America’s Bus Stops Are Too Close Together

When bus stops are too close together, trips are slower and it's harder to create good waiting environments.
When bus stops are too close together, trips are slower and it's harder to create good waiting environments.

Bus ridership is falling in American cities, and the only way to turn around the trend is to provide better service. Here’s one thing nearly every U.S. transit agency should consider to win back riders: “Bus stop balancing,” which TransitCenter explains in a new video.

In most cities, bus stops are spaced too closely together. On a local bus route, stops should be within a convenient walking distance of each other — about a quarter mile. If stops are spaced much more tightly than that, buses spend an excessive amount of time stopped for boarding and at red lights.

The TransitCenter video focuses on New York, where guidelines call for stops to be spaced just 750 feet apart, but the same principles apply in just about every American city:

Transit agencies in San Francisco and Maryland are consolidating bus stops to improve service, TransitCenter reports. A Portland study found bus stop consolidation improved bus speeds 6 percent.

It can be politically difficult for agencies to remove bus stops, since every stop has its constituency. But transit agencies can prioritize which stops should stay. TransitCenter recommends preserving high ridership stops, stops with important connections to other transit lines, and stops near schools, medical centers, or other important destinations.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Skip-stop is an abomination. It hurts frequency, makes it harder to get to local stops, etc.

  • Newtonmarunner

    I like this article, though I’d argue more like (European cities) the lesser of 0.5 mi. and the next rail stop/popular destination — rather than 0.25 mi. per stop is the appropriate bus distance spacing. We have that problem here in Boston. No need for there, for example, to be more than one stop in between Harvard and Central Sq. — which are ~ 1 mi. apart — on the Mass. Ave. (#1 bus). This would make the buses go faster, and last longer.

    Boston also has problems with trolley spacing, too. See Line, Green — particularly Branches — B, C, and E. No need, for example, to have more than one stop between Coolidge Corner and Washington Sq. on the C Line (which are 0.75 mi. apart).

  • Derrick L

    On frequent service routes like the one I use in Chicago, I lost my stop in a ‘rebalancing’ brought on by an express overlay. ( the local bus still stops). The bus may move faster but my commute is longer because I have to walk further to the next stop. It’s all about trip time. My trip time is now longer.

  • Michael

    Great stats. One effect on the 30/gold in mke is that riders (anecdotal observation) end up boarding at gold stops since it gives the option of both routes. There’s a similar 15/green configuration on the south side… I walk two blocks out if the way to use the stop that gets service on both.

    I agree that there’s no perceptible speed difference between the high and low frequency stop routes. E.g. No one is waiting for the gold if a 30 comes first.

  • Michael

    The whole concept of bus stops in the US is nonsense. We extrapolated streetcar models without any consideration of the technological differences. Buses have terrible acceleration characteristics, lousy boarding demensions, etc. But they are flexible, can hit speeds in excess of 100 km/h. In systems that are emergent (i.e. created by the market not a gvmt agency) buses do very few stops then direct to destination often on highways.

    Santiago Chile had a private bus system until 2006, when it was nationalized in a bit of a boondoggle. Most routes were short neighborhood loops with a direct connection to a 1-2 destinations. Even in the us, interurban systems like megabus have figure out 1-2 pick ups/1-2 drop offs with a direct connection is the way to go.

  • david vartanoff

    Your schema ignores when an able bodied person chooses to travel w/a wheelchair user. (and I can say that experiences of my friends who do use the “ADA vans” have been very negative).
    One of the basic drives of ADA mandated accommodation is integrating the users, not relegating the disabled or very elderly to specialty services if they can use standard transit services.

  • AJ

    Which speaks to the argument that fewer stops affords more opportunity to invest in capital improvements like bus shelters and realtime displays. I am all for steering people toward certain stops using limited stop options, but not at the expense of lost ridership from the elderly or disabled.

    The right way to do it, in my opinion, is the way Milwaukee and Denver have done it. Keep the Local, frequent stop service with deviations on the route as an alternate pattern and overlay the direct, limited stop service on top. Simply removing stops under the guise of speeding up service will only lead to a decrease in ridership proportionally related to the percentage loss in access points.

  • AJ

    Haha. Yeah, when I worked at Cincinnati Metro I tried combining two stops that were 300 feet apart. They were on the same block and people usually stood somewhere between the two stops anyway. But of course, the seniors at a nearby complex complained about the extra 150 feet and both stops are still there today. It was an absurd little affair.

  • Michael

    It’s complicated. There’s two types of bus corridors – those that replaced streetcar and everything else – thus we should have two types of bus systems/strategies.

    The old streetcar routes developed over 70+ years during which the trolley companies and local developers/residents were reacting to each other in a real market. This generations long feedback loop meant that these corridors got optimized, especially the ones that lingered through the depression and into the automobile era. The strategy of using buses as streetcar-replacement here makes total sense, plus providing some dedicated right of way through congested areas.

    Outside of these legacy streetcar corridors, I don’t think the replacement streetcar strategy has made any sense. Most of these 1960-to-current transit agency-invented routes are teeth-clenching 8 mile/90 minute daily agonies.

    Where the use of buses have been allowed to be optimized (see: Latin America) but also at our airports: shuttles go from the terminal express to 1-3 hotels and our private inter-urban bus system that does a stop downtown, maybe one of the periphery, then direct to the destination, it’s all about direct connections using fastest available routes. Given buses technological advantages (high top speeds, access to highways, ability to change routes based on road conditions) & disadvantages (slow acceleration & boarding), this is the optimized design.

    For Milwaukee, in practice: we’d maintain streetcar-replacement style service on legacy corridors, but remove all other routes and replace with a system that’s running a fleet of shuttles from a single location downtown (maybe the central library or city hall) to the center of each neighborhood. The shuttles would leave at the earlier of a scheduled time or when filled. In a city the size of Milwaukee, 2 shuttles on each route could provide every 7-15 minute direct service depending on the neighborhood. This concentration of transit activity downtown would mix well with existing interurban service & support destination-specific service (i.e. airport, IKEA on Saturdays, or the beach during the summer…) In the absence of a transit agency, this is the type of service that emerges organically using buses.

  • laldm109

    The first sentence of this article is a fallacy: “Bus ridership is falling in American cities, and the only way to turn around the trend is to provide better service.” It’s true that bus ridership is falling, but that’s because gas prices are low right now. Demand goes up and down with peoples’ personal finances and circumstances…it’s just part of life. The way to solve the problem isn’t necessarily to reinvent the wheel. Many bus routes (especially those in many major cities) directly replaced streetcar lines that ran on the same routes for 100 years before that. My point is…the routes work. That isn’t to say refinement shouldn’t happen, but at least on routes like that, major changes due to a momentary blip in ridership is a bad idea.

    The bus route I live on, the #3 Grant that runs through the very dense West Side of Buffalo, is one of those busy old routes that replaced a streetcar line in 1950. It has stops every block, not even every other block as this article derides. Yet, though I am an able-bodied person, I’ll admit that on a cold and snowy day, I am thankful for that stop spacing to get where I need to go without a ton of walking. In the north it’s snow, in the south it’s heat…my point is that part of the reason you pay to ride the bus is often to minimize walking as much as possible.

  • rationalplan

    Here in the UK all the supermarket chains have been running internet delivery service for years. Some people do all the shopping this way, while others restrict it to bulky and dry goods and use public transprt to get meat/bread etc. Of course many old people go out shopping as it’s a way to talk to people and not be lonely i their own home.

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