Connections and Transfers

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?