Bus network redesigns are the hottest trend in public transit

It’s been just a handful of months since Edmonton announced it would be redesigning its entire bus network, but it’s far from the only city in recent history to undergo such a procedure. In the US, Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Baltimore and New York are all either beginning to, or already have, rethought much of their networks.

Each city has a unique reason for redesigning its network: in New York, it’s because buses travel at an appallingly slow 7.44 mph average (according to 2016 stats); Baltimore redesigned its network to be optimised for quicker, more frequent service; and in Miami, it’s because only one route, the 34, shows up every 10 minutes or less — and it only operates during peak hours.

The current hub-and-spoke model that many cities use is great for smaller cities, but in larger ones, it’s a nuisance to people who are trying to travel crosstown. Many systems are formed of routes that travel into the downtown core — a clear lack of frequent suburb-to-suburb routes is one key reason for redesigning.

With ridership slumps becoming the new normal, cities are becoming more creative and efficient with their limited resources. Buses carried 5.61 billion people in 1990, but carried only 4.67 billion people in 2018 — a decline of nearly a billion people.

Bus ridership throughout the US in billions

Bus ridership is down, but LRT, subway and commuter rail is up

But the good news is that although ridership on buses is decreasing, ridership on LRT, subway systems and commuter rail is on the up, aided by numerous extensions and openings of new systems in recent history:

  • Between 1990 and 2018, heavy rail ridership is up by 1.42 billion rides, owing to the opening of new lines such as the Second Ave. line in New York, Washington’s Green and Silver lines and the Orange and Pink lines in Chicago

  • Light rail ridership has increased more than 300 percent from 162.13 million rides in 1990 to 526.1 million in 2018, likely due to the opening of the Dallas, Los Angeles, Denver and Baltimore LRT systems in the 90s, alongside construction of the T Third Street line in San Francisco

  • Commuter rail ridership was pegged at 499.1 million in 2018, up from 330.7 million in 1990, during which time the Metrolink and Sounder commuter rail systems opened, serving southern California and the Seattle region, respectively

There are a few different reasons why the drop in bus ridership could be happening, but most signs point to a rise in vehicle ownership, alongside a stigmatisation of riding the bus — something that isn’t helped by articles like one on Thought Catalogue that maliciously and baselessly claim that one in 40 bus riders are robbers. Demographics in cities are also changing — people aren’t necessarily looking to live in the busy downtown core — leading to denser suburban neighborhoods that lack good transit links. People also don’t always prefer to take the bus or subway, sometimes opting to grab an Uber or taxi, which can be quicker and allow for more “me” time.

Previous bus routing in Kailua, Hawaii, with the routes following more roads but arriving less frequently. 📸:  TheBus

Previous bus routing in Kailua, Hawaii, with the routes following more roads but arriving less frequently. 📸: TheBus

New routing, featuring higher headways and more service on main roads. 📸:  TheBus

New routing, featuring higher headways and more service on main roads. 📸: TheBus

Ridership is down, but service levels are down too

A 2018 study from researchers at McGill University found that, while the amount of rail service in North American cities increased between 2002-2007 and from 2011-2015, rail service increased. But at the same time bus service declined by approximately 14 percent, showing that transit agencies themselves might also be partly to blame.

There’s a lot of pressure on transit agencies to become more innovative and find ways to add a new level of convenience to the ride — more direct and frequent routes (known as “turn up and go” service), minimal traffic interference, real-time countdown displays and smartcard payments have become standard features of many bus networks throughout both the US and Canada. The CTA in Chicago accepts contactless cards, New York is adding this with its new OMNY system and the Société de transport de Laval is trialling card payments on 12 of its routes. With the rise of apps like Transit and Moovit, plus real-time displays becoming a more common sight, riders now are able to tell how long until the next bus, whether it be coming in 2 minutes or 20.

These technological improvements are just as important as increasing frequency and transforming routes from slow, meandering ones into quick and efficient trips. Bus stop balancing, a term that essentially means to reduce the number of un- or underused stops, has already been employed on Staten Island, NY, and is being considered in smaller cities like Sudbury in northern Ontario. A 2015 study found that of the 8,500 bus stops in Montreal, QC, 2,000 could be removed without significantly impacting riders — adding only an average of 26 seconds to the time it takes to walk to a stop:

Nearly 2000 stops were identified as candidates for removal, representing almost a quarter of all stops in the system. The runtime savings that would result from removing these stops could save as much as 109 hours of operating time during the morning peaks, and as many as 75 bus routes could operate at existing frequencies with one less bus. The routes that benefit the most from bus-stop consolidation tend to be those with the shortest headways, as they require lower running-time savings in order to save a bus.

Network redesigns aren’t as simple as one might think — there’s naturally a lot of different considerations that go into completely overhauling a bus network. But the bright side is that once it’s complete, you might be able to get to where you’re going a bit faster.

📸: Wikimedia 📈: American Public Transportation Association