how to make buses more useful

Are your transit authority and city government working together to make buses as functional and useful as possible?  A new TRB report summarizes the industry’s own consensus on where the easy wins are for improving bus service.  Peyton Chung has the rundown:

A recent report on “Commonsense Approaches for Improving Transit Bus Speeds“ surveyed not just the scale of the problem, but also solutions. In it, 59 transit agencies across America shared how they have responded to the scheduling problems presented by ever-slower bus routes. The agencies report on the most successful actions they’ve taken to improve bus speeds and reliability. Here they are, listed in descending order of popularity.

  1. Consolidate stops: More than half of agencies have thinned bus stops, some by focusing on pilot corridors, and others by gradually phasing in policy changes. Many agencies moved stops to far side of intersections at stoplights, and 13 agencies adopted physical changes like longer bus stops or bulb-outs, which help passengers board faster and more conveniently.
  2. Streamline routes: Straightening out routes, trimming deviations, eliminating duplication, and shortening routes didn’t just simplify service, it also sped up service for two-thirds of the agencies that tried this approach.
  3. Transit signal priority: The 22 agencies with signal priority can change stoplights for approaching buses. They mostly report a minor to moderate increase in bus speeds as a result. In fact, agencies singled out traffic engineering approaches like TSP as the closest to a “silver bullet,” one-step solution.
  4. Fare policy: Several agencies changed fare structures or payment methods. The one agency that collects fares before passengers board, and lets them board at both bus doors, decreased bus running times by 9 percent.
  5. Bus Rapid Transit: Ten agencies combined multiple approaches on specific routes and launched BRT service. Of those that measured the impact, almost all reported a significant increase in speed, typically around 10 to 15 percent.
  6. Vehicle changes: More than half of agencies have moved to low-floor buses, which reduce loading times by one second per passenger. Smaller buses might be more maneuverable in traffic, and ramps can speed loading for wheelchairs and bicycles.
  7. Limited stop service: Although new limited-stop services offered only minor to moderately faster speeds, it’s a simple step and 18 agencies reported launching new limited routes.
  8. Bus lanes: Dedicated lanes are used by 13 agencies, and one reported that “most routes are on a bus lane somewhere.” When implemented on wide arterial streets, this moderately improves speeds.
  9. Adjust schedules: Almost all of the surveyed agencies have adjusted running time, recovery times (the time spent turning the bus), or moved to more flexible ”headway schedules.” All of these actions improve on-time performance reliability for customers, and reduce the need for buses to sit if they’re running early.
  10. Signal timing: Synchronized stoplights along transit routes can make sure that buses face more green lights than red, but only have a mild impact on operating speeds.
  11. Express service on freeways: This strategy had the largest impact on speeding up buses for the three agencies that tried it.


Many transit agencies have adopted at least some of these changes. For example, Streetsblog has covered San Francisco Muni’s efforts to consolidate stops, launch limited-stop servicerebuild stops, install signal priority, and use prepaid fares to allow passengers to board at both doors.

The survey also asked about the major constraints that agencies faced when attempting to improve bus speeds. More than a third of them cited a lack of funding and competing priorities within the agency — streamlining a route, for instance, may reduce the area covered by the service. More than one in seven agencies cited a lack of support from other government agencies, like transportation departments in charge of streets and signals (in San Francisco, Muni benefits from being housed within the city’s transportation department). Rider opposition, particularly to removing bus stops, and existing traffic congestion, also thwarted some attempts to streamline bus operations. Interestingly, few agencies cited community opposition or a lack of staff time as constraints.

That last paragraph is crucial.  Buses don’t improve because the people who want them to aren’t sufficiently organized and focused to balance out the kinds of resistance that the report lists.   Most local elected officials who are responsible for transit get great earfuls from those defending every detail of the status quo, while advocates for improvement can sound vague and abstract by comparison.

(And by the way, our firm specializes in helping transit agencies work through all of these issues, including their political dimension!)



8 Responses to how to make buses more useful

  1. Eric April 18, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Does signal priority ever work? I’ve been to multiple cities that claim to have signal priority for bus and rail. I still see vehicles waiting long times at traffic lights, and do not notice a significant improvement in travel times. Does anyone have a different experience?

  2. Andre Lot April 19, 2014 at 4:02 am #

    The entrenchment of status quo beneficiaries is really a problem. The few people who have a lot to lose (like having a stop in front of their building being moved two blocks away) have a lot of incentive to be vocal about it, whereas the majority who will benefit a bit is not organized around that.
    I think that system-wide reorganization initiatives focused on general outcomes is still the way to go, rather than piecemeal fixes. If someone proposes a new system with a new network where average travel time will decrease by x minutes, it is easier to sell that vision to the public, and to be cast those few complaining about losing ‘their’ bus stop, ‘their’ direct route or something like that as over-entitled complainers that are losing an advantage that is not and should not be guaranteed to them.

  3. david vartanoff April 19, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    Signal priority is a great theory; unfortunately, at least in SF and the East Bay it has been an empty promise. SF Muni supposedly set up the traffic signals to favor the southern Embarcadero streetcar (light rail) lines. But, theynever even turned it on. urrently there is a plan to buy a newer generation of hardware–will they ever actually use it? time will tell.
    AC Transit in Oakland/Berkeley/San Leandro claims to have installed hardware on 2 Rapid lite routes. The transponders were only installed on the “branded” buses even though the locals operate more trips per day and, of course whenever there is any maintenance issue non branded buses are deployed. In their in house study of one of the routes, they admit they have no maintenance/testing program. More recently they have decided to scrap the existing hardware and start over. So much for something which could have worked.

  4. david vartanoff April 19, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    The farside “idee fixe” seems to be another transit improvement du jour which has very little justification in reality. Using my local transit agency as an example, (AC Transit), there are literally dozens of cases where nearside stops are preferable on an objective basis.
    At a major transfer point (San Pablo and University Avenues) there is a clear pattern of rider usage which is made both easier and safer by having a nearside stop paired w/ a farside so riders need cross no streets when transferring. (This issue is exacerbated by a long traffic light sequence due to many turning cars)
    At another choke point (where the bus route enters/exits a badly laid out commercial strip and generates 2-3 minutes of delay in 2 blocks on most trips) it happens that the street flares out to an extra lane in each direction for the nearside stops. Clearly a queue jump traffic signal would allow the buses to get out ahead of the cars.
    Closer to my home is a nearside stop in front of a gas station/convenience store, far more useful for riders than across the street where there is much smaller retail activity.
    There are several more similar instances on the same Rapid lite route.
    Bottom line, now that we have the contactless fare cards we can look stop by stop at major transfer points to see where they can be fine tuned for maximum ease of use–no crossing streets,

  5. Mark Anderton April 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    In Auckland there are Bus priority lanes now at problem intersections and these do speed up buses by putting them at the front of the queue at each light.
    With the spacing of stops one has to also take into account the distance that some passengers will have to walk along the side feeder roads, it is a strange fact that people will walk a lot further to catch the train than they are prepared to walk to catch a bus, this would suggest that there could be a place for a combination of limited stop express buses and local loop grass catcher buses with integrated ticketing allowing walk on walk of loading of the Expresses at more elaborate transit hubs such as train stations, also shorter runs make for better time keeping.

  6. voony April 19, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    As noticed by Andre Lot, The entrenchment of status quo beneficiaries is really a problem.
    In Vancouver we have a Transit Agency, Translink making good propositions to improve the bus network, noticeably by addressing the point (2). A recent example here:
    But Vancouver has a city council not only working against that, but trying to make the situation even worse wherever possible and more especially in the downtown where bus are unwelcome by the current council (which has also replaced several bus lanes by curbside parking):
    Not surprisingly an inefficient bus network, made of detours to serve special interests, not only provide a poorer service for all, but also cost more money to the tax payer …That is the least of the Vancouver council concerns: Due to some BC politics specific the blame will go to the Transit agency (a regional authority) anyway…
    for the bus lanes transformed in parking, it is the same, the park-meter revenues go straight into the coffer of the city…the additional bus operating cost is shared by tax payer of the region…)

  7. Theo May 4, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Quick question for you all: why is it better to place the bus stop after the traffic light? Does it have to do with right turners getting in the way?

  8. Matt February 15, 2017 at 3:17 am #

    @Theo: If it’s before, there might be cars queued up blocking the bus from getting into the stop. The bus has to wait for a green for the cars in front to move, then it gets into the stop, and depending on timing, the light may turn red before the bus can enter the intersection after it leaves the stop. In this case the bus has to wait 2 cycles.

    The second problem is if the bus has to cross many lanes after the stop in the short distance before the intersection. For example, turning right in a left-side-drive country.

    The issue you raise tends not be a problem where I live (Sydney). The turning cars tend to have to wait behind the bus once it starts moving, no driver is stupid enough to turn in front of a bus.