One Neat Trick to Speed Up Bus Journeys

Photo: TransitCenter
Photo: TransitCenter

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Is your bus route maddeningly slow? On many routes, the problems is that there are just too many stops.

But transit agencies have a ready way to address this: it’s called bus stop balancing.

Buses spend about 20 percent of their time at stops. Transit agencies such as SFMTA in San Francisco and RIPTA in Rhode Island have used bus stop balancing — removing selected bus stops — to speed bus journeys by as much as 14 percent, according to a new report [PDF] from TransitCenter.

This method is inexpensive and could improve practically any fixed bus route. But it needs to be undertaken carefully, because it can be alarming for riders to have their regular bus stop moved, especially without proper warning and a clear explanation of the benefits.

For agencies that want to take this on — and more should — here’s what TransitCenter recommends:

#1. Have a strong public outreach plan

Eliminating a bus stop without doing a lot of leg work to inform riders can backfire tremendously. Riders revolted when the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority attempted to pare down the number of bus stops without enough advance notice.

The advance notice should be in the form of information placed at bus stops, and there should be ample surveys and focus groups. Outreach staff must be multi-lingual.

RIPTA was eventually able to proceed with bus stop balancing after “resetting” and doing a better job with initial outreach. The agency ultimately eliminated 34 percent of stops across its network.

#2. Be clear about the criteria for removal

That will make the public more accepting of the changes. TransitCenter recommends keeping bus stops:

  • That have high ridership
  • That are located at key transfer points
  • That are near senior centers and other places that serve older people
  • That have good pedestrian access (sidewalks, crosswalks)
  • That are wheelchair accessible
  • That have amenities like shelters and benches.
Image: TransitCenter
Image: TransitCenter

“Low ridership stops that are not accessible and lack amenities should be prime candidates for removal,” the organization said.

And there should be a public process to check the agency’s choices against riders’ opinions.

#3. Be ambitious about removal

Agencies should set targets for the number of stops they want to remove understanding that many initial selected for replacement will need to be reinstated due to public pressure.

#4. Involve bus drivers

Agencies must conduct an inventory of stops to determine which ones will be eliminated — and bus drivers know which stops are well used, especially for people with disabilities. Let the drivers help inform the decision.

When Dallas’s DART began the process to remove 16 percent of its stops on three routes, the agency had a workshop with 15 bus drivers.

#5. Commit to more amenities at remaining bus stops

Help win support for the changes by offering riders something in addition to time savings, like better facilities at the remaining stops.

“By combining bus stop balancing with investments in sidewalks, crosswalks, shelters, benches, and real-time arrival information, agencies can counter objections to the removal of some stops and give the campaign better odds of political success,” TransitCenter said.

13 thoughts on One Neat Trick to Speed Up Bus Journeys

  1. Bus stop removal is one of the more rider hostile ideas out there. If “nobody” uses them, then the bus never stops either to board or discharge a rider; but that is not typically the case. In my experience of public transit (age 75, non driver) there are riders using most stops at one time or another during service hours. There are cases of stops very closely spaced, which on paper may seem redundant, but in fact are not. Case in point; near my home the trunk line AC Transit #6 stops one short block apart, why? The southerly of the stops a “nearside”) is the closest access to a major medical center–hospital, multiple buildings full of doctor offices. One short block north is a crosstown bus route–it IS policy to have stops at transfer points. If the southerly stop were eliminated, many patients would have longer walking distance to their destinations. In fact (I ride this route almost daily) often riders do not get on/off at both stops, so stop removal is not really needed, yet these are typical “too closely spaced” stops on paper.

  2. Bus stop removal from a very different POV. If a long trunk route traverse dense shopping areas, and carries many parents w/toddlers in strollers, (SFMuni #14 and sibling routes, AC Transit @1) then stops very close together are useful for riders. These two routes illustrate two different agency approaches to the issue. SF Muni operates locals and a “Rapid” overlay on Mission (14, 49, 14R), whereas AC which had run 1 and 1R overlay,abolished the 1R but is spending major $$ (millions from FTA et al) to build a BRT replacement route. Unfortunately, their plan is for limited stops only with no underlying local. So much for using transit to shop.

  3. David – A stop that gets used once or twice a day is not a problem. As you allude, the bus simply passes the stop. The problem arises with stops which frequently have just one person getting on or off, requiring the bus to stop almost every time even though there other nearby stops.

    Consider a bus run where stops are spaced one block apart. Typlically there’s one person getting on and off at each stop, slowing the bus to a crawl. Now if every other stop were eliminated then the bus stops half as many times, creating a significant speed up. The downside is that riders who previously used the eliminated stops need to walk further. In this case they new walk an average of one block instead of previously a half block to their nearest stop. Seems like a good tradeoff.

  4. David – The point is that a stop used by one or two able bodied individuals once a trip that’s only a few hundred meters from another stop. That convenience of shortening one person’s trip by a few hundred meters slows down 50-60 other people’s trips. Making everyone’s trip slower discourages everyone from riding. More, it spreads bus stop investment over more bus stops. If you have 5 bus stops, maybe you cannot afford shelters at every one, but if you combine them into 3, maybe you can now.

    The criteria given help to show what type of stops can be removed.

  5. In big cities, the chance the cord will be pulled by somebody is much higher. In the suburbs where midday trips may have less than 7 people or so, the extra stops don’t really slow the bus and they keep access open to seniors, who comprise of a higher percentage midday when others are are school or work.

    For the MUNI 14 example, that sort of density can support a rapid variant, but stops were still removed on the 14/49, like the inbound 29th stop. That saves thousands of person minutes, and the walking environment is decent.

    Another MUNI example was the 38 Geary, where after a long process one stop was deleted, Mason. That happened to be my stop. I thought they should have removed on of the Union Sq stops on the L (R now) at least.

  6. As a retired bus service planner, I have mixed thoughts on this. One big concern is how far people are walking (in a basically perpendicular direction) to reach the stop.
    That is, the spacing of the stops (depending on block size and other issues) is not the only factor.

    Another factor often not considered is service frequency and whether buses can pass one another. On a high frequency route, buses can leap frog, reducing the impact of stopping at every stop. Of course, to do this, buses must have route (and branch) identifiers at the rear of the bus and a way for a bus operator to signal to a trailing bus that he can/cannot accommodate all people waiting at the stop.

  7. The problem is that some stops have both hwavy pickup and drop-off activity. The bus in front may be able to accommodate all the people at the stop but somebody may want/need to get off the bus in the back, causing it to stop anyway.

  8. Wanna speed up bus journeys, Use smaller buses. The average transit bus is 1/6th full to capacity on average, even during rush hour buses in many smaller cities barely fill up at all. Use smaller, cheaper, easier to maintain microbuses.

  9. AC Transit figures the driver (salary, health, pension) is 69% of the cost per hour of a bus on the street; thus the bus size is a very small component of the cost structure. In my experience of riding AC and Muni, very few buses fit your 1/6th figure; and I travel anywhere between 9AM and midnight so I see a wide sample.

  10. Sean, in the Muni 38 case, the reason to keep both stops bracketing Union Square is the principle of having a stop wherever there is a direct transfer available–30 Stockton at one end, Cable cars at the other.

  11. thielges and Daniel, let me be clear, I do not expect stops every block in cities where blocks are very short (Manhattan for ex. is 20 block to the mile N-S). There are cases where I have and will continue to lobby to remove or consolidate stops where there is no compelling reason for close spacing. However, what I often see in my local agencies is a rush to cut stops without sufficient attention to why they were located where they are, or how useful they are for riders.
    Example, the planner folks at AC axed a stop close to but not ON the UC Berkeley campus–the largest single rider generator in the entire agency. Instead the stop was moved to a block long set of stops for multiple routes. What’s not to like? The bus in question has to get through two separate traffic lights before reaching the new stop, whereas from the old stop, one could cross at the first light on foot and be on the campus before the bus could reach the new stop. So, for the uniformity of many routes discharging riders on the edge of campus, those on one of the routes are typically delayed an extra 2-3 minutes.

  12. David, you wrote: “Case in point; near my home the trunk line AC Transit #6 stops one short block apart, why? The southerly of the stops a “nearside”) is the closest access to a major medical center–hospital, multiple buildings full of doctor offices. One short block north is a crosstown bus route–it IS policy to have stops at transfer points.”

    According to the figure showing the Basics of Bus Stop Balancing, it looks like those two stops would be retained.

    I lived near a bus line that stopped literally every single block – some stops were ~400′ from the other. It was absurdly slow and inefficient. Thankfully Muni removed some of the stops and the line was improved (and some parking spaces re-established for the neighborhood).

  13. This works fine where you have good to great street connectivity. Not so well where you have bad connectivity and people have to walk further. This is made even worse when you don’t have sidewalks or crosswalks. People with mobility issues are the ones who will bear the brunt of the impacts.

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