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Talking Headways Podcast: The Sexy World of Bus Speeds

When you start to add up the numbers, you can see why agency leaders would be interesting in finding ways to reduce those costs.

Photos: Josh Katz

This week we’re at the Mpact conference in Phoenix with Tom Brennan, senior principal at Nelson Nygaard. Tom and I talk about the sexy world of bus speed and reliability, how agency can invest for effectiveness, and future proofing routes for the long term.

If you prefer to read, we have two options: an edited transcript below the player or our unedited, AI-generated transcript, which has some typos. Or you could just listen:

Jeff Wood: If an agency is at the very starting point of trying to speed up the bus, what gets them into thinking, ‘We need to do something to change the game’ because something’s not right? So how do they like start the process?

Tom Brennan: Part of it is really defining the problem and doing so clearly. So really helping transit agency leadership understand what the impacts of delay are and what solving the delay challenge can mean for transit agencies. So from an operations side, in agencies that haven’t historically been doing bus funeral reliability improvements, scheduling teams are continually challenged with understanding runtimes for their buses and then working to change schedules to manage those. And we see a lot of agencies experiencing significant year over year increases in bus travel time due to that.

And those have real and significant costs to them. So often, just quantifying the cost of bus delay to an agency is really important. We’ve done some of this work with Steven Newhouse and his team up at TransLink in Vancouver. They’re doing some great work on bus priority and really good work on quantifying that problem and building the case their leadership. So taking the pandemic year or two out, since 2014, we’ve seen consistently about a $2 million operating increase to operate the same level of service in the Vancouver metro area. If you look at that cumulatively over the last 10 years, that equates to about $155 million increase in operating costs just to operate the same level of service.

So when you start to add up those numbers, you can see why agency leaders would be interesting in finding ways to reduce those costs.

Jeff Wood: Is that congestion and the idea of future traffic, right? Because you know, the bus has a set schedule and it has a set route and then over time it just gets slowed and slowed and slowed as more and more cars are on the road or more and more other delays are there. I mean it could be online commerce, it could be like you said, collisions, it could be any number of things, but that idea of future traffic is really, I feel like an important point to all this.

Tom Brennan: Yeah, I mean, and to some degree not only are you solving immediate problems and making life better for customers who are using services currently, but to your point, you’re protecting against the future, right? Because if you don’t do anything, that reduction in travel time and commensurate cost is just gonna continue to go up at a fairly straight line. So if you think about kind of the ultimate in speed and reliability as a fully protected guideway, you’d have no net increase in cost from delay in that environment. So, really thinking as bus speed reliability as an incremental set of steps to not achieve that level of priority but to achieve some of the same benefits. The other thing about transit operations that I think is important to recognize is that the operating costs of a bus are somewhat lumpy.

Jeff Wood: Lumpy?

Tom Brennan: To have a route that operates every 15 minutes and takes 50 minutes for a bus to run, that would take roughly five buses. If you introduce just a small amount of additional delay to that route, your cost doesn’t go up incrementally, it goes up pretty substantially because adding up another bus to cover that route, to maintain that same level of headway is a full 20 percent additional cost even though your, you know, your increase in additional travel time might only be a couple percent. So a little bit of travel time benefit can go a really long way in terms of allowing schedulers to maintain headways with the same number of, of buses and operators.

Jeff Wood: I’m just thinking about how you sell this like politically from that perspective because it’s interesting to think about how much things cost, how much things might cost in the future, what are gonna be the capital costs that can be spent that can reduce those operating costs over time. It’s like very, it’s very juggly. Yeah. In that way it’s not lumpy like you mentioned, but it’s juggly, like you’re juggling a number of different things but you do have to make investments one way or another.

Tom Brennan: Reducing transit delay matters — and can be a really powerful tool when you think about it on a system-wide level — because you’re potentially impacting many, many riders with relatively small investments. So we’ve certainly seen cases where individual transit priority improvements that address a real gnarly delay problem in a system where you’ve got multiple buses going through a corridor serving multiple routes. If you can unlock one or two really critical intersections or you know, for example in Portland where they have been working on bus speed and reliability for a number of years with our team, the bridge heads crossing the Willamette River are critical points of delay.

Many buses coming into and out of downtown, across the Hawthorne Bridge, Burnside Bridge and those are also places where cyclists and traffic and trucks are all trying to cram through that funnel. So there are, there are points of, of really heightened delay. There’s also a tremendous amount of passengers coming in and out of downtown via those. So some of the pretty small bus priority projects that Portland DOT and TriMed have implemented in those locations have led to really significant improvements in overall passenger travel time reduction or travel time savings. And if you look at those, you know, quantify those benefits against whole bus rapid transit projects, you know, they can actually start to start to have some equivalent benefits just in terms of the amount of passenger travel time saves, but obviously they’re, you know, much smaller projects and, and projects that are much easier and and quicker to implement as well.

So you think about a system now and maybe you take those top 10 or 15 points of delay that are real bottlenecks not just for one route but for many routes. And you can, you can piece together a package of projects that are again, probably cheaper than a single arterial bus rapid transit corridor or have a really powerful impact in improving the transit system for, for many, many people.

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