The Absurdity of Counting Bus Routes

When presenting a plan, I’ll sometimes be asked to count bus routes.  How many bus routes change in the plan?  How many bus routes still go into the urban core?

These questions have nothing to do with the quality or quantity of transit service.  They have nothing to do with anyone’s ability to get anywhere, or even with how much the service is changing.  The number of bus routes measures one thing only: the complexity of the service.

Here’s how this works:

A bus route is a path followed by some number of buses during the day.  A route may be followed by one bus a day or by a bus every two minutes; either way, it counts as one route.

The number of bus routes can also be changed by how they are named or numbered.  Say a bus route is mostly the same but has a branch on one end, where some buses go one way and some go the other. Is that one bus route or two?  The answer to that question changes the number of bus routes, even though the service itself is identical in either case.

If you want to talk about service quantity, the correct unit is service hours (or service km), where this means one bus operating in service for an hour (or km).

Why count bus routes then?  Only if you are making a point about complexity.  The number of routes in a network is a measure of how complicated the service is.  In this post, for example, I show how a three-route system gets everyone where they’re going faster than a nine-route system, with the added benefit that three routes are easier to keep in your head than nine.

In our Dublin bus network redesign proposal, the number of routes goes from 130 to about 100.  Stated in isolation that sounds like a service cut, when in fact we are just running more buses on simpler routes.  We are expanding service, and making it more useful, by reducing complexity.  Practically nobody is losing service; most people are seeing a measurable improvement

The more routes a system has, the more complexity you have to remember.  Spreading a service budget across more routes also means those routes are less frequent and therefore less useful.

And again, the real measure of a network plan is where people can get to in a reasonable amount of time.  In the Dublin proposal, for example, the average Dubliner can get to 20% more jobs (counting student enrolments) in 45 minutes.  That’s a real expansion in the liberty and opportunity that people experience in their daily lives.  Are you sure the number of bus routes matters more than that?


15 Responses to The Absurdity of Counting Bus Routes

  1. Vladimir July 21, 2018 at 8:34 pm #

    In the media they just love this topic. Makes great dramatic headlines like: ‘120 TRANSIT ROUTES ARE BEING CANCELLED!’ And replaced by 100 more useful ones – they only add somewhere down the text if at all :/

  2. Dennis July 22, 2018 at 5:30 am #

    The media almost never report when the route is performing poorly because of redundancies but love to sensationalized when it’s consolidated or cut

  3. Randall July 22, 2018 at 7:57 am #

    Above commenters: I didn’t see the word “media” appear anywhere in Jarret’s essay. Perhaps those who ask the “How many bus routes?” question are anticipating journalist calls? Or, are you inferring that Jarret was speaking in code?

    Anyways, Jarret you’ve hit on a symptom of the overarching phenomenon that keeps many consultants (in any field) gainfully employed: dysfunction. If clients knew the right questions to ask and had the organizational competencies for the situations they face, then there would be no need to bring in outside expertise.

    Be grateful that you have answers they lack and that you are able to bring clarity to their thinking.

    • RossB July 22, 2018 at 9:58 am #

      >> Anyways, Jarret you’ve hit on a symptom of the overarching phenomenon that keeps many consultants (in any field) gainfully employed: dysfunction. If clients knew the right questions to ask and had the organizational competencies for the situations they face, then there would be no need to bring in outside expertise.

      Sorry, but that is just silly. I know the basics of how a car works, but I still hire a mechanic to do the job. I can use a hammer, but if I want a really nice deck, I’m calling a carpenter. A good consultant can talk about the details in ways that non-experts can’t, but that doesn’t excuse people for making ignorant assumptions. If I knew nothing about cars I still wouldn’t harass my mechanic because he had to replace the spark plugs. I might ask him why that needed to be done, or if there was a way to reduce the number of times they needed to be replaced. I might even ask him the second question, knowing what I know about cars (maybe there are spark plugs that last a lot longer).

      The same is true for transit design. Consultants like Walker don’t get paid by agencies to explain basic transit concepts. (OK, Walker is rare, in that he might, as part of his role as a transit expert, but that is really a separate gig). They are paid to come up with specific plans, using the tools and data that are available to them. The average person, having read books about transit and understanding the basic concepts (or even the more complicated ones) still couldn’t do that very well. They could come up with something — perhaps an improvement over the status quo — but that doesn’t mean it would be nearly as good as what consultants do.

      But informed people can look at the results and ask questions involving the trade-offs (which usually come down to coverage and one seat rides versus frequency). At best they would end up tweaking the plan by pointing out aspects of it that the consultants missed (e. g. that a new, common transfer point is actually very difficult and dangerous). That should be the role of the agency, the press and the general public, instead of making silly assumptions, such as that a decrease in the number of routes means a degradation of service.

      Lack of understanding when it comes to transit issues leads to poor results. The smarter an agency is, the more likely they are to hire a consultant. Ignorant agencies simply assume that everything is OK, or that they can figure it all out themselves. Entire subway lines (costing billions of dollars) have been designed (or at least initially mapped out) without using consultants. You would never treat a medical condition that way (“OK, doc, I know what I have, don’t bother with the tests — just tell me what meds to take for it”). Yet that is basically the way that many transit organizations operate. The public — not knowing any better — just assumes that the agency has hired consultants (or hired their own). The result is wasted money and poor transit outcomes, which is why Walker has tried so hard to inform an ignorant public.

      Of course it isn’t just transit spending that suffers from that problem. Military spending is in the same boat. Fifty years after a two term president and five-star general warned us about the military industrial complex, it is bigger than ever. Most people have no idea about the weapons being purchased, and whether they offer a good “bang for the buck” (hint: they don’t). Most people are ignorant of the military in general, and with so few actually serving, seem to lionize the military in ways that would seem ridiculous a generation or two ago. That’s because most are ignorant of what it actually means to serve in the military, and feel more comfortable heaping praise (thank you for your service) rather than do their civic duty, and offer constructive criticism.

      There is no simple solution, but ignorance is a major problem with our society that benefits only those who want to exploit it for their own selfish gain (at the expense of the general public).

  4. Lorenzo July 22, 2018 at 8:17 am #

    I wonder if labour union objectives and associated dynamics have influenced this move towards transit route complexity?

    • RossB July 22, 2018 at 10:03 am #

      That seems highly unlikely. Why would the union care? If anything, it seems like it would be the other way around. Complexity leads to more difficulty. If you have to take over route 115, and you’ve never done it before, then you are way more likely to make a mistake than if you take over the more common route 15, which every veteran has driven at least once. If route 115 also has a lot of twists and turns, that doesn’t help either. The simpler the system, the more likely it is that that drivers can handle it, which seems like a good thing for everyone.

  5. JJJJ July 23, 2018 at 6:52 am #

    “If you want to talk about service quantity, the correct unit is service hours (or service km), where this means one bus operating in service for an hour (or km).”

    Is this always true? Some bus systems run long-distance commuter routes which put the bus on the highway for over an hour with no stops. I don’t know if it’s fair to count 1 hour in highway service as equal to 1 hour in local city service.

    • Rick Robinson July 23, 2018 at 8:30 am #

      The costs of one hour of service are probably roughly comparable, city or highway. Driver compensation, one hour’s worth out of the service life of the bus, overhead costs – all those are much the same. But higher average speed means more service km per service hour,

      How to actually measure service provided seems a bit trickier. People are paying to get somewhere, not to spend time on the bus. For the transit agency, service hours are probably a fair proxy for the cost of providing service, while service km is a proxy for how much transportation it can provide.

      • Sean July 23, 2018 at 3:43 pm #

        In urban markets, a peak hour of service gets more expensive because it increases the number of drivers you need, and therefore fringe/buses required to own and maintain. That same hour after the peak is cheaper because those buses have had a chance to turn around. Only contract costs would be the same per hour, but that isn’t sustainable either because that contractor will figure out the true costs and will start charging more next bid. Buses timed to schools are a good example, they always seem to have great riders per hour, but that driver needs to drive something else the rest of the day, but usually they pull in instead.

        Title VI is a large driver of moving towards service variants instead of numbered routes. If you have to do a civil rights analysis every time you move a few trips around, you may want to use a variant instead. Then you get into problems with relying on headsigns to see where the bus goes. It’s a balance.

      • Rick R July 23, 2018 at 8:09 pm #

        Highway services will be cheaper per hour than city services due to less fuel being used and less wear and tear (unless they operate on gridlocked highways), but attract dead mileage unless they operate all day. I was once asked to help come up with a figure for how much fuel cost should be built into a tender without any information on how much fuel the vehicle types in use actually used, or how the weather and terrain affected the base line fuel figures…

        Measuring service is a bit like measuring efficiency, there are different ways of doing it and everyone has their favourite. Half the battle in getting changes up is in communicating the advantages and time must be taken to re-enforce them and counter any concerns that are raised, including different forms of measurement introduced by others during consultation.

        • Henry Chin July 23, 2018 at 8:59 pm #

          On the flip side, an hour on a city route is spent with lots of intermediate pickups and dropoffs. An hour on the highway can easily be spent just carrying the same load of people from start to end. In that sense, city service can be more “profitable” for the agency vs. highway services, since it can often be the difference between serving 50 people in an hour and 150 people in an hour.

  6. Chris July 24, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    To make sure reducing the number of bus routes is a simplifying measure and not a service reduction you also need to state what percentage of people/jobs etc are within a 1/4, 1/2 mile of any/frequent/owl/etc bus route.

    Large transit agencies in general have many experts about their transit system and how it can improve. For them I think hiring consultants is less they don’t know what they’re doing and more they need political cover for doing the right things.

  7. ethan July 31, 2018 at 6:18 am #

    so in response to the question of how many bus routes are serving the urban core, you would ask them to ask “how many service hours serve the urban core?” or something like that, right? But then what really counts as serving the urban core? If a route goes between the suburbs and the urban core, do you count all the hours or just the hours its in the urban core? I’d assume the former, but I guess I could imagine a hypothetical route that I would not really want to count in its entirety even if it does technically enter the urban core.

  8. Michael R. Weinman August 1, 2018 at 11:02 am #

    Service Hours and Service Miles have nothing to do with quality of service. They are useful for bean counters who must budget the service, for the rider, they count for nothing.

    Quality of service is measured by frequency, complexity of reaching desired destination, quality of vehicles (including sharp branding), quality of drivers (including sharp uniforming), and most of all, information availability, which is usually the worst attribute of any US system.

    Michael R. Weinman
    PTSI Transportation
    Rutherford NJ

  9. SpyOne January 4, 2019 at 12:55 am #

    `Number of routes is also one of the easiest statistics to artificially inflate.
    In my local area, several buses change numbers during their route. That is, there are several lines with separate timetables that are actually one long line.
    When bus X reaches the end of it’s line at stop A it will change its number to Y and proceed to stop B, where it will change its number to Z and proceed to stop C. Once there it turns around and returns to stop B, turns back into a Y, and proceeds to stop A where it turns back into an X.
    This is true of all Route X buses that reach stop A.

    Conversely, where using different numbering might introduce clarity, they don’t.
    Imagine a route connecting stops A, B, C, D, and E. Some of the buses that start at A only go as far as C and then turn around, so unless you have a timetable you don’t know if this particular bus will go to D or not.

    And yes, there are routes where both these things happen: not every bus goes all the way to the end of the line, but every bus that does then changes number and starts a new line. Which seems like it sould be easilly solved by moving the point where the line changes name, but that would require changing the signs at the stops that say which lines stop there.