Win Back Transit Riders By Speeding Up Bus Boarding

San Francisco is the only city in the country where all-door boarding is the rule, not the exception. Photo: NACTO
San Francisco is the only city in the country where all-door boarding is the rule, not the exception. Photo: NACTO

Transit ridership fell in nearly every major American city last year. But you can’t blame it all on low gas prices: Transit agencies that made significant changes to improve service, particularly systemwide bus service, bucked the trend.

One surefire way for U.S. transit agencies to improve bus service is to streamline the boarding process by enabling riders to get on at any door and pay before boarding. In a new report, the National Association of City Transportation Officials makes the case for all-door boarding and looks at how American transit agencies are moving forward on implementation [PDF].

“Transit riders care most about two things: how long their trip takes, and how reliable it is,” report author Craig Toocheck said in an email. “If service gets worse, people get off the bus. But bringing them back — and making transit the best option for more people on more trips — is easier than it seems. Targeted tweaks, like speeding up how riders get on and off, can dramatically increase speed and reliability, improving the experience for everyone.”

If every passenger pays at the front door, boarding takes an average of five seconds per person, according to NACTO. That can add up to a lot of lost time at busy bus stops. As a result, the most important bus routes — the ones with the highest ridership — also tend to be the slowest.

The delays caused by front-door-only boarding are worse on more widely-ridden routes. Graph: NACTO via APTA PFD
The delays caused by front-door-only boarding compound as ridership grows. Graph: NACTO

San Francisco is the only transit agency in the country where all-door boarding is the rule, not the exception. After the switch, bus speeds increased 2 percent, even as ridership increased 2 percent. Meanwhile, fare evasion dropped 7.9 percent, dispelling one of the objections that has limited widespread adoption.

All-door boarding requires some changes. Off-board ticket machines or fare readers at rear doors make the system possible. Transit agencies also have to rely on fare inspectors to confirm payment, rather than bus drivers, and NACTO notes that transit agencies need to ensure that fare inspection is not discriminatory and that fare evasion is not criminalized.

In six North American cities that have tried all-door boarding in some form, service has improved while fare evasion appears to have decreased, NACTO reports. Some examples:

  • Vancouver shaved one second per passenger off the average boarding time after it implemented all-door boarding on the 99 B Line, North America’s busiest bus route, which carries 55,000 passengers per day.
  • Seattle has been experimenting with all-door boarding on its six RapidRide lines. Off-board fare payment was installed at stops with 150 or more daily boardings, and a 2014 study found the pilot reduced travel times 8 percent.
  • On four Select Bus Service routes in New York City with all-door boarding and off-board fare payment, the time buses spend motionless to pick up and drop off passengers fell 40 to 50 percent. New York’s MTA found fare evasion was lower on SBS routes than regular routes.
Graph: NACTO

Part of the challenge for transit agencies is encouraging cashless transactions. Reloadable smart cards, contactless credit cards, mobile e-tickets, or paper tickets purchased off-board are all faster than fumbling with cash. Agencies need to upgrade fare collection technology to adopt these new media.

NACTO recommends continuing to allow cash payments at the front of the bus for poor and unbanked riders while introducing incentives for people to switch to cashless payment. Some systems provide free transfers to passengers who use smart cards, for instance, but not those who use cash. Agencies can also make smart cards more accessible by selling them at retail locations. Transport for London makes its Oyster cards available at 4,000 vendors around the city, NACTO reports.

Check the full white paper [PDF] for more tips.

  • shamelessly

    And for anyone else wondering how the B44 SBS managed at 7.5 min decrease in time stopped in traffic, the answer is bus-only lanes.

  • Kevin Love

    “transit agencies need to ensure that fare inspection is not discriminatory”

    In Europe and Canada a team of fare inspectors “blitz” a bus or tram. Nobody gets off without showing they paid. If 100% of the people get inspected it is hard to be discriminatory. Where the team goes is determined by their overall manager to ensure that all routes and districts are uniformly enforced. In other words, the rich people get enforced also.

  • bobfuss

    There aren’t enough Muni inspectors to “blitz” in that way, so enforcement inevitably has to be a little selective and capricious.

    And I doubt that “rich people” evade fares as much as some other demographics. So a conscious decision to check old rich white women just to appear politically correct will cost. If that cost is considered to be a fair price to pay, then OK. But let’s not kid ourselves that all demographic groups engage in fare evasion at the same rate. But of course SFMTA doesn’t keep records of culprits by age, gender, race etc.

    Interestingly, a report on Hoodline today tracks where SFMTA inspectors focus, and it’s not too far from their home office. And don’t go into the high crime areas at all. That indicates that if you evade fares far from downtown, it is very unlikely that you will be caught:

  • Larry Littlefield

    Streetsblog is calling for mass transit investment. Hate to be the skunk at the party, but perhaps what is going on might have something to do with DISINVESTMENT that Streetsblog called for seven years ago.

    The demand was that transit agencies be allowed to use federal money not to replace and rehabilitate their buses, but for operating costs instead. To keep fares down and limit service cuts as pension costs exploded. To some extent that demand was met.

    That’s a prescription for a downward spiral. Which makes me wonder how old is the average bus compared with 2008? How often does it break down? What is its appearance? Is service being cut due to a lack of vehicle availability?

    Young people flocked to transit. Generation Greed cashed in and slashed transit, treating younger generations like serfs. It appears some of them got the message.

    Like retroactively increasing or underfunding pensions, capital disinvestment and inadequate maintenance are a hidden debt. The kind of debt politicians like the best. With the service cuts and deterioration, riders who borrowed and bought cars are GONE. All door boarding won’t win them back, because if they’re paying for the car already, the marginal cost is vastly lower to drive.

    Think of this as the perfect Trump policy. We’ll borrow money and give people one-half of whatever their Social Security and Medicare would have cost RIGHT NOW, so they can spend it and help the economy (or rather temporarily pump up sales despite low wages and increase executive pay). (And then they get no Social Security and Medicare and die younger and in pain). Do you think people would go for it? They’ve gone for a lot of things like it. Using capital money for operating expenses was one of them.

  • Guy Ross

    Once again RichLL, your point is “it will never work because it doesn’t work perfectly currently, so why attempt to change and improve”. It is such a weak and pessemistic stance and point of argument.

    I used to engage you and all your incarnations until I realized you are just a vandal.

  • AMH

    Interesting, I wasn’t aware of that.

  • bolwerk

    One way it seems to be randomized in Germany is to just case a door as people leave.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Streetsblog was actually more equivocal than I remember.

    But anything like this drives my crazy. It’s like that Chicago Tollway plan, which basically allowed one administration to spend all the future tolls. It was greenwashed to the sort of people on this site as “congestion pricing” and to those on the right as “privatization,” but the real goal was cashing in the future by Generation Greed.

  • bolwerk

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but did operating assistance for transit ever happen? I’m thinking maybe as part of the stimulus there was some short-term operating assistance, but I honestly don’t remember.

  • bolwerk

    Actual studies show rich people are more prone to antisocial behavior than poor people. If you can discriminate based on socioeconomic status, they’re probably EXACTLY the people you should check.

    Again and again. Because they can most afford the fines!

  • Larry Littlefield

    Nor do I specifically, but I seem to recall there was some of it, with the biggest transit agencies not allowed to do so.

  • bobfuss

    So your argument is that a neighborhood like Presidio Heights is more dangerous and at risk than, say, Hunters Point?

  • bobfuss

    I never said it wouldn’t work. I said Muni doesn’t have the staff to achieve what was suggested, meaning that enforcement inevitably will be selective and restricted.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Muni is a mess, with high absenteeism, bad operations, and light rail that stops every block in West San Francisco, instead of having traffic lights that turn green to let the train through. But for a moment, keeping in mind that SF is the home of tech, imagine that wasn’t true.

    The light rail could have cameras that snapped pictures of those that did not pay. These could be matched against each other by facial recognition technology. Eventually, the inspectors would catch up with the serial miscreants, and assess a great big fine.

    Won’t happen there. Won’t happen here.

    But enforcement is selective, why not downtown? It’s where most people are going. At least they have to pay one way.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t see the word neighborhood in what I wrote.

  • david vartanoff

    Muni fare inspectors check for fares in the Market St Tunnel when it rains–easy way to stay dry. That said, in a recent thread, Muni claimed less than 10% fare evasion. As a fare payer, I’m willing to make that trade for slightly faster trips.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t know why we need to always go off the deep end about POP enforcement. You should need to capture enough people to make up the lost revenue from the evasion, and to keep the evasion rate low. You don’t care if some people get away.

  • bobfuss

    You made a statement about rich people behaving worse than poor people. A good way to test that theory would be to look at a very wealthy neighborhood and a very poor one, and expect to see the trend that you claim.

    Or is that not the kind of “real study” you had in mind?

  • AMH

    And then Chicago did the same thing with parking revenue…

  • Flakker

    More likely it has to do with transit agencies, with New York in the lead, doing jack squat to actually improve revenue-mile efficiency and treating transit like a “nice to have”. Millions of dollars worth of fuel and driver-hours is being squandered while slow buses wait at red lights and the passenger base that they have retained- disproportionately the old and disabled, are probably slower than average in getting on and off the buses. Ass-dragging pilot projects and idiotic local resistance to those, (cf: ‘The M60 is a “white” bus’) have been the response. Unsurprisingly the able-bodied public has abandoned these services where possible.

    Perhaps, despite the safeguards in the Carnahan bill, diverting federal funding to operating costs was a bad idea, but it was in response to a temporary budget emergency. The transit agencies are allowing the crisis cutback scenario to be the status quo and depriving themselves of farebox revenue.

  • These are very interesting posts. I have referenced both your recent blog posts
    IBPS Clerk Mains Result 2017

  • Aubrey

    It’s fine for fare evasion to be criminalized

  • bolwerk

    Make people unemployable because they didn’t pay a transit fare? Sounds very smart.

  • bolwerk

    That’s not even a study. It’s a completely incoherent idea.

  • Aubrey

    A) criminalize doesn’t mean felonize

    B) Don’t commit crime

  • bolwerk

    A) Criminalize means giving somebody a permanent conviction record. A misdemeanor is basically just as bad. Keep it as a civil matter, as it is in most first world countries with better transit services and less crime than we have.

    B) Your plan to make people unemployable over an unpaid fare can do nothing other than encourage crime. Why do you like crime so much?

  • Aubrey

    I would probably have a three strikes law. Civil, civil, criminal

    If people don’t want criminal records they shouldn’t commit crime

  • bobfuss

    OK, so when you said that rich people are more anti-social, that was an incoherent idea?

    Got it.

  • Ray

    Everybody is ignore that the best way to eliminate the time stopped at stops is to run smaller buses, and more frequent service. This way, buses wouldn’t even be stopping at every stop with huge backups of people trying to get on and off.

  • bolwerk

    No, that is a pretty well-established phenomenon. Trying to find ways to validate your stereotypes is incoherent.

  • bolwerk

    So punishing people over “crimes” (which aren’t even on the books yet) is so important that you want to waste public resources to do it?

    Evasion is great. You can fine the people who do it and pump the money back into the system. Enjoy it.

  • Aubrey

    It is a crime in most cities to evade fares

  • bobfuss

    Then you should have no difficulty in “well establishing it” then. Except all you do is keep restating your claim.

    Given how counter-intuitive it is, I’d like to see one of these alleged “studies”. You said there are many of them so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

  • cmu

    Just take say groups of 4 officials per bus and randomly select buses. What’s the issue with not enough staff? They must have at several dozen.

  • bolwerk

    You never asked me to establish it. I don’t know why using Google is so difficult for you, but here you go. It references a meta-analysis that looks at several different studies. And you can find much more than that.

    I don’t see what’s so counter-intuitive about it. Perhaps it’s self-reinforcing though. Maybe because people like you assume wealthy are more moral, the wealthy are capable of getting away with behaviors the poor are not?

  • bolwerk

    If that’s true, it’s an immense waste of public resources. But I don’t think it’s true. AFAIK, it’s usually a civil infraction.

  • bobfuss

    So if rich people behave worse than poor people, then why does crime correlate so impeccably with poor neighborhoods and cities?

  • bobfuss

    They have enough inspectors to do sporadic, selective stings, but not enough to police the entire system with any consistency or thoroughness

  • They ignore it because capital cost increase dramatically, as do operating costs without any improvement in system performance. WHEN and WHERE a bus stops are based on the randomness of passengers arriving at a stop, regardless of the size of the coach. Your assumption is that there is an even and steady flow of passengers arriving at each stop, as if that was automated. It is not. There may be one passenger, or 6 passengers. No way to regulate the size of passengers boarding.

    Even if there was a steady flow of passengers, your suggestion is merely a variation of multiple entry points.

    Your commentary misses the point that regardless of the size of the bus or the number of passengers attempting to board, the amount of time to board with off-board fare machines and without off-board fare machines varies, sufficiently, that when coupled with multiple entry points significantly drops route dwell times and thus system performance increases

  • bolwerk

    Does it?

  • bobfuss

    Take a look at the ten US cities with the highest crime rates in the US.

    I’m guessing that they don;t include Aspen or La Jolla.

  • Very well explained the details to till, I like it and also follow you for become a best blogger like you. Thank you very much dear for such a nice article. LeEco Le Pro 3 Elite

  • Actually, smaller buses don’t really save that much money, so there’s little reason to invest in a second fleet of them. Just buy more regular-sized buses and run them more frequently.

  • What does fare evasion have to do with how dangerous a neighborhood is?

  • bobfuss

    The claim was more general – that rich people behave worse than poor people. I’d expect that to be reflected in the crime stats, but of course it is no.

  • There’s so much wrong with the assumption here that I don’t even know where to begin. Just because an affluent neighborhood isn’t full of felons doesn’t mean that the residents are all saints and knowing what we know now about how the criminal justice system in this country works, the neighborhood crime stats are NOT a good indicator of the topic.

  • bobfuss

    I am inviting you to prove that poor people are more moral and less criminal, which was the original claim.

  • Best blog in my reading list……………

  • vl sai ujwala devisetty

    Great Website. Good to see this. So


The “Choice” vs. “Captive” Transit Rider Dichotomy Is All Wrong

The conventional wisdom about transit often divides riders into two neat categories: “choice” riders — higher-income people with cars — and “captive” riders — lower-income people who must use transit because they don’t own cars. But this framework can undermine good transit, according to a new report from TransitCenter [PDF]. In the attempt to cater only to “choice” riders or “captive” […]

A New Blueprint for Streets That Put Transit Front and Center

The National Association of City Transportation Officials has released a new design guide to help cities prioritize transit on their streets. How can cities integrate bus rapid transit with protected bike lanes? How can bus stops be improved and the boarding process sped up? How should traffic signals be optimized to prioritize buses? The Transit Street Design Guide goes into greater […]

11 Simple Ways to Speed Up Your City’s Buses

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 […]