5 ways transit agencies are working to speed up buses

It’s no secret that transit ridership has dropped significantly in most cities within the last couple decades, sparking alarm for transit agencies and city leaders. That doesn’t mean transit agencies aren’t able to increase their ridership — Seattle and Vancouver are good examples of increasing ridership through proper investment and planning.

The appeal of public transportation has dwindled with the popularity rise of the car, but many agencies have failed to innovate and revamp themselves. A big trend is redesigning transit networks in their entirety, but that’s not necessary in a lot of cases — there are many smaller steps that agencies can take to improve their systems and build ridership back up.

Make it easy and quick to pay

A few different transit agencies, like York Region Transit’s Viva routes and the NYC MTA’s Select Bus Service, employ off-board fare collection on some routes — a method that makes it faster for passengers to board buses (and therefore, complete their routes). Both YRT and the MTA employ off-board fare collection with no option to pay onboard, meaning it’s required to tap or swipe to pay before boarding.

OMNY readers in a New York subway station, allowing riders to pay by tapping their credit or debit card. 📸:  Flickr

OMNY readers in a New York subway station, allowing riders to pay by tapping their credit or debit card. 📸: Flickr

The other and more widespread way that payments can be sped up is with the introduction of smart card or contactless payments (ie. transit agency’s own payment cards like OMNI in NYC or PRESTO in Toronto, or payment via credit and debit card). Letting people simply tap a pre-loaded card instead of paying with cash can speed up boarding significantly, especially in places such as rural England where bus drivers also make change for bus fares.

Prioritise transit over other vehicles

There’s a direct correlation between the speed and frequency of buses — when buses speed up, they’re able to complete more trips in the same amount of time.

This is something New York is experiencing with the opening of the 14th Street busway — a pilot program allowing only buses and trucks to make trips between Ninth and Third Ave between 6 am and 10 pm. The M14A/D+ Select Bus Service travels along this corridor, taking an average of 40 minutes per trip. But, according to The Washington Post, the speed improvement is so high that buses often need to slow down, just to keep up with schedules.

A double bus lane on 5th Ave. at 60th Street in New York. 📸:  Wikimedia

A double bus lane on 5th Ave. at 60th Street in New York. 📸: Wikimedia

Something like this is likely to happen in any city that installs bus priority measures, like bus lanes or transponders at traffic lights. Speedier journeys result in the possibility for either more trips per hour to be made, or for less buses to run with the same level of service.

Adjust schedules to be more accurate

Smaller cities and towns run on timetables because the headway between buses might only be 20 or 30 minutes, but in bigger cities, it’s easier and smarter to run on headway schedules. This means that, instead of publishing a schedule showing buses arriving at 10:00, 10:15, 10:30 and 10:45, they’re shown running every “15 minutes or less” — improving the on-time performance of the vehicles (because early buses don’t have to wait to catch up with the schedule) and showcase the frequent service being offered.

Headway-based schedules are especially great in cities with infrastructure in place to speed up buses. But, it’s important for the schedules to be changed when this infrastructure is built so that they remain accurate.

Turn overlapping routes into high-frequency ones

Lots of transit agencies use something called “branching” to make routes more effective and to offer a higher number of one-seat rides. Take the 96 from York Mills as an example — there’s the 96A and 96D, both which take John Garland and Kipling, or the 96B via Martin Grove. These routes all retain the same “stem” while branching off slightly to offer more coverage in areas where as frequent service isn’t as needed.

A 99 B-Line rapid bus in Vancouver. 📸:  Wikimedia

A 99 B-Line rapid bus in Vancouver. 📸: Wikimedia

But a lot of places have a habit of running slightly different routes across the majority of the same roads, resulting in a myriad of confusion for riders trying to figure out which bus to take:

People often don’t like to transfer between buses, but as Jarrett Walker from Human Transit explains, riders are usually willing to make the trade-off if it means their trip time will be shorter. With the opening of the new Confederation Line LRT in Ottawa, the city built a high-frequency light rail line in place of hundreds of buses travelling along the same stretch of road.

Balance, or reduce, stops that are too close

In a lot of cities, bus stops are usually located close together — generally every block, with some exceptions. But according to TransitCenter, buses spend upwards of 20 percent of their time at stops, resulting in longer travel times than necessary.

A bus and bus shelter along the Transit Mall in downtown Portland. 📸:  Wikimedia

A bus and bus shelter along the Transit Mall in downtown Portland. 📸: Wikimedia

The issue with this is that by removing stops, transit agencies are requiring some riders to walk longer. A McGill University study highlights the issues with deciding where to place bus stops: the general rule is every 400 metres or two blocks, but it really depends on the environment, mode of transportation and social factors. You will, for instance, receive more pushback when trying to remove a lightly-used bus stop from in front of a senior’s home than you might elsewhere.