How Can We Speed Up Local Bus Service?
One of the advantages of bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail is that both offer much faster travel than the normal local bus does. However, the capital cost of building either mode is expensive, and money for such projects is harder to come by than it once was. Is there a way we can speed up normal local bus service? After all, speeding up local bus service would bring passengers to their destinations faster and would likely also lower agency operating costs because fewer buses would be needed to serve a given line and headway if each one could travel between its two termini faster.
There are four major ways that a transit agency could speed up local bus travel, which are presented below in order of ease of implementation. While no American or Canadian transit agency has successfully implemented all four, many are making progress on one or more of the techniques.
Prevent Cash Fare Paying On Buses
One logistically easy way to speed up local bus travel is to prevent people from paying cash fares on board buses, as people paying cash into the farebox take significantly longer to pay their fares than do passengers who swipe magnetic cards or tap plastic cards. Several areas are moving towards this solution, especially Sydney, Australia . Sydney has banned the payment of cash fares on buses at all times in the central business district.
The main disadvantage of preventing cash fare payment is that passengers who do not have some kind of pass would be unable to ride. In order to avoid this problem, transit agencies who wish to implement this solution need to ensure that there are plentiful nearby places to purchase transit passes - which could include the installation of ticket vending machines at bus stops as well as arrangements with retail establishments.
Remove Bus Stops
One of the easiest ways to speed up local bus travel is to remove bus stops since a significant factor in transit travel time is dwell time at stops and acceleration and deceleration from and to a stop. Traditionally, local buses have stopped approximately every 1/8 of a mile in the United States, with some areas having even more frequent stops - as often as every block. In contrast, for many years now Europe has been moving towards a model of having a bus stop every 1/4 of a mile. In the United States, Seattle has taken the biggest step towards increasing stop spacing by systematically going through each line and removing stops in an aim to move closer to the 1/4 of a mile ideal. The main disadvantage of removing stops is that senior and disabled riders may not physically be able to walk the additional distance to the next nearest stop. Seattle has dealt with this problem by retaining stops that have significant usage by the limited-mobility community.
Note that what I am discussing here is not the same as a BRT system that stops about every mile. Bus lines that only stop every mile should have a local bus that also serves the route to serve not only the senior and disabled community but others who cannot or do not want to walk a 1/2 mile or more to the nearest stop. While Los Angeles does this along it's Metro Rapid lines, disturbingly Las Vegas has failed to offer alternate local service along its' new BRT routes on Boulder and Sahara.
Install Signal Priority
At its base, signal priority allows for the extension of green lights or the truncation of red lights. GPS units in vehicles equipped with signal priority (fire trucks, ambulances, and possibly transit vehicles) contact sensors located on top of traffic signals to tell the traffic light to stay or turn green. Many bus and light rail routes use signal priority - readers who have ever taken the Los Angeles Blue Line along Washington Boulevard will recall that when the signal priority is working well that the train will never stop at a red light.
The main drawback for signal priority, besides the fact that traffic departments may not like the effect it would have on automobile traffic, is that there is a maximum frequency of transit vehicles for which it will work. Generally, signal priority will not work if transit vehicles are scheduled to operate more frequently than every five minutes. This maximum is due to the fact that pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles on the cross street need to periodically receive a green signal. While not generally a problem in most American cities due to low expected and realized transit ridership, systems that expect ridership demand to be robust enough to demand more than twelve vehicles per hour need to contemplate grade separation if they desire fast transit.
Install Bus Lanes
Installing bus lanes will significantly speed up bus travel, especially at peak times of the day, by removing other traffic from the lane. There are two lanes that could become bus lanes - the curb lane and the outside lane. Most bus lanes use the curb lane, which is physically easy to implement but, because right turns from the curb lane are typically still allowed, can cause delays at intersections with heavy right turn movements. Some bus lanes - including a new project planned for Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco - use the outside lanes, which requires the construction of bus stops in the median and the purchase of special buses with doors on the left if buses will be going in the same direction of traffic. Some median bus lanes have buses travel in the opposite direction of all other traffic - Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh's Oakland District is a good example of this, even though it is a one-way street and not a boulevard. While this solution would not require the purchase of special buses, it can obviously be a safety hazard to have buses travel the wrong way down a one-way street.
Transit agencies usually seek to increase operating speed to compete better for choice riders who have access to automobiles. However, increased operating speed will also benefit the transit dependent who will be able to access more destinations in a given day and will be less likely to attempt to spend their limited resources on a car. As long as the needs of the senior and disabled community are met, increasing operating speeds of local bus routes is a goal that benefits everybody.