san franciso: all-door boarding on buses!

In San Francisco passengers will be able to board through any door of any city bus, as they have long been able to do on light rail and streetcars.  Nate Berg has a nice piece on this at Atlantic Cities

This could be a very big deal.

San francisco bus boardingNo more of the silliness pictured at right, where passengers who could all board the bus in 10 seconds instead spend a minute or two outside in the rain.  No more tired exhortations to "move to the back of the bus!" because people will naturally distribute themselves evenly throughout.  No more delays due to fare payment problems and disputes.  Fewer angry and threatening signs, like the "stop" sign on the back door in this image.

Obviously this change requires Proof of Payment (POP) fare collection, which has been routine on most North American light rail and commuter rail for a generation (though it arrived in San Francisco relatively recently.)  POP means that you're responsible for having a ticket, pass, transfer slip, etc., called a "proof of payment", and a roving fare inspector can ask you to show it at any time and nail you with a big fine if you don't have it. 

If you want to dig down into why so some people hate the bus-riding experience, well, the congestion and delay of front-door fare payment has to be a big factor.  It is a major reason why buses are so slow and unreliable. It also produces inefficiency, hassle, and discomfort that everyone can see: the huge lines to board at the front, the crowding in the front of the bus while there is space of the back.  The whole experience is both unpleasant and an objective cause of delay.

There's also a subtle emotional thing here:  We're required to have a brief interaction with a (quite properly) impatient driver, which can give a subconscious feeling that we're being judged or dismissed. With all-door boarding, we feel free to move through the system by paths that feel direct to us, and we're much less likely to be waiting in line.  If an observer chose to interpret my dislike of this experience as a stigma, front-door boarding might turn out to be part of why some people think there's a  cultural stigma about riding the bus.

Front-door boarding is one of those indignities that people associate with buses but that is not an intrinsic feature of them.  The idea that POP could be done on rail but not buses is just a North American (and Australasian) industry habit.  It makes sense where loads are low, because front-door boarding doesn't involve much delay in that case, but it's never made sense at higher levels of crowding that are now routine in our transit-starved cities.  Sure you need to have an expensive fare collection crew, but you are also saving so much running time, getting people where they're going faster, and so dramatically improving the sensation of civility and freedom in bus riding, that it's definitely worth it. 

You do have to get over a hump.  Many people are very upset about fare evasion, and the public usually thinks that it's a bigger problem than it is.  With all-door boarding, you as a passenger can't tell whether others have paid their fares, and when you see a guy who looks shady to you (whatever that means to you in terms of race, class, dress or behavior cues) jumping on the back, you'll now have to assume that he's paid his fare.  It's up to a fare inspector, not you, to verify that.  The reality is that the cost of bringing fare evasion down from, say, 5% to 1% costs vastly more than the fares you'd collect, because you have to hire vast hordes of inspectors to catch those last few hardest-core offenders.  We're better of tolerating a somewhat higher fare evasion so we can spend our money on service.

So all-door boarding on buses is hard to get to, and you tend to do it when, as in San Francisco, the overcrowding and slowness of buses is perceived as real crisis. (That means two things: overcrowding and slowness are severe and lots of citizens and elected leaders are demanding a solution.)

Don't expect every transit agency to follow San Francisco's lead at once, because there's a startup cost and risk that's hard to face in the middle of a recession, not to mention the whole public education struggle about tolerable levels of fare evasion.  But I expect this to spread rapidly in the major metros if San Francisco MTA has the fortitude to keep it going.  (I suspect all-door boarding is actually irreversable in San Francisco, because all-door boarding will create more capacity that will be instantly used, to the point that going back would require adding more service that MTA can't afford.)

And once it does, the experience of riding buses will a bit more like riding rail, in a way that matters to almost everyone.  Greater speed and reliability.  Less waiting in line.  Less crush-loading  The freedom to board where you want.  Who doesn't value those things?

Photo: Tom Prete.

40 Responses to san franciso: all-door boarding on buses!

  1. Jonathan July 13, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I may be having a brain moment, but I’m recalling that this was tried in… New York(?)… and that the roving teams of inspectors interacted poorly with the regulatory framework governing motor vehicles – specifically that it wasn’t possible for them to move around on moving buses, so the fare inspections became random disruptions to service on the vehicle level, and Checkpoint Charliesque inspections on the visceral level.
    Did that actually happen? And do you know if this was addressed for the SF system?

  2. Jarrett at July 13, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    It's New York that's crazy about this.  I haven't seen this problem in any other city.  Fare inspection is routinely done while the vehicle is moving.  Admittedly it's a little harder on local stop buses because there are more opportunities for an evader to escape.  But again, it's a question of cost vs tolerable fare evasion.  Holding the bus during inspections defeats the whole purpose. 

  3. Jon July 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    An excellent post, apart from the misspelling in the title 🙂

  4. Andre Lot July 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    I think there are two additional factors to consider when it comes to POP on buses:
    1. The likelihood of being checked on a single trip is far lower than in a light-rail or (let alone, if it were the case) Amtrak trip.
    2. A crowded bus offers less opportunities for a squad of inspectors to mover through. They would need to block the doors as well while “grinding” through the bus. The average interval between bus stops are usually much lower than those of light rail.
    Although I perfectly understand the cost-to-avoid-fare-evasion reasoning (which is also applied by business like newspaper dispensers, unmanned gas stations etc.), I think that the public has more strong feelings against fare evasion on moral grounds.
    I think confrontation with fare evaders is the number one cause of aggravation on buses where POP is the norm. There is only so much inspection before someone calls “profiling” when fare inspectors start going more often to lines and areas where evasion is known to be greater.

  5. Electricyvr July 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    It’s interesting that on recent trips to Germany (one of the “homes” of PoP, it being pretty much universal on light rail and metros there) the use of PoP on buses seems to be in decline. Several systems I saw operate buses with PoP only until 8 p.m., then front-door boarding only thereafter. Stuttgart appeared to have recently removed PoP on buses altogether.
    One major difference with North America is that most transit lines in Germany that have the demand to support rail have rail, unlike in North America where there are some very heavy bus routes that are operationally compromised by front-door fare collection. In Vancouver we have all door boarding on the ~55,000 rider/day 99 B-Line for this very reason.
    Another benefit of PoP is that entrusts fare enforcement with revenue protection/security staff who are better able to provide effective enforcement than the driver.

  6. Horacio Hernandez July 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Correction, all door boarding is now legal, well for some anyway.

  7. Jarrett at July 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Horacio. Not sure what you mean.

  8. Morgan Wick July 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    There are a lot more bus stops that need to be outfitted with POP machines compared to rail as well.

  9. Tim Gould (Brisbane) July 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    In Brisbane we have prepay only routes that still, as far as I know, demand boarding from the front. Only one route (the CityGlider) has all door boarding. It’s very frustrating at times.

  10. NCarlson July 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    The other question is how well the operators will actually cooperate with this. In Toronto we’ve got PoP on two streetcar lines, with front door boarding on all other routes, and there is a reasonable number (I’m not on these routes often enough to really say HOW often, but it definitely happens with some regularity) of operators who just refuse to open rear doors. That said, I suspect the problem is aggravated by the fact it is only on a couple of routes, and we are getting new vehicles in the next three or four years that are going to force a switch to full PoP on the streetcars.
    I suppose the larger question is whether other cities have the same problems with operators we do? I can recall a number of incidents of operators assaulting passengers, and even one where the union had a route significantly altered (to not use a highway they deemed unsafe) without the knowledge, let alone permission, of management.

  11. Daniel Howard July 13, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    When I lived in San Francisco, rush hour buses were so crowded that people would just board from the rear anyway. A nice thing about San Francisco is a monthly pass is so affordable that so many people just have one.
    As for fare evaders, they tended to be kids trying to save a little reduced-fare pocket change. They could use a good confrontation with authority to help them towards maturity but the money in question wasn’t a whole lot.
    Down here in Mountain View, the wife rarely rides the bus, and last time she did she says the driver yelled at her for boarding at the rear and then walking to the front to tag her Clipper card. An angry driver is an excellent argument for all-door boarding.

  12. Rob Fellows July 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Meanwhile, here in Seattle we will eliminate all-door loading on buses in the downtown area for all routes other than the new RapidRide BRT-branded services when the ride free area is eliminated in September. This is to fix the current inconsistency of needing to pay on entry inbound, and on exit outbound for routes that pass through the downtown.
    On buses through-routed through the downtown area, this could work well — but only if transit agencies here can retrain riders to always exit using the rear door (something that many Metro drivers don’t allow at all during the evening hours today). But on all other routes we’ll have a live experiment on what happens when you remove all-door loading people are used to and replace it with front-door loading downtown. For all the reasons you mention, I’m not looking forward to it – but time will tell how well it works. I just hope someone will be doing a proper before-and-after study to see what the real operational impacts and rider responses will be.

  13. July 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Portland tried this some time in the late 70’s or early 80’s. It is cited in Gray and Hoel, which went into detail as to why this didn’t work well (lack of fare inspectors and no risk of getting caught, especially on the outer ends). In San Francisco this is less an issue but there are still routes at the outer edges of the system which are desolate. I would prefer for the policy to be implemented throughout, but for operator discretion to be used.

  14. Matthew July 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    Meanwhile, Boston regresses and institutes a front door-only exit policy on all surface trolley stops. Even when the vehicle is crush loaded, which is often. It’s getting pretty hectic as people push up and back.

  15. Dexter Wong July 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

    Muni has created a series of quirky videos that explain how all-door boarding works. Look on YouTube for “Professor Muni explains All-Door Boarding.”

  16. Mario Tanev July 13, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    The San Francisco Transit Riders Union successfully pushed for this policy ( The biggest struggle right now is getting compliance, both from drivers and riders. A lot of drivers still shut the doors in front of riders and thus riders are timid in trying to board through the back doors. It works fairly well on the Geary, Mission/Van Ness and Stockton lines, but it doesn’t work so well on the other lines yet. That’s why we’re pursuing an educational campaign (
    The other piece of the puzzle is fare inspection. Muni will have to work hard to build trust with the riding public, after decades of very inconsistent fare inspection.
    We were lucky to meet with you (Jarrett) about a year ago when you visited San Francisco and we’re glad you are supportive of this campaign. We’re cautiously optimistic about it – we know it wasn’t that successful in Portland when TriMet tried it in the 80s but it was successful in Vancouver and we think the ridership and boardings per hour in San Francisco make it the best candidate for this policy in the US.

  17. Daniel Sparing July 14, 2012 at 2:52 am #

    If you want to make the POP (also called the Honor system) work, you’ll also have to make sure that the inspectors have some authority, e.g. the police helping them or themselves being in a similar legal category. The situation improved substantially in Budapest when certain types of police officers started to accompany inspectors, as one cannot refuse to hand over their ID to an official authority.
    Otherwise, theoretically, you can do the inspections as rarely as you want, as long as the fine is high enough to make fare evasion not worth it.
    Useless trivia: In some Amsterdam trams, one-way doors are used and you need to pass by the driver, or the conductor, at boarding.

  18. Chris July 14, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    How is bus overloading prevented?
    With front door only the driver can turn away passengers once the bus reaches its load limit.

  19. Tom July 14, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    In Rome where I live honor system riding with an occasional ticket check has been the case forever and with a little more frequent controls it might work fine. However, passengers are still required to board through front or back doors and exit through the center ones. This dramatically improves traffic flow as riders gradual work their way toward the exit, but is loosely enforced so that if I’m only going one or two stops I might hop on the exit door ready to jump back off.

  20. JayinPhiladelphia July 14, 2012 at 7:46 am #

    PoP would be great on SEPTA’s 15 Trolley (Philadelphia), I think to myself, every time we sit under the Girard El (and to a lesser extent, at Broad Street for the subway connection) for three or four minutes each morning, as dozens of people slowly board through (only one of) the front door(s). I love the thing, but come on. As if it isn’t slow enough already…
    Not buses, but PoP-related: since I moved back East from Portland, where I spent most of the last decade, I’ve noticed that NJTransit has significantly stepped up inspections on RiverLINE light rail. Back when it first opened and when I lived in NJ, I used to take it from Trenton to Camden quite often and I’d say I only encountered fare inspectors on maybe one of every ten trips. Now from Philadelphia, I still ride RiverLINE often on the way to visit family up in North Jersey, and I’ve come across inspectors on every single one of the twelve or so trips I’ve since taken. The first ten or so were pairs of uniformed NJTransit police officers, although the last couple pairs were identified by their uniforms as (non law-enforcement) NJTransit fare inspectors. Wonder if they’ve changed a policy or something on that?

  21. Jarrett at July 14, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Daniel Sparing.  It's increasingly common in the US for fare inspectors to be uniformed law enforcement.

  22. Jarrett at July 14, 2012 at 8:47 am #

    Chris.  Overloading on buses is prevented just the way it is on elevators/lifts.  When it's too full, people stop getting on.  One hopes, too, that the transit agency records that incident (some require drivers to push a button to record these "pass-ups") so that they have the data to justify adding more service.  Jarrett

  23. Horacio Hernandez July 14, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    @ Jarrett
    I’m sorry I could not respond sooner, but as Daniel Howard has already stated, most riders of MUNI board through the back anyway. In fact, when I last visited in 2010, I found it often a requirement to enter through the rear doors “illegally” to secure a space to ride. While most riders do have passes, some will still farebeat regardless.

  24. Henry July 14, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    About New York, the media have a sort of fixation on fare-beating (every few months a new article will come out on massive fare evasion on buses).
    The problem with POP in New York as its done now is the paper tickets and their machines. Machines on the SBS routes are often reported as broken, so they can’t print out the paper slips anyways. Expanding the use of these machines to the majority of the bus stops in the five boroughs would probably be a logistical nightmare. I imagine the ideal situation would be a farebox at the other entrances of the bus.
    Buses in New York can also be ridiculously crowded – on my bus route, people are packed in very tightly, sometimes in front of the white line that federal law prohibits passengers from standing in front of. I can’t imagine how a fare inspector would go through that kind of crowding on a bus that’s traveling 20+ mph on potholed city streets.

  25. qqq July 14, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    “So all-door boarding on buses is hard to get to, and you tend to do it when, as in San Francisco, the overcrowding and slowness of buses is perceived as real crisis.”
    Unfortunately, in most cities in North America, anything having to do with the bus system is, by definition, never a real crisis, no matter how bad it gets – after all, if you don’t like it, you can always drive instead.

  26. Dexter Wong July 15, 2012 at 12:42 am #

    qqq: Is it still taboo not to have a driver’s license? 🙂

  27. Max Wyss July 15, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    In order to make POP fully efficient, it may be necessary to use suitable buses. That means that a standard bus has three doors, where at least two of them are double wide. If tickets are still sold by the driver, it would be the front and middle door, where the left wing of the front door opens the path passing the driver. It may also be possible to lock the left wing of the front door when there are no sales by the driver.
    In addition to that, the doors should be automatic, and openable on demand. Such equipment is standard with German buses (Mercedes Benz or MAN, as well as with other manufacturers (Renault, IRISbus, vanHool, Solaris, etc.).
    So, switching to POP may be well coordinated with a fleet replacement. In fact, this could be a great opportunity to improve the image of the bus… new vehicles, new operating patterns, maybe even new uniorms for the drivers and the inspectors…
    In earlier posts, the inspections are mentioned. My former hometown, Zürich, has the “normal” inspection, where a team of 2 works the bus between one or two stops, and then they have the “big” inspections where four to six inspectors plus a team of police officers inspect the immobilized bus (and they say that they also inspect the driver…). But those inspections are not very frequent.

  28. Paul C July 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    As was mentioned above Vancouver has had all door boarding on the 99 for quite some time. Although I know Jarrett was aware of that as well. I know a lot of other routes in Vancouver could easily have all door boarding.
    One thing that will help and probably make it more likely that all door boarding would be put in place in Vancouver. Would be when the smart cards come out. That way passengers would be able to tap on and tap off at all the doors. Or at least that is what I hope they implement.
    I’ve always been someone who moves to the back of the bus. And it always irritates me how slow people move. So when ever I do ride the 99 I’m always getting on at the back door.

  29. Brent July 15, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    An alternative on busy and high-frequency routes could be to limit certain stops to all-door boarding using secondary collectors. Have a transit employee or supervisor stationed at the stop, and call riders with passes and transfers to the rear doors.

  30. Sam July 16, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    In Copenhagen, the buses usually just get invaded by five or six fare inspectors who stop the bus and block all of the doors until they’ve checked everyone. It being Copenhagen, the fare inspectors are of course almost always rude and aggressive. Not sure how that’s any better than just waiting to show a ticket to the driver 🙂

  31. Jarrett at July 16, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Sorry, Sam, but Copenhagen is paradise.  We pay big money to Jan Gehl to fly around the world telling everyone that.  You must have been hallucinating.  😉 

  32. Jason July 16, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    In Taipei for a lot of the buses we pay when we get off the bus, so which means we can board on all doors but must exit through front door. I’ve never seen anyone trying fare evasion by exiting through the back door, although there are adults who use a children’s smart card to get some 50% off for bus fare but that’s beside the point.
    I wonder why this sort of system is not tried around here, maybe difficult to enforce?

  33. Andre Lot July 16, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    I think one of the reasons that would make POP enforcement in US more problematic is the fact social troublemakers and petty juvenile criminals in US (the types who’ll usually skip fares) are much more likely to escalate a “merely” angry argument about unpaid fares or invalid tickets with inspectors into something more violent.
    Add to that the trend of seeking for “profiling” in any action of law enforcement.
    Even abroad sometimes POP enforcement becomes contentious. Couple years ago, there was a number of stories on physical assaults and even angry complaints by community activists that fare enforcement on Île-de-France (the area that contains Paris and its suburbs) were much more frequent on lines that served poor, immigrant-full balieues than in the rest of the city. For years the regional government had adopted a de-facto no-late-night-fare-checks, then a new government decided to crack down on the practice (which had resulted in many late night and weekend services with fare evasion rates well above 50%) and there were many cases of violence.
    Similar problems have erupted in cities in Germany (Nordhausen, Hamburg, Ülm) and Netherlands (Culemborg, Gouda) in recent years, with drivers and controllers assaulted, sometimes with severity, by daring to enforce fare collection in minority neighborhoods, especially late at night (drunk + resented people = danger).
    Now imagine this in US, where for a variety of reasons guns are more ubiquitous, and then some poor neighborhood full of non-whites start complaining that fares are “disproportionally enforced” there.

  34. Andre Lot July 16, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    I just want to clarify something to avoid ambiguity: in the cases of those European cities, I’m not suggesting something on the “minorities are inherently more violent by design”.
    What happens, in practice, is that for a variety of reasons like lower enrollment in higher education, much higher youth unemployment and the likes, those areas have a concentration of people who are too old for high-school discount passes or free passes, don’t have the privileges of free/discounted travels of university students, and don’t have income to buy monthly passes (or pay the costs of car for that matter).
    Then, it is only reasonable you expect an area with a lot of people in these conditions to be more prone to fare evasion. In the specific cases of Paris, there was even an argument that the government was trying to “keep the suburb dwellers out of the gates of Paris” by enforcing harshly fare collection on the areas where they lived.

  35. Ray Phenicie July 16, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    First, my experience with fare collection from bad to good
    1. Worse case riders get on and beg fellow riders for missing coins to make up the fare or ask for change. SMART (Southeast Michigan Area Regional Transit) accepts any combinations of coins and dollars for the fare. Bad, very bad.
    2. Riders get on, tranist card in place, swipe it and are in. Good.
    I say eliminate the fare at the door by forcing on the bus system what is already in place with the subway. Pay fare or buy tokens in advance to enter a gated, strictly limited access boarding area; no fare, no entry, no ticket, no ride. Bus stops along this model would be limited, but for me I’m ok with walking up to 0.5-0.7 kilometer to get to a good ride as long as I know that when I get there a safe haven exists for me to stand out of the weather.
    3. to further elaborate, and I realize I’m moving off topic here, the bus system I am envisioning here is at what I would call the express mode or tier two level. Tier one would be the putt, putt, oh so slow come to your door level where (yawn) “I just need this ride and I will plan ahead for a slow bus to arrive.” Tier three would be the rapid mode where stops are only every 3-5 kilometers and then a tier four of five would move between cities with infrequent stops. I think in servicing riders we need to break out these levels of service and enforce them so everybody can get where they want to quickly and efficiently. The lower tiers would feed into the higher tiers and out of necessity at some point access to the boarding area needs to be very limited, gated and self enforcing. (Hmm, I could jump or climb over that 2.1 meter barrier, but I guess I’ll gather up the fare, put the coins in (or show my monthly pass) and get the robotic device to let me step through the gate.
    I’d like to hear what others think about this because I’m tired of slow service on buses that make four or five (in Chicago six or seven) stops per kilometer.

  36. Philip July 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    One of the reasons why articulated buses were recently dropped in London as a specific mayoral campaign promise, apart from issues with tight turns and junction boxes, and pure aesthetics, was widespread perception that all-door boarding was leading to rampant fare evasion. A lot of this was overstated because many users had day passes or longer term tickets and simply didn’t bother to swipe their chipcards, leading to other people assuming they were evading the fare.

  37. Daniel Sparing July 18, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Sam, I had similar tough experience with controllers in Switzerland. It is better than driver control, though, because you only need to experience it once every few months, not all the time.

  38. Karen July 18, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    In my experience front door loading occasionally leads to fare “forgiveness” at crowded stops by a driver running behind schedule. “Just get on, I ain’t got time for that s____.”

  39. PS July 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Pittsburgh (Port Authority of Allegheny County) uses a system like the one mentioned above in Seattle: pay on entry for inbound buses, pay on exit for outbound buses. Unlike Seattle, Pittsburgh has very few through-routed lines. Pittsburgh’s system is a step in the direction of the benefits of PoP, namely all-door boarding when under heavy boarding loads (outbound buses Downtown).
    That being said, the system is thrown off a bit by forcing pay on entry for all buses in the evenings. For example, the P-# buses (longer articulateds that run on the East Busway and turnaround Downtown) often take 3 or more minutes to fully board at their first Downtown pick-up location in the evenings due to pay-on-entry rule. The changing payment rules are also a source of confusion for many of the large numbers of out-of-town college students in Pittsburgh.

  40. Ted K. July 19, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    @Brent – SFMuni used to have conductors / inspectors in the past (1960’s / 1970’s) for rear-door boarding at some stops (e.g. Sutter near Market) during the evening rush hour. There were pass-checkers who didn’t collect money in later years that sometimes popped up at various stops. Also, I’ve seen field dispatchers at certain nodes over the years hold the rear doors and wave people aboard.
    For the Mel Brooks / “Blazing Saddles” fans (paraphrased) :
    [Mid- / rear-entry area of a bus instead of a boardroom w/ Gov.+cabinet.]
    We didn’t get a “beep” out of that guy!
    Give us a beep!
    [Taps Clipper card on scanner.]
    P.S. I strongly agree with those that insist on pass holders tapping in. This is not only a sign of good faith but also it provides a data point for measuring ridership.
    P.P.S. Re : Title – s/san franciso:/san francisco:/