In Cutting Bus Stops, San Francisco Points Towards a More Efficient Bus System

» 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)

26 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Danny

    lolz…you are talking about a city whose enitre round of recent transit cuts could have been avoided with a 1.5 year pay-raise freeze for a transit union that is already the highest paid in the nation. Not only did the Union not budge, but they forced the city to dig into its capital budgets, which are pretty hard to move due to liquidity concerns, in order to cover costs.

    MUNI doesn’t exist for San Francisco residents…it exists for the transit union. You can plainly assume that if MUNI makes any changes to their service at all, it is not for the benefit of SF residents.

    • Tom West

      That pay increase had already been agreed to in a contract signed the union and the city. It’s not the union’s fault that the city didn’t budget properly. The transit cuts could also have been avoided by increasing property tax 0.5%, but that didn’t happen either.

      • Danny

        Actually it is the union’s fault that the city didn’t budget properly. They are the ones holding the entire effing transit system, a public good, hostage for their own gain. No city can effectively budget when they are forced to negotiate with people that can hold public goods hostage.

      • Winston

        Danny has a very good point. Until the excessive wages and insane work rules for SFMTA’s drivers are addressed there is little hope for a functional transit system in San Francisco. They are paid, literally, double what similar private sector workers are paid which means the city gets far less bus service than its citizens are entitled to.

        As for the main point of Yonah’s post, if ever a city needed to consolidate bus stops, San Francisco is it. It is very often the case that it is quicker to walk than to take the bus for even fairly long trips. In this situation, doing whatever you can to give the bus some kind of speed advantage over walking should give you more ridership.

      • DBX

        The transit unions in certain cities — and Chicago is another (many operators in Chicago get even more than Muni, it’s the highest standard of living in the country for a transit operator) — simply exist to extract money from overburdened authorities. Chicago operators are in the process of getting a 15 percent pay increase over four years. Just giving up one of those years would have avoided service cuts in January. But, no. Easier to make the junior people suffer for a year while attrition takes care of the shortfall and then the juniors get called back. Do they care that customers wait a lot longer for service? Not really. Getting $60K for driving a bus is more important.

        And that’s a big political problem for transit in general. You’re never going to see the kind of support we need for more transit funding when this is the kind of attitude they run with. As far as I can see in Chicago, the cuts basically are a bonanza for cab drivers and nobody wants their taxes or fares to go up to restore the service. Management doesn’t help either; they seem to exist merely to provoke unionized labor into greater sullenness and resistance. The only way to break this death spiral is actual reform of the service and the relationship between management and labor; only then will you see support for new funding.

        And how on earth do you seem to take it for granted that the city would pass a property tax increase in these circumstances? In THIS economy and political environment? Under CALIFORNIA tax law? Give me a break.

        By the way the ticket receipt idea is fantastic. I’d not encountered this in England (though London’s Oyster card system is impressive in its own way) but it would be a huge improvement for bus service in the US; a cheap way of making major progress in speed and reliability.

    • Ocean Railroader

      Cutting how a few transit stops wouldn’t really hurt anyone in that if a bus stops every 800 feet on a street and say they cut out a stop or two and made it go to say 950 feet or a 1000 feet that wouldn’t be to bad. I view buses as something to help pedestrains go over opsticals that prevent them from walking from one sidewalk system to another. And if I where going to remove a bus stop or two I would first make sure that there are good sidewalks in the area so that people could walk safely down the sidewalk to the new bus stop. But if the area didn’t have sidewalks I wouldn’t mess with it.

      • Mike Jones

        There are always impacts. There will be someone who already resents their long walk to a stop to wait for a bus. They will reconsider their trip if their already distant stop is removed. Of course, the quicker journey time my be compensation, but that will take a while to trickle through. It is not as though all your trips are suddenly 5-10 minutes faster.

        Eliminating on-board payment would be a massive improvement. Ironically, AC Transit across the Bay (Oakland) has had multi-door buses ideal for proof of purchase ticketing, but 4 years after buying the buses (Van Hools) it still makes riders board through the front door.

  • Krazy19Karl

    Interesting that they’ll be trying this. Last semester I ran a traffic microsimulation study of MUNI route 18 to determine the effects of bus stop consolidation. The intended goals were to look at how bus exhaust might be minimized (result: very minimal losses) and how it might decrease the number of accidents due to rear and front end collisions (decrease in overall property damage, injuries, fatalities due to fewer conflicts).

    But the part I thought was most interesting was the travel time savings. It predicted 1 minute, 24 seconds of travel time savings per bus on the route (peak hour). This assumed that the lowest performing stops on 46th Ave between Lincoln Way and Sloat Blvd had been consolidated. I would have preferred to analyze a more frequented route, but many are already consolidated and I needed one with a simplistic neighborhood (no freeways, etc.)

    I recommend the data from the Transportation Effectiveness Project for anyone looking for bus ridership data. It was the only place I could find such information.

  • flaviegagnon

    Philadelphia should think about doing a similar exercice. There is a stop at almost every corner downtown. It slows buses down incredibly.

  • Are there systems where you actually scan your ticket at the back of the bus?

    I know of systems in Germany and France that have ticket validators in the back of the bus, but that doesn’t mean you have to scan it in order to enter. I.e. these are still proof of payment systems.

  • Max Wyss

    Interesting article. Actually, the average distance aimed for is still extremely short, compared to many European cities. There is actually a rule of thumb which says that 300 m distance from a bus stop is definitely acceptable; 500 m too. These numbers would give an average distance of 420 m between bus stops (that’s approximately 1400 feet).

    Combine that with efficient boarding (open all doors for entering and exiting), the efficiency of the system could be improved quite a bit.

    So, this is definitely a first step…

  • Ted King

    “If tickets could be purchased at the stop, …”

    Please keep in mind that SFMuni has a very successful flash pass (FastPass for monthly use and Passport for tourists) and is in mid-switch to the Clipper smart card. There are readers at the back entrances of the buses and LRV’s. The cards can be loaded at Muni Metro stations (e.g. the ones along Market Street), most Walgreens (e.g. the one near Geneva and Mission), and automatically. The main barrier is the regulation that people must board through the front door – a reg. that is honored in the breach at some stops.

    Another problem is a certain amount of foot dragging by BART. The non-SFMuni stations (two on Mission, Glen Park, and Balboa Park) don’t have Clipper reload machines. This is a serious problem at Balboa Park since this a major node and the terminus for three (3!) LRV lines (J, K, and M). Yes, that’s right – Balboa Park is treated as a pure BART station rather than as a joint use facility. Go figure.

    http://www.sfmta.com/cms/mfares/Clipper.htm
    SFMuni Customer Service Center
    11 South Van Ness Ave., near Market St. (Van Ness Muni Metro Stn. is just around the corner)

    • Ted King

      My apologies –
      s/non-SFMuni stations/non-SFMuni Metro stations/

    • Anon256

      Something I noticed in SF: if you pay with Clipper on Muni you only get a transfer valid for exactly 90 minutes, whereas if you board at the front and pay cash you generally get a transfer valid for around three hours. I wonder if this slows the adoption of Clipper at all?

  • Cutting bus stops is wrong! Do you have arthritis in your knees, hips or ankles yet? An easier solution is to change the right-of-way law to give buses priority to re-enter traffic. Let the cars wait rather than the local bus. Add bus lines that skip stops, but the local buses should stop frequently.

    Philadelphia, look into your state’s traffic law. Don’t further the downward spiral of bus use in favor of cars!

    • People in Switzerland, Germany, and France sometimes have arthritis, too. They still have no trouble using step-free buses that stop every 400 meters.

    • Susan,
      Having grown up in bus-centric Baltimore in the 1960s, I can tell you first hand that I and many of my friends young and old would have preferred buses with higher average speed. We would gladly have traded stops at every block for stops every 2-3 blocks. Having also lived for short time in San Francisco, I get the same sense.

  • JP

    I am interested in the BRT routes mentioned at the end of the article. It seems as though the problem with MUNI is that the busses are stuck in the same traffic as cars, so dedicated lanes should help a lot.

  • Ted King

    @Susan – San Francisco is a city with a mixture of block lengths. In flat areas with short blocks cutting out a few stops is reasonable. But on hills and on routes with long blocks cutting out stops can be tricky.

    Take a look at this sequence on Geneva Ave. – Mission, Paris, Madrid, Naples, Moscow. Which one do you cut ? Mission is a primary node, Naples (church + school) and Moscow (park) are secondaries. That leaves Paris (nearby clinic with older patients) just one long block from Mission and Madrid (two long blocks) as candidates for trimming. Odds are both will retain their stops for a long time to come while a nearby short-stop – Naples + Amazon – will have its stop bar blacked out. Some drivers on that route skip Amazon even when it has been requested.

    Another thing to consider is the expense of the signage that SFMuni has to maintain. The stop bars (yellow paint on asphalt) on Naples next to the Church of the Epiphany are faded and numbered “52″ even though the current service is the #54 Felton.

  • DDT

    Minneapolis could benefit from cutting stops on its bus lines too… in areas that are not very dense there are often stops every two blocks or roughly 400 feet.

  • Mario

    Correction: Muni planned an all-door boarding pilot for early 2008, but the pilot was actually never implemented. Now Muni is back to square one, planning another pilot.

  • Chris

    Melbourne, Australia trams have machines you insert your ticket into when you board; they also have a ticket machine to buy tickets on the tram taking up on of the rows of seats on one side. They also seem to have robust traffic signal priority. The result is they are the fastest local transit system I have ever been on – the only time they stop is for 10 seconds at a stop. Theoretically they should have people randomly checking to see if you have paid, but I didn’t see that when I was on board.

    Re: older people at stops – I know Seattle has had a similar program for a couple of years, and when they evaluate stops for removal they take into account stops that have a high number of senior / disabled boardings and keep those stops.

    • A Diiferent Chris

      I was going to ask about the level of intersection/ signal priority on SF buses because it is a problem on Melbourne’s trams when I saw this post. One of the problems with Melbourne’s trams is that they don’t seem to have signal priority at a lot of intersections, I often see them stop before a green light only to see the light turn red as they close their doors. If SF buses really are as slow as this post says I would guess signals were an issue and fixing them may be more beneficial than closing stops.

      It’s a bit off topic but the other mistake Melbourne is currently making that other cities need to watch out for if they’re closing stops is that Melbourne is moving tram stops away from intersections (presumably to help right turning cars, we drive on the other side of the road). The problem with this though is it ruins connections because commuters have to walk to the end of the block and then potentially part of the way along that block to the next stop on a connecting service.

      • Max Wyss

        It may get even more off-topic, so bear with me. The Zürich system has a cross-connection between the turning signal on the vehicle and the request for a green signal. That means when the operator has closed the doors, he sets the turning signal, and within a few seconds, the traffic signal gives the right of way.

        Another approach to the intersection issue is to build the stop after the intersection. In that case, the priority function for the public transportation vehicle automatically clears the cross-turning lane.

  • FG

    Chicago needs to trim stops as well; every block is really excessive for many routes (for instance, my route has two stops mid block which could be combined with the regular end of block stops).

  • Nick

    DDT: Heartily agreed. MARQ2 and alternate-block stops on Nicollet Mall have already shown what a big difference it can make to cut back on the number of stops in dense areas like downtown. Imagine if they cut back on stops for other routes like the 4, 6, or 10 — stopping every 5 blocks instead of every other. You might actually be able to get out of the city in less than a 45 minute ride.

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