» Faster bus services, the mainstay of this city’s transit fleet, could reduce operations costs for a stressed transit agency.
San Franciscans, like the denizens of every great transit city, enjoy denigrating their bus and rail system, accusing it of inefficiency, overcrowding, and slow speeds. Despite the overall excellence of the public transportation offered in the Bay Area, those criticisms ring true — especially on Muni, the city’s local bus and light rail operator.
Unlike BART, which rockets commuters from one side of the region to the next, Muni vehicles crawl down San Francisco’s congested streets, lumbering behind traffic and stopping all too frequently. As of 2008, buses ran on average at only 5 mph downtown, with the overall average speeds of the system depressed at a miserable 8 mph. Meanwhile, costs per passenger are higher than those at peer transit agencies elsewhere in the country. There are plenty of reasons to plan for improvement.
Thus the announcement last month that Muni would be seriously evaluating a plan to consolidate bus stops comes as excellent news. Though a reduction in the number of stops made by local buses would not radically speed up services, it would point towards a gradual improvement necessary to put the system on solid footing.
The general plan will be considered over the next few weeks by public officials but is sufficiently developed to be implemented as soon as the Board of Supervisors agrees to the change. Five high-ridership routes (the 9, 14, 28, 30, and 71) would be altered through the elimination of roughly 10% of stops; in general, distance between stops would increase from about 800′ to 975′ or more. Each line is projected to see a roughly 5% decrease in overall travel time, with much largest decreases in travel periods in the most congested zones. For instance, the 14-Mission bus would see travel savings of 11-14% on the stretch of Mission Street between 16th and 24th Streets; this happens to also be one of the line’s heaviest concentrations of riders.
The positive effects would be consequential for the transit agency’s budget: The increased speeds made possible by the reduction of stop locations would allow Muni to run five fewer vehicles during the peak periods, a not-insignificant reduction over the long-term considering the costs of the bus itself, energy, and labor in driving and maintenance. Other transit agencies currently running on a shoestring should examine San Francisco’s proposals and evaluate whether similar changes to their own systems could result in similar cost savings.
The improvements in service that would be made possible through the elimination of bus stops could be expanded if the agency were to implement other parallel improvements. Muni bus services — unlike the agency’s light rail operations — require riders to enter the bus at the front, rather than allowing them to use the back doors to board (the agency performed a pilot of that idea in 2008, but went nowhere with it). If tickets could be purchased at the stop, customers could simply scan their receipts in the back entrance of the bus without having to interact with the driver, a procedure that is common in Europe. This could dramatically reduce dwell times at station by eliminating the queues that form of people waiting to get on at the front of the vehicle.
Nationwide, bus operators are coming to understand that there is value in running a tighter, more efficient ship that favors quicker running speeds. Many of these suggestions have been made by San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project, whose recommendations for bus and rail improvements were made in 2008. That advice, however, has not been appropriately followed due to a lack of funds and community opposition to some components of the plan.
When the transit agency was considering how to handle a $56 million deficit earlier this year, it was willing to reduce service by 10% — but it wouldn’t eliminate stops, despite the potential to save the agency $3 million a year. That’s because, as BART Supervisor Tom Radulovich has put it, “every bus stop has a constituency.” People who live or work next to a stop that is to be eliminated will feel as if their lifeline to the rest of the city has been removed.
And that resistance is not unfounded: There would be some negative effects stemming from the reduction of stops: Namely, 10% of riders would be subjected to a longer walk to the bus if the stop consolidation plan is pursued. This could impair the ability of some elderly or impaired people to get to and from work or leisure activities. It could also theoretically reduce ridership in some areas where convenience to a stop is prized above all else.
But there are times when the concerns of the hyper-local must be moderated by the needs of the city as a whole. The minor reduction in bus stops proposed in San Francisco is so limited that the vast majority of people will see no change in access whatsoever, but could experience incremental but important improvements in running speeds. Combined with other measures to improve the quality of the bus lines, stop consolidation is essential in working towards that goal.
The city is planning the introduction of two bus rapid transit lines — on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard — by 2016. These corridors would receive dedicated lanes, special buses, and unique stations, allowing service practically on par with rapid transit. But the up-to $449 million price tag of the two projects combined is underfunded. For now, minor improvements to the local bus services such as is being proposed here is the cheap step forward for the city.
Image above: Bus in San Francisco, from Flickr user Mike McCaffrey (cc)