars, waiting to pull back into traffic, waiting at stops for growing crowds of passengers. And no, it’s not just your imagination: Buses are doing more waiting, and less moving, than they used to. A recent survey of 11 urban transit systems conducted by Daniel Boyle for the Transportation Research Board found that increased traffic congestion is steadily eroding travel speeds: The average city bus route gets 0.45 percent slower every single year. That’s especially discouraging given how slowly buses already move, with a typical bus averaging only 13.5 mph.

Transit agencies are taking action against the waits. A recent report on “Commonsense Approaches for Improving Transit Bus Speeds” surveyed not just the scale of the problem, but also solutions. In it, 59 transit agencies across America shared how they have responded to the scheduling problems presented by ever-slower bus routes. The agencies report on the most successful actions they’ve taken to improve bus speeds and reliability. Here they are, listed in descending order of popularity.

  1. Consolidate stops: More than half of agencies have thinned bus stops, some by focusing on pilot corridors, and others by gradually phasing in policy changes. Many agencies moved stops to far side of intersections at stoplights, and 13 agencies adopted physical changes like longer bus stops or bulb-outs, which help passengers board faster and more conveniently.
  2. Streamline routes: Straightening out routes, trimming deviations, eliminating duplication, and shortening routes didn’t just simplify service, it also sped up service for two-thirds of the agencies that tried this approach.
  3. Transit signal priority: The 22 agencies with signal priority can change stoplights for approaching buses. They mostly report a minor to moderate increase in bus speeds as a result. In fact, agencies singled out traffic engineering approaches like TSP as the closest to a “silver bullet,” one-step solution.
  4. Fare policy: Several agencies changed fare structures or payment methods. The one agency that collects fares before passengers board, and lets them board at both bus doors, decreased bus running times by 9 percent.
  5. Bus Rapid Transit: Ten agencies combined multiple approaches on specific routes and launched BRT service. Of those that measured the impact, almost all reported a significant increase in speed, typically around 10 to 15 percent.
  6. Vehicle changes: More than half of agencies have moved to low-floor buses, which reduce loading times by one second per passenger. Smaller buses might be more maneuverable in traffic, and ramps can speed loading for wheelchairs and bicycles.
  7. Limited stop service: Although new limited-stop services offered only minor to moderately faster speeds, it’s a simple step and 18 agencies reported launching new limited routes.
  8. Bus lanes: Dedicated lanes are used by 13 agencies, and one reported that “most routes are on a bus lane somewhere.” When implemented on wide arterial streets, this moderately improves speeds.
  9. Adjust schedules: Almost all of the surveyed agencies have adjusted running time, recovery times (the time spent turning the bus), or moved to more flexible “headway schedules.” All of these actions improve on-time performance reliability for customers, and reduce the need for buses to sit if they’re running early.
  10. Signal timing: Synchronized stoplights along transit routes can make sure that buses face more green lights than red, but only have a mild impact on operating speeds.
  11. Express service on freeways: This strategy had the largest impact on speeding up buses for the three agencies that tried it.

Many transit agencies have adopted at least some of these changes. For example, Streetsblog has covered San Francisco Muni’s efforts to consolidate stops, launch limited-stop service, rebuild stops, install signal priority, and use prepaid fares to allow passengers to board at both doors.

The survey also asked about the major constraints that agencies faced when attempting to improve bus speeds. More than a third of them cited a lack of funding and competing priorities within the agency — streamlining a route, for instance, may reduce the area covered by the service. More than one in seven agencies cited a lack of support from other government agencies, like transportation departments in charge of streets and signals (in San Francisco, Muni benefits from being housed within the city’s transportation department). Rider opposition, particularly to removing bus stops, and existing traffic congestion, also thwarted some attempts to streamline bus operations. Interestingly, few agencies cited community opposition or a lack of staff time as constraints.

How can other agencies apply these lessons? The survey also collected advice to transit agencies and communities that are considering these changes. The most often cited lesson is that it’s “extremely important to have high level support at the local municipality” (presumably this means the mayor), and to “adhere to [your community’s] desired expectations of the service they wish to have,” in the words of individual agencies.

Thorough analysis, like starting with the busiest routes and stops, building internal consensus and recognizing speed “as something that the agency has the power to affect,” and persistence were also cited as keys to getting buses up to speed.

  • Kevin Love

    The number 1 cause of bus delays is car drivers getting in their way. The solution is simple: do not allow cars to obstruct traffic.

  • Harald

    “Many agencies moved stops to far side of intersections at stoplights,”

    How does that speed things up? Doesn’t that mean that in the worst case the bus has to stop at the light, only to stop again once it has made it through the intersection. If the stop is before the light, in worst case the bus will sit a little longer while waiting for the light to turn, in turn offering additional time for people to board. What am I overlooking?

  • Bolwerk

    It’s easier to pull back into traffic on the far side. A line of cars queued at a light can interrupt re-entering the traffic flow. On the far side, there is a guaranteed opportunity to re-enter when the light is red on the near side.

    Not sure it matters in a place, like Philadelphia, where buses simply stop in their lane, and make traffic behind wait.

  • duppie

    I fail to see how number 5, 6, and 8 could be considered “simple ways to speed up your city’s buses”. These are all capital intensive solutions with long lead-times.

  • valar84

    5 can be capital-intensive, you’re right.

    6 can be considered capital-intensive… except that most agencies change their buses every 10-15 years anyway, so they’re likely alway buying new buses. They just have to make sure that they’re proper models and not the usual high-floor models.

    8 is not capital intensive. You don’t need to build new roads from scratch, it’s just a bit of paint on the pavement, it can be done in one night. The biggest problem is opposition from car drivers.

  • Bolwerk

    What @valar84:disqus said.

    Also, improving bus service does mean faster trip times, reduced fuel use, and even labor savings if a bus whole round trip can be made faster. Capital intensive isn’t always bad.

  • BB

    I think the pre-board pay is far the biggest improvement.

    Cities like minneapolis encourage this. With a pre-pay card you put money on the card. (keep the card for life)

  • Scott Sanderson

    Chicago buses would really benefit from #1. I recently took a ride on Ashland Ave, and the bus made 22 stops in 23 minutes. I think half of them could be removed.

  • Harald

    Ah, I see. Here in Montreal buses have the right of way when pulling out — even though other drivers of course don’t always respect that.

  • Bolwerk

    Here (NYC) too, I think, but probably that is completely ignored.

    The near side of a light could be difficult for fairly benign reasons though because drivers aren’t always sure when they can pass through the light, or when the bus will leave its stop. Having the stop on the far side eliminates that ambiguity, and means the driver who blocks a bus is always at fault!

  • valar84

    I think removing stops would be the biggest improvement actually. Paying before boarding becomes really important when you have very long vehicles, articulated buses and more. That way, you can have boarding from many doors at the same time. However, if you simply have regular buses, paying before boarding is not all that useful. It can shave off one second or two per passenger. But getting rid of a stop saves the bus at least 15 seconds, plus it removes the need to slow down the bus to stick to the schedule when you pass empty stops.

    So if a regular bus that stops at 20 stops on its route and picks up 60 passengers would save 60 seconds by adopting pre-boarding payment, but 150 seconds by removing half its stops.

  • C Monroe

    Also the bus might be stuck at a red light multiple cars away from the stop. It then waits for the green, proceeds to the stop, loads passengers, then the light turns red again. And waits again. My city of Grand Rapids has as a majority of these types of stops, makes no sense.

  • Wanderer

    Thanks Peyton for posting this. In terms of far side stops, transit agencies have tested the benefits. Sometimes the bus gets caught near side of a signal and then has to stop again. But in general there’s less delay using the far side stop. It’s particularly effective in combination with item 3–transit signal priority–to get the bus through the signal. These all work individually, but a lot of them work better in combination.

  • derf

    Many major intersections utilize 90 second signal cycles. If you reduce to 60, you only impact vehicular traffic by approximately 5 or 6 cars per hour however a bus can get back into the green band much easier after servicing stops. It takes a bit of work for signal crews to redo the math but can really help

  • C Monroe

    Many states have a five second per lane crossing signal ordinance. If you shorten the signal cycle, how will grandma who has severe arthritis be able to cross the road before the cross traffic starts to move?

  • C Monroe

    Actually I think it is the paying part is the cause for most delays. You will always get those idiots who are waiting at the bus stop, talking on the cell, wait to pay, then they start searching for their fare, digging in their pockets.

  • Garrett (ctylem)

    Improving stop spacing would be huge in Salt Lake City. Stops along certain routes are spaced horrendously close to each other. You’ll have buses stop twenty times over the span of twenty-one blocks, 99% of the time because of people who are vastly capable of walking forty-five more seconds. The worst part of all this is that every stop takes at best thirty seconds and at worst a couple of minutes (especially along two lane roads) because most drivers here lack the courtesy to let the bus pull back in. The result? A bus that’s eventually ten minutes late. Cutting every other stop would do wonders in fixing that. Otherwise, it means buses that get really popular take eons to get anywhere because they’re spending more of their time stopping for passengers than going.

  • Dave Weckl

    Nice picture of a guy jaywalking and a bus getting ready to run him over. Not sure you could have picked a more ridiculous photo.

  • neroden

    If your streets are a sane width, 5 seconds per lane is 10 seconds (two lane street with bulbouts at intersections), 20 sections (two lane street with parking on each side), or maybe 30 seconds (overbuilt boulevard with two moving lanes in each direction and parking on each side). Hell, allow 10 seconds per lane and you’re still only up to 60 seconds.

  • neroden

    Bus lanes can be implemented overnight with a few cans of road paint.

    The fact that this is not generally done overnight has to do with a giant set of bureaucratic regulations designed to favor cars. It is, in physical reality, simple. It’s the politics which are not simple.

  • duppie

    Of course capital intensive isn’t bad. No one is arguing that. But the process of applying for federal (and often state) funding is arduous and has almost always requires a long leadtime.

    Tat makes it anything but ‘simple’

  • duppie

    So, what you’re saying is that implementing dedicated buslanes typically has a long lead time.
    That makes it anything but simple.

    Thanks, for supporting my point 🙂

  • duppie

    The thought that it is merely a few cans of paint is unrealistic. A good buslane requires engineers to design it, public input, priority signals at intersections, signage, enforcement of some type, etc.

    All those things cost time and money.

  • Bolwerk

    The things you mentioned are generally things a local transit agency can do within the purview of its own budget and authority, at most with direction or approval of municipal government. Without getting aid, they actually improve service while simultaneously reducing costs.

    You can define “simple” how you like, but generally that’s as easy as it gets even allowing that local governments often have their state governments hindering them.

  • C Monroe

    When I think major intersection I think of 7 to 9 lanes each entrance/exit to intersection(right turn lane, 2-3 thru lanes, 2 left turn lanes, 2-3 opposing thru lanes).

  • Gabriel Solomon

    “Do not allow cars to obstruct traffic” is not an easy task given the majority of transit systems are curbside based and must share lanes with regular traffic. It isn’t a thrifty solution but a gradual transition to median based transit systems would certainly allow buses more freedom of movement.

  • Student

    How about technology to clear a path for the bus, during high congestion periods? Say, flashing lights for a block or two ahead of the bus, that mean “clear the lane”? This would let bus rapid transit happen, without preventing cars from using the lane the rest of the time. “Rapid buses” that crawl with the rest of clogged traffic need help.

  • Andrew

    How does traffic clear the lane if the other lanes are already full of traffic?

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