When I was in high school, I had to take a city bus from Hennepin Avenue and Kenwood Parkway (an intersection a couple of blocks north of the Walker Art Center that no longer exists) to Cedar Lake Road and France Avenue in St. Louis Park. The bus wound through Kenwood stopping on every single block, and often, only one passenger got on or off. The trip seemed to take forever, and by the time I got where I was going, I was queasy from the bus’ stops and starts and lurchings — and ready to scream with frustration.
Surely the trip would be shorter if the bus stopped only at every second corner, I reasoned. Couldn’t some of my fellow passengers walk an extra block and make the trip more convenient for the rest of us?
Well, the idea wasn’t so juvenile after all.
In a study published in the Journal of Public Transportation last spring, professor Edmund Zolnik and grad student Ranjay Shrestha projected what would happen if they hypothetically eliminated some stops in a bus system in Fairfax, Va.
It would be nice to report that Zolnik and Shrestha had conducted their experiment with a major urban bus system. Instead, their lab rat was the rather limited CUE (City-University-Energysaver) system, which connects local residents and students at George Mason with the Vienna, Va., metro stop. Still, the findings were pretty stunning. By getting rid of 43 percent of the stops, they could cut travel time by 23 percent.
There are plenty of reasons for people to complain about bus service. It can be inconvenient, crowded and unreliable because of the unpredictability of traffic. But what really bugs a lot of people is its maddening slowness.
Frequent bus stops make for sluggish travel. The bus has to decelerate, stop, open the doors to let passengers on and off, close the doors, then get up to speed again. A block later, the process repeats. Zolnik estimated that slowing down and getting up to speed took up 26 percent of travel time.
The researchers used some complicated demographic and population data to help them decide which bus stops could be ditched. But basically, they determined as I had back in high school that people could walk a little further. Nationally, about 80 percent of bus riders walk only a quarter mile to reach their bus stops. (That’s about two-and-a-half blocks in Minneapolis.)
Increasing the distance to a half mile allowed researchers to do away with 68 bus stops and cut travel time from 2 hours and 4 minutes to 1 hour and 26 minutes. Access to the system did diminish but only by about 10 percent. About 90 percent of the riders previously served were within a half-mile of a stop. Some who fell out did so because they had previously been within a quarter mile of two bus stops.
Presumably, the shorter travel time would not only benefit current riders but also attract new ones. And researchers estimated that having fewer stops on the CUE lines would cut the cost of running each bus from $108.70 per trip to $82.82. Because the speed of the buses would increase from 13 to 17 miles per hour, green-house gas emissions would drop. CO2, as one example, would be one-third lower.
It all sounds too good to be true, and maybe it would be in a big-city bus system like ours.
First, most of the people living in and around George Mason University are young, healthy students. Walking another couple of blocks to get to a bus stop probably wouldn’t bother them much. For the elderly, who will make up an increasing portion of our metropolitan population, however, the extra distance could rule out bus-riding as a transportation alternative. And because older folks aren’t commuting to a job or school, as most bus riders do, speed is not their highest priority. Another consideration: climate. Virginia has fairly mild weather; while in the Twin Cities having to regularly navigate another quarter mile or so in below-zero temperatures is pretty punishing.
Still, transportation planners might be able to calibrate some of these problems. Maybe buses could make more stops in winter months. Perhaps demographic studies could show areas where there are substantial concentrations of the elderly. And, of course, Metro Transit could simply experiment with fewer stops out on a few bus lines.
The Twin Cities have a big mass-transit agenda, with light rail, bus rapid transit and streetcars on the to-do list. But the workhorse of the system is, and will continue to be, the humble bus. Metro Transit right now is in the process of developing a Service Improvement Plan. Its purpose is to figure out what should be done to boost the bus system over the next 10 to 15 years. (You can add your two cents by responding to the survey.) So far, customers have a pretty expensive wish list, including improvement in core urban bus routes, more suburb-to-suburb bus connections, more cross-town bus routes and more express bus service and increased speed.
But with all that, it wouldn’t hurt us to consider something easy. In the case of local bus service, a little less might be a little more.