07box: the new route problem

When the existing transit system doesn’t seem to be meeting the needs of your organization or interest group, it’s tempting to decide that you need a new route, or even a new network.  Service demands are often presented to transit agencies in the form of demands for a new route, and these are sometimes implemented even though they have a weakening effect on the whole transit network.  A good network is a set of services that are all designed to fit together and work together efficiently.  If you just add a route without rethinking the network, you’re almost always reducing the overall efficiency of the network — and thus its ability to get people where they’re going.

If you currently have little or no service, then of course you can demand new service.  But if you already have a transit network and just don’t find it useful for your needs, it’s important to ask whether an investment in that network would help fix the problem, rather than inventing a new service that will duplicate the existing one.

Requests for new duplicative routes often arise where transit service is already running, but:

  • the frequency or span of service is inadequate, or
  • the existing service is hard to figure out, or
  • the existing service doesn’t stop exactly where you want, or
  • the existing service is considered unacceptable in quality for a particular interest group’s needs, or
  • a connection (transfer) is required for the trip that you care about.

Let’s look at each one.  At the end of this article, I’ll also come back to some practical considerations.

Frequency or Span of Service is Inadequate 

If you want more frequency or span (duration) of service, the last thing you want is a new service running on top of an existing one.  Frequency and span are expensive because (except on driverless metros) the cost of driver labor grows directly as you increase either of them.  Running twice as often doubles your operating budget, and so does doubling the number of hours per week that you run.

Operating cost also doubles with the number of route-miles or route-km you have to operate, so fewer routes mean more frequency.  So don’t propose a new route.  Lobby for more frequency and span on the existing one.

The Existing Service is Hard to Figure Out

Some published transit maps showing the entire network are so confusing as to be useless.  Frequent Network mapping is one solution.  But just because you can’t figure out the service doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  Demand that your transit agency create clearer information that makes the usefuless of the service to your community more obvious.  (I can help them with that!)  If your need is for downtown circulation, be sure to study the option of branding existing services as downtown shuttles.  

The Existing Service Doesn’t Stop Exactly Where You Want

If you represent a senior or disabled community for whom walking is a hardship, you probably do need your own route or service, or to be served by existing services — such as paratransit — specialised around those needs.

But if you’re an institution or organization that wants transit to stop closer to your building, a new route is unlikely to be the best solution.  A convention center or university, for example, can ignore the surrounding bus network and create a bunch of its own shuttles, but a whole transit system devoted to one destination isn’t going to be as frequent as what you could have if you worked with the system that exists.  Advocate for stops closer to your location.   

Note, too, however, that if your destination requires a deviation — typically because it’s set back from major streets — then transit can only deviate to you by infuriating everyone else that’s riding at that point.  In that case, depending on how big a market you are, the deviation may well not be justified.  In those situations, don’t invent a large shuttle system that you can’t afford to run frequently.  Instead, offer a really frequent shuttle by running the shortest line possible: a link from your destination to the nearest transit station where versatile service is availble extending in many directions.

Existing Service Quality is Unacceptable

All kinds of emotions get expressed through comments about service quality.  In some cities, for example, everyone is so attached to the idea that buses are only for the poor that the very idea of using the same buses for more diverse markets sounds absurd.  And in such cities, the quality of the bus service may have deteriorated to the point that broadening their market is simply impractical.

On the other hand, many transit agencies are developing the ability to meet customers part way on quality.  Transit service will never be luxurious, but the look-and-feel improvements in the bus over the last 20 years have been truly transformational.  So before you insist that your city’s buses are useless, ride one of the newer ones.  

There are things that you as a civic advocate can do about bus quality to bring it closer to what your constituents need.  You could demand the abolition of bus wraps that cover windows and make interiors gloomy.  You could advocate for a focus on customer experience in purchasing.  Understand that these things cost money, but they may be good long term investments if your view about the inadequate quality of your buses is widely held.  But you’ll get a better mobility out of these improvements to the commons than out of advocating a separate service just for your needs.

Existing Service Requires a Connection (transfer)

Efficient, abundant transit networks often require connections, because you can’t run direct service from everywhere to everywhere else.  This issue is discussed in Chapter 12 of Human Transit, but for a simple case study underlining the futility of new routes designed to avoid connections, see here.

Plan for Versatility

A very frequent transit line — and one that can justify other improvements such as good amenities and transit lanes — is designed for versatility.  It does not serve any particular identified interest group, but instead aims to be useful to many kinds of people for many kinds of purposes.  It does this by running straight, with a reasonable spacing of stops to ensure speed.  It also does this by forming part of an interconnected network.  Remember, it’s not the route that’s designed, but the network.  A route may be designed as it is partly because of how it fits into the larger structure that enables people to get wherever they’re going, not just to destinations along one route.

So if your mission is to serve a whole city or region, designing a transit route around any self-identified group of people is usually a bad idea.  Most successful and attractive transit seeks maximum versatility, by serving the most diverse possible range of demographics, trip purposes, and origin-destination pairs.  You can make exceptions where a single demographic group produces sufficiently massive ridership, as in some commute markets.  But in general, the way people self-organize and self-identify politically is a bad guide to how to meet their transit needs efficiently.  Everyone can draw the perfect transit line just for their interest group, but such proposals tell you nothing about what a good transit system would look like — one that maximized everyone’s ability to get where they’re going.

This series of articles is closed to comments, but you can comment here.

Comments are closed.