“Give Mrs. McG Her Bus Stop”? Reasons to Pause

Here’s some refreshing candor from a local politician, in the context of an effort to speed up express bus services on New York’s Staten Island by removing excessive bus stops and deviations:

Borough President James Oddo added that “people like me” were part of the problem: Requesting new bus stops to help vocal constituents.

“Who doesn’t want to give Mrs. McGillicuddy a bus stop?” Oddo asked.

When bus routes meander, do little squiggles, or make too many stops, the cause is almost always local elected officials who insisted that transit agencies say yes to whatever a noisy constituent demands.  Such officials are always calling the transit managers and saying: “Get Mrs McGillucuddy off my back!”

Of course, Mrs. McGillicuddy rarely calls to advocate the kinds of efficiency that makes transit more attractive and useful for the whole community.  She’s calling to demand something that’s good for her or her friends.

Here, as often, we’re in the presence of the paradox of public outreach.  We want transit to be useful to busy people, but busy people don’t engage much with public outreach processes.  They’re too busy.

So we disproportionately hear from the not-busy people, who have priorities other than speed.  So we hear demands like:  “All those busy people should have 3 minutes added to their trip so that I don’t have to walk three blocks.”

I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of senior and disabled riders, but if a person physically can’t walk three blocks, then the answer may be some kind of paratransit.  Paratransit is expensive, but not as expensive as doing something every hour all day to meet just one person’s needs.  There are some genuinely difficult choices here, but they should be addressed by a policy, rather than a process of just rewarding whoever makes the most noise.

Because if a transit agency establishes a pattern of saying yes to every demand for things that slow down the service, that precedent will only trigger more demands, accelerating a downward spiral in which a resource designed to be used by many becomes micro-designed around the demands of one or two, to everyone else’s detriment.

Arguing against these demands with data is tricky.  The differential impact of adding one bus stop or squiggle may not be much. It’s the cumulative effect of 100 such decisions is devastating, gradually transforming relatively fast and efficient services into slow, meandering scenic tours that only people with lots of spare time to use.

So you really need policy, not just data, to hold the line.  Service design standards about stop spacing and linearity can give staff the backup they need.  These standards should be periodically re-adopted, so that current elected officials feel ownership of them, or at least understand the dangers of not observing them.  And the adoption is the time to have the debate about how to balance some people’s difficulty walking with the need for transit to be fast, direct, and reliable.  Again, the point is not to leave seniors behind but to ensure we’re addressing their needs in a fair and consistent way.

18 Responses to “Give Mrs. McG Her Bus Stop”? Reasons to Pause

  1. Isaac Rabinovitch June 8, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    TIMBY: transit in my backyard

  2. Deryck Fay June 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    I think you will be repeating this argument many times in Dublin! The current bus network bears the scars of campaigns by many a Mrs Murphy or Mrs McGillicuddy…

  3. Simon June 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

    Would the elected official give Mrs McGillicuddy her own traffic light or pedestrian crossing?

    I’m guessing not

    • Wanderer June 9, 2017 at 8:41 am #

      Possibly. Especially if Mrs McGillicuddy got hit crossing the street.

      I foresee the issue Cesar Ochoa raised coming up a lot, especially around medical facilities.

    • asdf2 June 29, 2017 at 5:53 am #

      Of course not, because that would slow down cars, which is much worse, politically, than slowing down buses.

  4. el_slapper June 8, 2017 at 11:18 pm #

    Sometimes, it’s the boss himself who adds a station for its own pleasure. Example in 1876 with the Vaucelles railway station. The private owner of the line opened 2 very nearby station(Taverny & Vaucelles) because it suited his own needs.

    There is 585 meters between both lines – but it’s not a bus line, it’s a regular train line! on the same line, there is 3.9 km between the Saint-Leu and the Saint-Prix stops, and noone complains. 585 meters for trains that are 225 meters long… But it suited exactly one person, at the expense of the service speed.

  5. Cesar Ochoa June 9, 2017 at 7:12 am #

    Looking an elderly or disabled person in the eye and telling them they are going to have to carry or wheel their groceries and extra 1 – 3 blocks so that their trip will be 1 – 3 minutes faster can be a gut wrenching conversation.

    Often subsidized housing chooses or are gifted property with poor access. The lower cost affords them more units. But who pays the price? Either the residents or our through passengers.

    Billy Joel’s Shades of Grey takes on greater meaning the older I get.

    • Jarrett Walker June 9, 2017 at 2:57 pm #

      Cesar. You articulate really well how painful these conversations are, as I can attest from long experience. My only recommendation is that the debate be had at the level of policy, so that the outcome can be consistent, instead of simply changing service every time someone writes to their city councilor.

  6. Dave June 9, 2017 at 10:07 am #

    Ideally, you’d shunt all the people who say they cannot walk an extra 1-3 blocks onto paratransit or some kind of winding “community” deviated route. But I understand that both paratransit and community routes cost more than normal fixed routes per passenger. Still, perhaps that can be part of the solution for transit agencies dealing with the politicians: “What Mrs McG is asking for would be best suited by our paratransit/community route service. That service costs $X in subsidies per passenger to provide. Would you like us to add her to the list of eligible riders for paratransit, or add her stop to the closest community route? And to which grant program or funding source shall we bill the subsidy required?” Get the politician to associate the extra stop Mrs McG is asking for with a dollar amount, since money is usually the only thing politicians grasp more than public sentiment.

  7. Jim Moore June 9, 2017 at 10:15 am #

    Disappointing victim-blaming of the “non-busy” according to JT ie the elderly (a woman too!), the unemployed, the disabled or infirm.

    Saying “No” and then doing nothing isn’t the solution; ubiquitous bicycle parking at bus stops on the arterial/direct bus routes is, along with subjectively safe (ie low speed, low volume) local streets to cycle on. Cycling is easier and less effort for everybody, including all those with the afflictions mentioned above.

    Want actual proof this works? See the Netherlands.

    • Jo Walton June 10, 2017 at 7:35 am #

      Saying bicycles are the solution for the disabled and infirm is utter nonsense. There may be some people who can’t walk three blocks who could cycle them, but they’re pretty few and far between.

      One actual solution is to have proper (European style) bus stops with seats and shelters. Lots of people can walk three blocks if they can sit down and rest when they get there, but not walk three blocks plus standing for nine and a half minutes for the next bus if they just missed one. This is something you can say to the McGs of this world — it’s a proactive answer instead of “We don’t care two hoots about you, and we understand your needs so little we suggest you cycle!”. “You can’t have the detour, but you can have a seat when you get there.” It would cost more, but it would be a one-off cost.

  8. Jarrett Walker June 9, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    Jim. I don’t believe I referred to Mrs. McG’s age, and her gender comes with the quotation I used as my starting point. But I have done some edits to clarify that I am not in any sense “victim-blaming.” Jarrett

    • R. W. Rynerson June 9, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      The “route” of this problem (pun intended) is described without naming Mrs. McG in the talk by Llew Lawrence starting on page 31 of this TRB publication:


      It’s important to have service standards, but ever since the industry sold communities on the flexibility of Diesel buses, the price has included all sorts of deviations.

      — rwr

  9. Bjorn June 9, 2017 at 6:12 pm #

    I don’t disagree with your post, but in these cases I’ve also seen transit firms be just as inflexible.

    1. A few years ago, a non-profit that provided jobs to people with severe disabilities complained to an advocacy group that I was on that no route went to their facility (more specifically, no route near enough to require paratransit service under the ADA). I offered the suggestion to the complainant (who indicated that something was better than nothing, more or less) and the agency of sending two deadhead trips that were going from the nearby transit center to the garage in the AM and vise versa in the PM by their facility; it wouldn’t be much service, but a few buses at 8:30 and 9:30 inbound and 3:00 and 4:00 back to the transit center would be relatively cheap to put in place and would likely be able to meet most of the needs of their workforce (who is likely limited by disability from putting in a full 8-5 anyway). The eventual resolution was that the agency now runs specialized paratransit buses at $150,000/year to their facility.

    2. From the customers’ perspective, it can come off as incredibly hypocritical that the firm wants people to live near transit, but then when customers do locate near transit, often sinking hundreds of thousands into a home, only to see their service curtailed. While as you note there is often little that can (or should) be done about this, how the firm approaches conversations can be the difference between if your Ms. McG continues to ride or campaign for or against your system in future political votes. An angry Ms. McG who tells anyone with an ear that “Not only did those arrogant planners take away my route, they were rude to me!” could be the difference in the firm winning or losing at the polls or in the council chambers.

    • Jarrett Walker June 10, 2017 at 9:37 am #

      Bjorn. Agree. Of course, on the matter of location, this is why transit agencies need a frequent network plan, one that shows where the service really is permanent.

  10. Simon June 12, 2017 at 3:56 am #

    Hear here.

  11. Mike June 12, 2017 at 6:03 am #

    And here in London our buses have just been further slowed by the local boroughs introducing blanket 20 mph speed restrictions on all roads including ones quite suitable for 30 mph. Indeed the core roads operated by Transport for London are still 30 mph. Why did they do it – because they have such little power that the opportunity to be able to stick a huge poster or billboard up saying “Londons first 20 mph borough” was too much to resist. I didn’t hear any contrary voices saying what about the buses or lets look at this on a case by case basis. I’m quite happy to have cars tootling along at 20 mph on non-bus roads – great! But I want public transport to be attractive to all including busy people. It is better for all in the long run.

  12. Steve Dunham June 19, 2017 at 8:54 am #

    Another problem with wiggly routes is how many people they actually serve. The bus I ride to work in Virginia makes a detour through some apartment towers, stopping at their front doors; through a community college, stopping at the front door; and to another apartment tower. At all of these deviant stops, sometimes nobody gets on or off, even in rush hours.