Reorganizing the Bus System within the Network Hierarchy

» Lyon’s bus network is enlivened thanks to reorganization and new branding.

The advantages offered by street-running bus operations, such as offering a variety of routes and the ability to alter them at will, can sometimes be a curse. Many individual routes may provide direct service to and from specific destinations, but if they are not able to attract enough riders, the resulting low frequency of service makes them ultimately difficult to use for both those dependent and those choosing to use transit.

The New York Timesstory last week on the cancellation of a bus route in Los Angeles raised a number of questions about the manner in which bus routes operate. The Times signaled out L.A. Metro for supposedly being willing to sacrifice the mobility needs of a heavily transit-dependent community, forcing riders onto indirect buses that require transfers. But Metro’s efforts — intended to concentrate users on its most frequent services — will likely improve the quality of public transportation for far more people than are being hurt by the loss of a direct route that only comes every half hour or so. As Jarrett Walker noted, the poor frequencies offered by bus service on the cancelled route meant it was only quicker if the bus was there exactly when you needed it; more frequent services built on transfers will bring better transit for more people at all times of the day. And they mean better access to parts of the city not directly along the route of the local bus.

Indeed, reconfiguring operations to put different services in an understandable hierarchy, focusing better services on a grid of routes, is a tool transit systems must take advantage of to improve the ability of locals to get around by transit. Yet L.A.’s reforms have clearly not been well-enough publicized or justified to attract the understanding and support of much of the public.

In Lyon, France’s second-largest metropolitan area, a rebranding of the local bus system to come on line in late August offers the possibility of reworking the transit network so that it avoids many of these problems and improves service. Lyon already has high transit use, the region’s 1.76 million inhabitants using buses, trams, and the metro 1.24 million times a day. (Compare that to similar-sized U.S. regions Indianapolis and Charlotte, whose transit systems carry 30,000 and 83,000 passengers daily, respectively.)

For that city’s transit operators, there is room to grow — and certainly ways to make the system more convenient for its existing users, which explains why the transformation plan is being put into effect. Bus service kilometers will expand by 6%, but the TCL transit agency hopes that other reforms in service will be even more effective in encouraging increased ridership. A campaign building up to the change is designed to alleviate public concerns.

There are four basic components to the transformation plan: A reduction in the complication of bus routes by ensuring that the most-used routes always have the same origins and destinations and are branded uniformly all day; reliable, 10-minute all-day frequency on about a third of the bus corridors that complement the metro and tram networks; expanded circumferential bus routes that allow people to get from periphery to periphery without having to pass through or transfer in the center and produce a citywide grid of bus lines; and better connections between bus and rail at tramway and TER regional rail stops. The bus service change is branded atoubus, which, depending on how you read it, can mean either “bus for everyone” or “bus with assets.”

The introduction of 26 major bus routes branded “C” — just like the “M” for the metro, “F” for funicular, and “T” for tram — is perhaps the most significant change. Though bus rapid transit was introduced in Lyon in 2006, it only extended to two routes. Now this collection of branded routes, complemented by 71 more typical bus lines, fills out the network. On the maps, C routes are easily visible thanks to bolder line weights and clear, labeled station stops. One hopes the frequent network maps, including the C lines and the rail corridors, is positioned around the city.

For the sake of understanding, the network revision also takes an important step forward by eliminating attenae or partial termini from routes, a frequent source of irritation for users. Instead, all major bus routes in Lyon will have one origin and one terminus at all times of day. No longer will customers be caught confused by a bus number whose meaning changes seemingly at random.

Finally, the introduction of additional circumferential lines — five of the seventeen will be C lines — will allow better navigation of the city by those whose destination is not downtown. Since most of the rail lines are radial in nature, this improved bus network can in many ways fill the gap — as long as customers understand it, which explains the emphasis on new graphics, signs, and labeling.

As the maps below show, the improved network is designed to emphasize to users the equivalence of the frequent bus routes with the metro and tram. Though most of the routes have not been significantly changed, the map has been reworked to show which bus routes are most frequent. Buses that run only occasionally have been deemphasized, had their lines made more skinny, to reflect their place in the network hierarchy. For both tourists and locals attempting to get to parts of the city they have never accessed, this implies that it is possible to rely on some bus routes just as one would on a metro or tram: Without looking at a schedule.

Bus and rail network in Lyon’s 7th District before reorganization Bus and rail network in Lyon’s 7th District after reorganization

One of the significant advantages of Lyon’s approach is that it is heavily oriented towards customer perception, but involves little actual capital investment. By focusing on branding, TCL will be able to offer riders the feel of a vastly improved bus network — one whose frequent lines effectively double the scope of the rail network — with no initial spending on investments like bus-only lanes (though some may come later). If riders come to understand the changes, they will be able to get around the city in many cases more quickly thanks to well-marked bus routes that are integrated with the rail lines in a region-wide grid.

In many ways, this is what Los Angeles is attempting too, though perhaps its Metro Rapid branding of frequent bus routes is not as convincing as is Lyon’s atoubus (total transit ridership on L.A.’s Metro is little higher than that of Lyon’s CTL before the changes have been implemented, despite the fact that the former covers a far larger city). Indeed, if the Times‘ article misrepresents the value of the changes that city is making to its bus system, it is because the writers — and presumably many of the riders — fail to understand the added benefits of a transit system that relies on transfers and frequent bus routes on a grid of corridors. This is where, if implementation goes well, Lyon’s emphasis on customer communication and visible network connections may very well prove to be a model.

Images above: Trolleybus in Lyon, from Flickr user FaceMePLS (cc) (top); Before and after maps of Lyon bus and rail network, from TCL

31 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andrew

    the Circulator in DC is a reasonable example of the power of simple routes and branding – on a smaller scale, of course

  • Erin

    Frequency can certainly make the difference between useful service that gets used and a line that runs twice an hour nearly empty, but it also requires a streamlined and rational transfer system. Times when I’ve ridden the bus and tram system in Potsdam, Germany, for example, included a ticket that was good for one hour from time of boarding in one direction of travel. The original ticket served as your transfer chit. Compare that to Philadelphia, where transfers cost $.75 each, and it suddenly gets a lot more unattractive to take a multi-bus route to one’s destination. I often find it worthwhile to wait 20 minutes rather than having to pay 1 and a half fares to get to the same place.

    • There’s an incredible variety in transfer policies out there. Transit agencies in the Twin Cities have free unlimited transfers that last 2½ hours, although I believe policies that relaxed tend to drive up the cost of initial fares.

    • Drewski

      Good example of Erin’s point is the practice in Cleveland and other systems. In Cleveland, you don’t get a transfer with a cash fare; you have to have a ticket/farecard. Base fare is $2.25, so paying cash and needing to transfer would cost $4.50. A 2-ride farecard would eliminate that problem…but you can’t buy those from the driver, only from retail outlets. You can buy a day pass from the driver, which is unlimited use for $5, but it really starts to look like nickel-and-diming reaching for extortion. All of this is supposed to avoid the fraud which was allegedly a weakness of issuing transfers…so instead of selling a transfer, I can sell (or give away) a day pass. It’s a cynical and massively rider-hostile approach, and it’s especially bad when you consider how the occasional rider is treated in this system.

  • Yes! For another simplifying idea along these lines, creating a new CBD shuttle network with almost no operating cost, see here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2010/11/canberra-a-new-circulator-network-for-the-national-core.html

    And for a sense of how the network design process might lead to networks simple enough to brand, see here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2011/07/network-design-for-high-ridership-a-dense-city-example.html

    Excellent post!

    • So, how could we do that in the slightly larger Australian city of Newcastle?

        • Has a “how” been dropped? In the network map (pdf) there are a number of routes that partly overlap, but often they split again as they approach downtown ~ eg, in the routemap linked about the Shortland bus which as the 103 used to run on a common route with the main Mayfield was flipped around to make the 106/107 that also serves Warabrook and then after it runs onto the 100 route in Mayfield, it leaves again to serve Tighes Hill.

          In switching from sectional to time ticketing, that route makes some sense, since many riders from Shortland on the 100 toward Jesmond were heading to Jesmond Center or to catch another bus, while going to town via Jesmond was certainly the long way around, so flipping it around gives Jesmond bound riders getting on as riders from town are getting off, and visa versa.

          But enough routes designed along those lines and then all those 60min and 30min frequency buses with that pattern of running together for a while and then splitting off again seems like it would make it harder to use the Canberra “line” strategy.

          Even in the biggest route overlap from Tudor Rd and Lambton Rd through to downtown on Lambton / Belford / Tudor / Hunter, the schedules gaps tend to be fairly wide despite the large number of routes converging.

          • Bruce. Sorry. Yes, I disagree with the Newcastle Buses strategy, which arose from an ill-considered decision to eliminate free connections. It has resulted in a much more complicated network that is impossible to make clear, and hard to use for inner-city circulation. Canberra’s transit network, and especially its Parliamentary Shuttles, would have been much harder to create under such a regime.

  • Jordan Hare

    One can hope that the MTA takes a similar approach to the promotion of SBS, perhaps including it on the NYC subway map.

  • Matt

    The city I live in (Tallahassee, FL), released a massive re-do of the whole bus system yesterday.

    Previously, 26 routes all met at a single transfer plaza downtown. Each route had headways between 20m and 1h, and since the system was based on “timed transfers”, there was one high-volume street with 5 buses per hour in the pattern of 2 buses, 30 minutes, 3 buses, 30 minutes…

    The new system consists of 12 routes that run in relatively straight lines. Transfers are mostly done at intersections, and headways are now 20-45 minutes, with that high-volume street now having two 20-minute routes during peak hours–one bus per 10 minutes.

    It has not been without complaints, mainly, non-timed transfers. Instead of a 3-minute layover at a plaza, you might have to cross a street or two and wait in a bus shelter, despite a shorter overall trip time due to more direct and frequent routes. The City has also received complaints about bus stops being too far from one’s home–or even too close, since “poor people” will be hanging out there.

    • Nathanael

      If you added bus lanes to the congested sections, you could have your current system AND timed transfers.

      Rail systems routinely have timed transfers AND high-frequency service.

      • Matt

        The City Commission threw around the idea of turning the outside lanes of Tennessee St. to bus lanes for a 2.2-mile section that spans downtown and Florida State University–3 lanes in each direction and consistent heavy traffic. Of course, they didn’t do it, amid whines from the “traffic’s gonna get even worse!” crowd. Also, the facts that bus lanes would turn into parking lanes and our police do zero parking enforcement wouldn’t help either.

        StarMetro is currently doing a “Transportation Feasibility Study” on that section to determine the feasibility of BRT, streetcar, or LRT. Not sure what the City Commission will allow, since their goal is to turn Tallahassee into a bad version of south Florida.

  • Great to see a logical re-organization of transit lines associated with increased service, instead of service cuts (6% is quite significant). In Vancouver, Canada where I live the transit agency is moving in the right direction. But they don’t have the money to increase service at the moment, the result is cuts to service in some areas to increase service in others.

    Ideally a re-organization would be timed with a significant increase in service hours and transit priority measures. Then the vast majority of transit riders would see a significant improvement quickly. People who lose out usually have louder voices, and perception is very important to transit ridership.

    But my question is if these kinds of re-organizations allow larger bus sizes to be used without sacrificing frequent service. For example, going from the standard 4O’ size (as shown above) to 60′ articulated buses and double articulated 80′ buses. If so, a 6% increase in service hours could translate into 10% more seat hours.

  • Federico

    Maturing transit systems such as LA Metro that are converting a series of infrequent, neighborhood-based routes to a more efficient hierarchy are certainly taking a bold step. Too bad that the plight of the transit-dependent is perceived to include the loss of one-seat rides, and that it makes such convenient journalistic fodder.

  • Eric, increasing bus size from 40′ to 80′ triple-articulated buses (12m to 24m) is only helpful if people can board and exit from every door. If you use the usual North American strategy of everyone boarding thru the front door only, an 80 foot bus can take forever to load at a busy location.

    80 foot buses work when people are allowed to board from at least 3 or 4 different, wide doors, which requires “proof of payment” fares, or bus stations with turnstiles, or free service.

    In contrast, Los Angeles has the bad habit of running 60 foot articulated buses on busy, limited-stop routes, while requiring everyone to pay the driver, which means half the bus may fill up at one stop, while people wait for up to 120 or 180 seconds to board.

  • Nathanael

    That’s a trolleybus in the photo!

    I don’t think of trolleybuses as being the same as buses. No fumes and all…

    • Dexter Wong

      Why? Does a bus have to make fumes to be considered a bus? In Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco trolley buses operate some of the heavier lines while diesel buses cover the rest.

      • Yes, that would be the normal operating vs capital cost breakdown, to put trolley buses in the highest frequency corridors first.

        If you had regular trolley buses with limited battery capacity to avoid the cobweb effect at intersections and be able to get around obstacles blocking the electrified lane, and pluggable hybrid trolley buses to run on electric when running into an electrified lane and with limited sections of trolley wire to recharge at layover locations … it would be the same breakdown, with the regular trolley buses on the highest frequency routes.

        • Max Wyss

          Actually, one uses (articulated) trolley buses for the busiest lines, and (if applicable) for the lines with the steepest grades. In partibular the steep grades make trolley buses shine, because they may have a much higher power output rating than a diesel bus, which can be overloaded for a short time. A diesel bus simply has what the diesel engine provides (and that has to feed all the auxiliary equipment (air conditioner) as well.

          The modern trolley buses no longer use batteries for backup drives, but a small (30 to 50 kW) diesel powered generator group. This will provide enough power to crawl along, but it is not recommended for regular operation (well, except maybe for short deviations). To lower the trolley poles, switch to auxiliary power, proceed over an intersection, and switch back to electric operation is rather cumbersome (even if there are actuator powered poles, not requiring the driver or an assistant to get them back to the wire).

          One great advantage of an articulated trolley bus is that two axles could be powered (providing even more climbing power), such as it is done with the Hess Swisstrolley 3 with 2 motors rated at 160 kW. (with according software settings, they may look the typical UAV look old when it comes to accellerating on a steep grade…)

        • Max Wyss

          It is kind of obvious why use trolleybuses on the busiest lines. The infrastructure is not that cheap, and the better it is used, the faster it pays off.

        • Drewski

          Cleveland almost got to be a model for this concept. Initial plans for the Euclid Av busway were for a trolleybus line. This was shot down because the cost of dual-mode buses to operate on Cedar, Mayfield and Monticello (east of University Circle, in the Heights suburbs), as well as the cost of the electrical system, put the system cost about $30 million too high for the Dubya-era FTA. Keep in mind that the Euclid busway still includes stops every quarter mile or so, through some desolate territory, with maybe a 5-minute improvement on trip time, and the line has maintained about a 10% ridership increase over the past 2-3 years (compared to system loss of 10-15%). That $30 million in the mid-2000s could’ve done a lot to stabilize this system and build the core of a better, stronger network. Coulda woulda shoulda, right?

  • Drewski

    The Times article skims over the Bus Riders Union’s role in destabilizing transit planning in LA County. MTA was basically held hostage, especially with regard to rail expansion.

    LA is not innately transit-hostile. Remember that the street grid in the LA Basin, the eastern San Fernando Valley, and a good part of the San Gabriel Valley–it was all built up along streetcar and interurban lines, just like Chicago and Cleveland. The freeway network was NOT what planners originally wanted: the freeways were more of a state initiative, but the local assumption was that parkways would handle car traffic while the core of the Pacific Electric network continued to operate. When you rip out an entire mode of transport, of course it’s going to result in crowded roads.

    One example of the BRU’s ability to disrupt the entire transit system was crying racism every time MTA attempted to change bus service. If you have a choice between lower-frequency one-seat services, or higher-frequency trunk lines supplemented by circulators, the second model gives you greater access at the cost of a transfer. The BRU wanted to pretend that the transfer requirement was a racist gesture. Any suggestion that rail development in non-minority neighborhoods would ultimately benefit those areas was shouted down as racist–despite the fact that the two most recent rail projects (Gold Line to East LA and Expo Line) served diverse or majority-nonwhite areas.

    A second example (and this is really post-BRU) was the argument over grade separation of the Expo Line. A handful of so-called activists were willing to hold the entire project hostage to specific grade separations. It was clear that funding for even the first phase was going to be very tight, but no matter. It was “racist” to build or even discuss a subway to Santa Monica–never mind the traffic volume in the Wilshire Corridor–unless a neighborhood along the Expo got that line tunnelled. How about the idea that the grade separation could be built later? Nope–racist.

    The (New York, not LA) Times story also made no mention of the local-option funding in the LA MTA system. MTA is the biggest transit operator in the city of LA, but LADOT also receives funding from MTA and offers services like circulators and commuter routes. Long Beach, Santa Monica, Montebello, Culver City, Foothill, Antelope Valley and all the other local systems in LA County are funded this way.

  • Mike O

    I agree with the four principles -

    Predictable routes
    Ring routes as well as spokes
    Timed transfers / better connections
    10 minute frequency on major lines

    I would add:
    Prepaid ticket system (vending machines, etc.)
    Real time nextbus displays, esp. at little used stops (could be cellphone)
    Signal light preemption
    High level platforms at busy stops
    Fare enforcement, quality of life, banning of troublemakers.

  • FG

    Chicago really needs to reevaluate it’s bus lines – most of them are on routes which were originally streetcar and trolley bus lines and many may not really be effective in getting people where they need or want to go.

    • simple

      CTA’s Planning Department has done significant re-evaluation of its bus routes over the past decade plus. Just compare today’s map (especially pre-2010 service cuts) with a late 1990′s map — every change had a reason and nearly all were backed by market research (customer demand).

      Of course, service planning is a never-ending task. Aside from re-instating the X-routes (a no-brainer, but not cost-neutral), where exactly are examples nowadays where you think CTA’s buses “may not really be effective in getting people where they need or want to go?” I can think of dozens, but most are relatively minor, and the ones that are more significant could not be done on a cost-neutral basis, which makes them non-starters given the present budget situation.

      • FG

        I don’t really agree – there is a huge amount of political input from Aldermen in CTA routing. As as far I’m aware there has been no true city-wide analysis of their effectiveness. And in fact, there hasn’t been a whole lot of change in routes over the decades – whether or not that ends with changed routes is a different question – the biggest service lacks would be to non-loop job centers.

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